By Bob Houghtaling
Once there was recess. Once there was dodgeball, daydreaming, skipping stones, climbing trees and lots of time after school for free play. That was once upon a time. Today recess is gone, dodgeball has been declared too brutal and all that other stuff previously mentioned has given way to organized sports and clubs (as well as the computer). While the present pace of life has impacted all children, I would like to take some time to speak of how changes over the last 20 years have had a deleterious effect on young men. Because of this we have no room for Pinocchio anymore.
Pinocchio has been a story told to children since the late 1800s. Most of us have heard the tale and many have since viewed the Disney version. All too often we reduce this very intricate story to Pinocchio’s nose, and also his eventually coming to life. Unfortunately, such reductionism ignores some very important aspects of life and growing up.
The Pinocchio story contains many lessons. Sometimes they are not pretty. In fact, original versions actually have Pinocchio being executed. While Walt Disney may have sanitized the tale, it still speaks of a long, arduous journey to discovery (often fraught with obstacles along the way). Growing up presents challenges. Those challenges offer opportunities for growth. Denied challenges, children lose unique opportunities to encounter the world. This is a dynamic many young men are experiencing these days.
There is a common theme in evidence for those who have committed mass shootings (let us say Columbine to present). Most of the shooters are young men. Many have mental illness or a disability that impacts their ability to connect socially. The vast majority have shown warning signs along the way. Looking back we will blame parents, counselors, schools, government, guns, the lack of care, etc., etc.. While all of this must be considered (and debated) we too often forget societal factors that come into play. When I say that young men have gotten lost and confused over the years, this is certainly not a call to return to John Wayne stereotypes. What I am asking us to look at is developmental in nature (with some historically enculturated mindsets added in). Truncating normal development leads to many problems. Most young men can find their way. Some get lost along the road.
As a young boy I was fidgety, inquisitive, playful and often times disengaged. I daydreamed about being Johnny Unitas or climbing a tree when my mind should have been on school. While my report card was filled with C’s (and lots of comments), I never felt less than. I got to strut my stuff at recess and after school in the sandlots. Later on, a fourth grade teacher, Janet MacLaughlin, was able to channel my talents in such a way that B’s were common. Her secret? She met me at my strengths and interests. Janet was very perceptive, eventually having me perform math by computing batting averages and shooting percentages.
Today, for many school districts recess has become a thing of the past. Kids who look out the window and daydream too often are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.
Medications and programs ensue along with lots of parent meetings. Sandlot games have given way to teams organized by adults. Some kids make the team – others do not. Where once one dreamed of being a star – the reality of playing two innings (in right field for some) comes into play. Whatever happened to exploring, pretending and just plain old playfulness?
In elementary school we promote quietness, getting in line, coloring neatly and no daydreaming. Instead of channeling youthful exuberance, “no child left behind”-like measures seek to curtail it. Fun has taken a back seat (seems that we have reduced success to small standardized increments). As time goes by, for some, it gets worse.
When boys begin to gravitate towards peers, as well as try to find their place, options are limited. What happens to the kid who does not make the team? What happens to the young man who is an average student or disinterested in school at the present moment? Where does he turn? Is it the computer? Is it to others who are seeking a place? Is it to drugs and alcohol? How do these guys develop competency? There are so many questions. Unfortunately many young people will isolate. Others will lash out. We have created a cottage industry for prescription meds, counseling, hospitals and for some, prison. Somehow we need to ensure that kids get to go on a journey (a quest) that allows for struggling, along with developing one’s sense of self.
Men are not destined to become the macho, stoic, wildly sex driven creatures often depicted in the media. It should also be noted that not all young men who struggle resort to extreme measures. Some cry at movies. Others can’t stand sports, enjoy the arts and can discuss feelings. When boys/young men are seeking to define themselves, what it means to be a man can be difficult to sort out. Denying healthy exploration is as dangerous as promoting ridiculous stereotypes. In the end, we are talking about an existential journey. It is a journey to find meaning, a place and acceptance. It becomes more difficult when we create maladies out of curiosity, inquisitiveness and innocence. No pill can take the place of time and experience. Young people naturally love to learn. We have to teach them how not to learn in too many instances.
What is up with young men these days? It appears as though when not given an opportunity to define manhood some create their own version (acting out violently, sexually or through isolation).
This is a call for more time so that kids can practice free play. This is also a call for adults to understand the developmental process and that day dreaming along with wanting to goof around does not always warrant being labeled dysfunctional.
Hobbs, Rousseau and Freud all wrote of how man’s natural state is often in conflict with civilization. They all realized that to gain order and social norms some natural tendencies are sacrificed. With this being said balance becomes essential. When kids do not conform to overly rigid school practices much pressure often follows. Parents and kids are blamed. Officials question the schools as to why they (the kids) are not being successful. In fact, schools are graded on how kids measure up – especially on standardized tests. This too perpetuates the cottage industry I referred to earlier. So much for balance!
Are there also concerns for young women? Of course there are. All too often they must struggle with stereotypes. In addition, we still haven’t come to the realization that women’s participation in the work place deserves equal status and pay. With this said, far more boys are incarcerated than girls. Far more boys go on violent rampages. To compound matters, far fewer boys are seeking college diplomas than in the past. I will write about young women’s issues in the future, but for today, let me focus on the existential crisis presented to boys.
So what do we do? Hey, it is summer. Let the kids enjoy the beach, climb trees and hang out with friends. In addition, parents should look for islands of respite where your child can just be a kid (no “strings” attached). As for boys specifically, encourage them to enjoy embarking on a quest every now and then. Maybe they can do so with a dad, coach, or other viable adult male role model. There are many routes that lead to manhood. They need both male and female models to learn from. You experience a lot along the way. Enjoy the summer!