By Emily Stimpson
"You can't have a revolution without casualties," said author Dr. Meg Meeker. "And in the feminist revolution, the casualties were boys."
Meeker is only slightly exaggerating. As she details in her book, "Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons," study after study shows that young boys are struggling academically, emotionally and physically like never before.
Compared with girls, they're now less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go on to college and more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability. They're also more likely to attempt suicide, use illegal substances and engage in risky sexual behavior.
Meeker, at least in part, blames radical feminism for boys' struggles, arguing that in the process of trying to help girls get ahead, educators made changes to classroom teaching and schedules that favored female learning at the expense of male learning (think shortened recesses and eliminated gym classes).
Fault also lies, said Meeker, with predatory profiteers who market sex and violence to boys via video games and mass entertainment, as well as parents who let technology do their parenting for them or refuse to let boys be boys -- either overscheduling them or failing to see that boys and girls have different needs, learning styles and ways of expressing themselves.
But by far the single biggest contributing factor -- which in itself is partly the fallout of the feminist movement -- is the absence of men from young boys' lives. Half of all boys grow up without a father in the home. There are also far fewer male teachers in the classroom, and even fewer male heroes that boys are encouraged to emulate.
"Boys are told over and over that men are responsible for all the evils in the world," said Catholic author Anthony Esolen, noting the "deconstruction" of heroes such as Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.
That absence of male role models -- real and historical -- weighs heavily on young boys.
Explained Meeker: "Boys need to be able to look to a male figure, to watch their behavior, model it, and integrate it into how they act as a person. That modeling is how they develop their sense of masculinity and sexuality."
In the absence of a strong, virtuous father figure, boys look elsewhere, and open themselves up to misdirection from other males -- their peers, gang leaders and, in some cases, the homosexual community.
That's why one of the most important things a mother can do for her son, said Meeker, is facilitate a strong relationship between him and his father. Even with no father in the picture, she added, mothers can still encourage a relationship with a trusted male figure -- a grandfather, uncle, family friend or priest.
Both she and Esolen, who has written widely on the subject of Catholic manhood, also agree that parents need to turn off the television and send their boys outside -- to run, jump, throw balls and even build things.
"The tools boys ought to be using aren't computers and video games, but hammers, routers, table saws and drills. They should be using their spatial and visual intelligence to build tree houses, not wasting it in front of screens," Esolen said.
And they should be doing those things, Meeker added, with other boys and without parents hovering in the background -- planning, supervising and organizing every moment. That's because unorganized play with their male peers -- even if it's only engaging in pick-up games of basketball at the local YMCA -- sharpens their masculine sensibilities and teaches them to deal with boredom, use their imaginations and resolve conflicts.
Those are tips that Dr. Michael Pennell, a father of six from Greenville, S.C., has seen work in practice, as well as in theory.
"If you leave boys to themselves, in a group of their peers, they're drawn to the same things boys have always been drawn to. Boys will be boys, in the best sense, if we let them," he said
As his three boys (ages 15, 14 and 10) have begun the transition to manhood, Pennell said his greatest challenge has been countering what the culture wants them to become -- "conquerors and playboys, never growing up and never taking on adult responsibilities" -- with what he and his wife want them to become -- "protectors and providers like St. Joseph."
For Pennell, fighting that battle has required limiting the boys' exposure to popular culture (little television, supervised computer use and content filters for home movie viewing), as well as regular family prayer and simply loving his wife, modeling for the boys what they should strive for in their relationships with women.
Because boys have a strong need to order and organize their world, to feel capable, responsible and in control, Pennell also involves his sons in projects around the house, asking them to work alongside him as he fixes ceilings or leaky faucets. Not only, he said, does that teach them "how to serve others in very practical ways," but also "to be competent at them."
"Competence is very important to boys," he explained. "Boys need to know they're good at things, and they need to know their fathers think they're good at things."
In fact, their good opinion may be the most important thing both mothers and fathers can give their sons.
"The culture expects our boys to make the wrong choices," said Meeker. "We need to expect them to make the right ones. Boys respond best when you raise the bar for them, when you talk up, and not down, to them."
"As a parent, you're the best ally they have," she concluded. "Communicate that. Let them know the culture is not on their side. Believe in them. Their response will surprise you."
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
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