From boys to men

  • June 5, 2008

{mosimage}The Jesuits used to claim that if they could take charge of a boy’s education at age seven, they would turn out a fine mature man ready to serve God and country. Today, as we celebrate this Father’s Day, in much of industrialized society, the boys are still there, but the men are increasingly missing in action.

Absentee fatherhood is often fingered as one of the leading factors in youth crime in our urban ghettoes. Universities are struggling to maintain sexual equilibrium in the classroom in the face of declining numbers of male applicants. Education surveys consistently show boys under-achieving on reading and writing tests compared to their female classmates.

Meanwhile, the rate of marriage continues to decline while that of cohabitation rises. While all this cannot be laid at the foot of the male half of any relationship, the commitment-averse 30-something slacker has become a matter of urban legend — the star of movies and television sitcoms.

Meanwhile, new reproductive technologies have divorced conception from the sexual act of procreation. Women can — and increasingly do — conceive children without a father in the house. In fact, it is possible for today’s “father” to be an anonymous male donor to a sperm bank. This prospect has given rise, in some quarters, to demands for legislation that would give children a “right to know” the identity of their father.

Perhaps that explains a thing or two about why fatherhood is seen today as a sometimes quaint and marginal notion. In our cultural attitudes toward the sexes, we have gone from being a society that puts men ahead of women in virtually all matters to something radically different. At least when it comes to social responsibility, girls are expected to be super-achievers in all categories while boys are, well, left to their own devices on the assumption that they can take care of themselves. The poor girls carry the weight of the world on their shoulders while the boys are off playing video games.

Social pendulums swing for good reason. In the past, society failed the legitimate aspirations of women. Now we’ve rectified many of the problems that kept women down — if not all of them. In the process, however, we’ve forgotten that boys will not raise themselves. They need their own particular role models — and not just bling-bearing rap idols and rich movie stars — if they are to aspire to be truly contributing members of society.

Boys need to know, in particular, that they are needed. They need to know that the contributions of mature, responsible men to family life and to society more generally are desired by society. This will require a radical shift from a culture that idolizes male adolescence. It will require efforts not just from our schools — which are already overburdened with all kinds of social objectives — but also our entertainment industries, our governments and our social institutions such as churches.

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