My kids are obsessed with nature documentaries. They speak the language of conservation. So it wasn’t clear whether my eldest was being intentionally funny when he told me that girls, in our family, are “an endangered species.”
It’s kind of true. I have a husband and four sons, so ours is a testosterone-heavy household. Our family movies are always action-packed. I know better than to ask for veggie pizza.
As befits an endangered species, I am well-cared-for and protected. Wherever I go, I am guarded by superheroes and vaunted monster slayers. Doors open before me. Bouquets of dandelions are laid at my feet. I also cope with a lot of broken property, muddy and bloody floors, and ravaged pantries. Still, the chivalric impulses of young boys can be downright Arthurian. Sisters, if you’d like to feel like Lady Guinevere, have some sons.
My home is something of a Neverland. (I mean J.M. Barrie’s, of course. Curse you, Michael Jackson, for ruining good literary references.) In society at large, boys are the endangered species, and we aren’t doing much to protect them.
Many problems have been documented by boy-interested writers like Christina Hoff Sommers and Leonard Sax. Our schools medicate boys into convenient passivity instead of channeling their natural energy. School curricula and pedagogy play to the strengths of girls. More distressing still, people seem to be losing interest in boys. Adoption agencies have trouble placing them.
Even if you’re familiar with these memes, it comes home in a more personal way when you give birth to four Y-chromosomed babies in succession. When expecting my fourth, it was amazing how frequently total strangers would ask, “Are you finally getting a girl? Ah. I’m sorry.” What is wrong with us? The birth of a son is not an occasion for condolence.
The neglect of boys is a longstanding problem, but its latest front may be the most toxic we’ve yet seen. Under the label “gender-neutral parenting,” liberals are now trying to liberate boys from boyhood.
The Farce of Neutrality
They wouldn’t put it that way. Gender-neutral parents love to tell you how they aren’t hostile to masculinity. They just broadly support whatever their kids want to be.
This is crazy. It’s terrible for boys, for three reasons. First, “gender-neutral” parents aren’t truly comfortable with masculinity. Second, we need boys to aspire to manhood, not to see it as a matter of indifference. Third, it’s impossible to give boys a fleshed-out picture of honorable manhood if they’re trapped in the entryway, trying to decide whether manhood is actually their goal.
For evidence of how “neutral” modern parents really are, consider Michelle, a lesbian parent, who publicly admits she regularly battles her young son’s interest in being a boy. “I’m constantly like trying to queer my relationship with him and get him to wear tutus. He hates it. He’s just like, ‘no,’” she says.
Later on in the same video, Michelle laments the tyranny of Old MacDonald being a man. “Why couldn’t it be a lesbian farmer?” she wonders. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The child in question, Atticus, is an actual human boy, being raised by women who are openly uncomfortable with him being a boy.
This lesbian couple isn’t alone, as seen in the enthused response to Adrienne LaFrance’s recent Atlantic piece on pink-clad boys. It prompted a social media brag-fest from enlightened liberal parents, anxious to tell the world how Priscilla loves dinosaurs far more than Liam, while Jackson marches proudly to school carrying his My Little Pony backpack.
My boys have never asked me for a My Little Pony backpack. What would I say if they did? “No. That’s for girls.”
Manhood Is an Achievement
Gender-neutral parents aren’t really neutral. Even if they were, they’d still be crazy. You can’t tell boys that manhood is a matter of indifference and expect things to turn out well.
Advocates sometimes point out that the great majority of gender-bending children ultimately grow into cis (heterosexual) adults. The war on gender norms hasn’t stopped most people with penises from putting “M” on driver’s licenses. That might be a relief if we were only interested in bare questions of self-identification. I want more than that for my children.
I want them to be good men. The kind my friends would want their daughters to marry. The kind who could step up and defend our nation in times of need. You don’t achieve that by telling them, “Hey, whatever, just do your thing.”
In a healthy society, boys aspire to honorable manhood. It’s not something they can simply choose, nor something they should take for granted. Becoming a man isn’t just about eating protein bars and waiting. It takes discipline. It takes work. It takes support from loving adults, but also a little bit of fear. We need boys to be afraid of falling short. The reality is that failed men are both miserable and dangerous, and failure is possible. We don’t do our children any favors if we hide or deny that reality.
In fact, boys naturally regard manhood as an aspiration. This becomes obvious when watching boys play. They love aggressive games involving battles and quests. They win each other’s’ acceptance through competitions, with demonstrations of strength, toughness, and resourcefulness.
For parents there is always some temptation to smother this, because we hate watching our kids fail. Sometimes intervention is appropriate to discourage cruelty or to help a struggling boy find new ways to develop and excel. Still, we should consider the possibility that many boys inchoately understand a truth their parents choose not to see. Failure is real. A participation trophy won’t soften the sting of failing to become a man.
Somewhere out there, offended readers are skimming these final paragraphs because they can’t want to tell me what a monster I am. They want to tell me about brothers or schoolmates who bullied them, and teachers who responded by telling them not to be sissy. They want me to know about malicious fathers or football coaches who ran roughshod over their wounded feelings. They want me to know I should respect my sons’ individuality and listen to their feelings. Don’t bludgeon them into my cookie-cutter, manly-man, you’ll-eat-your-red-meat-and-like-it blueprint.
To those readers I would just say: I’m sorry. I wish you hadn’t had those bad experiences. Cruelty towards children is never justified. Truly, I don’t demand that my sons grow into G.I. Joe.
I want my boys to be themselves. I also want them to be men. I think boys just are proto-men, so that works out. But because I am unambiguously pro-manhood, I can afford to explore the nuances. It’s true that young boys, in their play, tend to choose obvious, unsubtle manly exemplars. I don’t order them to play soldier or superhero, but that’s just what they like.
As they grow, though, we can explore a whole range of manly exemplars. Already they love construction sites, explorers, and excavating the backyard. (Sometimes they’re hunting for treasure, sometimes for dinosaur bones.) They’re fascinated by prophets, priests, and other saintly figures. We talk about great naturalists and scientists. Poets and philosophers are a bit heady for them now, but we’ll get to that.
We talk about fathers. They know that good men respect women, protect children, and work hard to support their families. They’re blessed to have many exemplars (starting with their own father) to reinforce those lessons.
Somewhere in that panoply of manly exemplars, every boy should be able to find something appropriate to his temperament and talents. All boys need not aspire to G.I. Joe-esque machismo (although some probably should). All boys do need to be told: Become a man. Make me proud. I believe you have it in you.
I don’t panic when I see a boy dressed in pink, but we all know this is about far more than just the color wheel. The real question is, are we still permitted to tell our sons that their boyhood is something good and meaningful? Are we still permitted to teach them that manhood is worth earning? I shudder to think what will become of us if we can’t.