Friday, October 7, 2011

Being a Boy and Being a Man

I grabbed a book to read while Thumper bounced his ass off at Extreme Fun this morning, and because it's been on my shelf for 10 or more years, and I've never read it, I picked Christina Hoff Sommers' The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

Now, before you get worked up over the term "Misguided Feminism," I think the essence of the book, that perhaps the author didn't choose to represent in the title because provocative turns of phrase are just plain good marketing, is that improving the academic standing of girls does not necessarily have to come at the expense of boys, and vice versa.

I bought this book years ago, when I was still thinking about the novel that I started to write but never finished as part of my Honors Program Creative Writing directed study in 1996 or thereabouts, a project I was still thinking about finishing in 2000 or so when I bought the book. The idea occurred to me, through the fervor of political correctness that permeated the University atmosphere throughout the '90's, that men in general, and white men in particular, were the villains of the historic and cultural tale that we were told, and how that indoctrination into our own villainy would affect us in the long term. It was supposed to be a novel about the marginalization of men, the irrelevance of men in family and cultural life.

So, anyway, here I am, 11 or 12 years later, a man in a non-traditional gender role, happily married to a woman who is happy with the value of the contributions that I make to our family, trying to teach my son how to be a good man, (despite the accusations of chauvinism that may now and again be raised against me), and I picked up this book. Having finished only 50 or 60 pages, I'm not in a position to say anything meaningful about the book itself, but it's certainly timely as I try to navigate the rough waters of playground etiquette and aggression.

A couple of weeks ago, Thumper ended a thoroughly pleasant play date by punching his best friend in the face. Most play dates or other excursions to playgrounds, bounce houses, and other places where children gather, involve some discussion, sooner or later, about not hitting, about being nice, about not taking toys from other kids. This, according to the book, is exactly the kind of aggressive behavior inherent in boys that the "shortchanged girls in public school" movement believes must be actively "re-socialized" if women are to make significant progress in this society. Sommers seems to assert that that progress has already been made, and then some, but that's not really the point.

Ultimately, though, I don't think raising a boy is so different from raising a girl, as far as trying to teach them to fit into the social order. Do we not all try to teach our kids to be nice to each other? Maybe for boys it's teaching your son not to punch his friend in the face while for girls it's teaching your daughter not to ostracize, or ridicule, or manipulate, or I don't know, whatever the little girl version of not being nice is. I don't believe in the pathology of masculinity, the idea that without intervention, the average man will likely become a predator of women. I believe in the value of teaching my son to be proud of strength and speed and skill, to work to improve these things in himself, to want to play games where scores are kept and winners declared. And I believe that these things can be taught while also teaching him not to punch his best friend in the face, to remind him that he does not want to be hit, or have toys taken away from him, and so he should not hit, or take toys away from, others.

I do not accept that masculinity is defined as a thirst for power and dominion, and that if it is not quelled early, it will develop into a destructive force.

I also hope that he can get through school without feeling marginalized, undervalued, despised, feared, or ignored.


Dad said...

I couldn't agree more.

Mike said...

I have to say that from my view in the front row, this mindset is starting to fade in public schools. A little.

I am currently in a position where I can treat boys like boys and wanna-be men. Ironically, I am sometimes scared to say (or look) at the girls.

I, Rodius said...

Thanks, Mike, I hope he gets a few good teachers like you through his school years, at least some of the male. And I hope some day you get the chance to teach him the value of procrastination.

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