Boys to Men

TONY WOODLIEF

Raising three sons has helped me appreciate the masculine virtues.

I think Father's Day ought not to be a celebration of every man who managed to procreate, but instead a time to honor those increasingly rare men who are actually good at fathering. But what makes a good father? This question holds more than philosophical interest for me. Though my father left when I was young, and my stepfather found me uninteresting, I now have three sons of my own (ages 7, 5 and 2). Not knowing any better, they think I have fatherhood figured out. They believe Father's Day is rightly my day.

Judging by the greeting cards, Father's Day is like a Sabbath for many men, a day Dad puts his feet up. I think the Almighty was able to rest one day a week because he had just the two kids, only one of whom was male. I could really use a restful Father's Day, but recently I found my sons huddled over a book on traps, which makes me fear that they're planning for my gift to be something live. Already this spring they've captured a snake, a bullfrog and at least one deadly spider. While other men think about golfing or napping tomorrow, I'm praying I can weather the day without getting bitten.

There's more than a little irony in the fact that I have three sons. I'm not what you'd call a master of the manly arts. I can't start a fire without a match, or track a deer, or ride a horse. I don't know how to fix cars, and my infrequent forays into home repair usually necessitate medical attention. But these are the things little boys want to learn—I remember wanting to learn them myself. Or maybe it's that boys yearn to do things with fathers, and those things usually involve a little danger. A new wildly popular book of essential boy knowledge recognizes this in its title: The Dangerous Book for Boys. My oldest has dog-eared nearly every page.

I'm allergic to most danger. I get a stomachache at the thought of confrontation. I'm grouchy and self-centered, and have few of the traits that William McKeever, in his curmudgeonly 1913 classic, Training the Boy, considered essential to manhood: "courageous action in the face of trying circumstances, cordial sympathy and helpfulness in all dealings with others, and a sane disposition toward the Ruler of All Life." I'm hardly qualified to be a role-model for three boys.

Many academics would consider my lack of manliness a good thing. They regard boys as thugs-in-training, caught up in a patriarchal society that demeans women. In the 1990s the American Association of University Women (among others) positioned boys as the enemies of female progress (something Christina Hoff Sommers exposed in her book, The War Against Boys). But the latest trend is to depict boys as themselves victims of a testosterone-infected culture. In their book Raising Cain, for example, the child psychologists Don Kindlon and Michael Thompson warn parents against a "culture of cruelty" among boys. Forget math, science and throwing a ball, they suggest—what your boy most needs to learn is emotional literacy.


Not only do I believe that trying to take the wildness out of boys is a doomed social experiment, but I'm certain that genetic scientists will eventually discover that males carry the Cowboy Gene.


But I can't shake the sense that boys are supposed to become manly. Rather than neutering their aggression, confidence and desire for danger, we should channel these instincts into honor, gentlemanliness and courage. Instead of inculcating timidity in our sons, it seems wiser to train them to face down bullies, which by necessity means teaching them how to throw a good uppercut. In his book Manliness, Harvey Mansfield writes that a person manifesting this quality "not only knows what justice requires, but he acts on his knowledge, making and executing the decision that the rest of us trembled even to define." You can't build a civilization and defend it against barbarians, fascists and playground bullies, in other words, with a nation of Phil Donahues.

Maybe the problem isn't that boys are aggressive, but that we've neglected their moral education. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote to one of his sons: "I would rather have a boy of mine stand high in his studies than high in athletics, but I would a great deal rather have him show true manliness of character than show either intellectual or physical prowess." Manliness, then, is not the ability to survive in the wilderness, or wield a rifle. But having such skills increases the odds that one's manly actions—which Roosevelt and others believed flow from a moral quality—will be successful.

The good father, then, needs to nurture his son's moral and spiritual core, and equip him with the skills he'll need to act on the moral impulse that we call courage. A real man, in other words, is someone who doesn't run from an Osama bin Laden. But he may also need the ability to hit a target from three miles out with a .50 caliber M88 if he wants to finish the job.

Not only do I believe that trying to take the wildness out of boys is a doomed social experiment, but I'm certain that genetic scientists will eventually discover that males carry the Cowboy Gene. That's my name for whatever is responsible for all the wrestling in my house, and the dunking during bath time, and my 5-year-old's insistence on wearing his silver six-shooters to Wal-Mart in order to protect our grocery cart. I only pray that when the Cowboy Gene is discovered, some well-meaning utopian doesn't try to transform it into a Tea Party Gene.

The trick is not to squash the essence of boys, but to channel their natural wildness into manliness. And this is what keeps me awake at night, because it's going to take a miracle for someone like me, who grew up without meaningful male influence, who would be an embarrassment to Teddy Roosevelt, to raise three men. Along with learning what makes a good father, I face an added dilemma: How do I raise my sons to be better than their father?

What I'm discovering is that as I try to guide these ornery, wild-hearted little boys toward manhood, they are helping me become a better man, too. I love my sons without measure, and I want them to have the father I did not. As I stumble and sometimes fail, as I feign an interest in camping and construction and bugs, I become something better than I was.

Father's Day, in our house, won't entail golfing or napping or watching a game. I'll probably have to contend with some trapped and irritated reptile. There's that cannon made of PVC that my oldest boy has been pestering me to help him finish. And the youngest two boys are lately enamored of climbing onto furniture and blindsiding me with flying tackles. Father's Day is going to be exhausting. But it will be good, because in the midst of these trials and joys I find my answer to the essential question on Father's Day. What makes a good father? My sons.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Tony Woodlief. "Boys to Men." The Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Tony Woodlief.

THE AUTHOR

Tony Woodlief's pamphlet "Raising Wild Boys Into Men: A Modern Dad's Survival Guide" is available from the New Pamphleteer. He also blogs about family and faith at www.tonywoodlief.com.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal



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