The Roots of Newtown, Part II: Purposeless boys

Come back Mom and Dad

You’re growing apart; you know that I’m growing up sad

I need some attention

I shoot into the light.

– Peter Gabriel, “Family Snapshot”

Purposeless boys are dangerous.

Michael Gurian, in his book The Purpose of Boys (2010), lists some of the effects of the growing population of boys without purpose.

  • For every 100 girls in public schools, 335 boys are expelled.
  • For every 100 girls ages 15-19 who commit suicide, 549 boys in the same age range kill themselves.
  • For every 100 women ages 18-21 in correctional facilities, there are 1,430 men behind bars.
  • For every 100 American women who earn a bachelor’s degree, 73 American men earn the same degree.

The key, Gurian points out, is that all boys intuitively crave being a part of, and contributing to, something that gives them status, respect, and purpose.Boys playing. Without a proper path to purpose, they are at risk of becoming dangerous to themselves and others.

In addition, recent studies have suggested that without culturally-based institutions where successful adults can guide their development, boys will fill the void with adolescent tokens of status. According to a recent article in New York magazine, “Absent established hierarchies and power structures…kids create them on their own.” Think Lord of the Flies.

Only the most self-motivated can find their without help. The rest need guidance from without and respectable male role models in their lives. Many boys need an honest shove to get them moving in the right direction.  “They are hungry for others, including older peer boys and adult men,” Gurian says, who can mentor them and bring them to “where they can feel themselves to be a purposeful part of society.”

I am in no position to say what Adam Lanza’s family dynamics were. All I know is that he was being raised by a single mother and that he had impaired social skills. Both of these indicate to me a lack of adult male guidance and support. If we add to that mental illness (no reported proof of that) and access to guns (clear proof of that), we have a toxic mixture that was ready to explode.

Purposeless boys are dangerous. But every boy deserves to find in his life some meaning, what Gurian calls “the clarities of male purpose.” There isn’t a finite supply, some predetermined limit. The avenues for finding purpose are as multiple and various as the boys are themselves. But the social structure that once provided a path to purpose for most boys has, in recent years, fallen into disrepair. Under the theory that you can be whatever you want to be, boys have been set adrift on an open sea that does not provide a clear path to the status and meaning that they crave.

Very few institutions remain today where a boy can find a path to being a man. Professional sports and the military are possibly the only two viable ones left. It has been reported that Lanza wanted to join the Marines. It probably would have been the best thing for him.

Beyond these institutions, everything else is a crapshoot. It’s sink or swim, every man for himself. Some boys make it and some don’t, and some disastrously fall through the cracks.

One thing that may be a cause or symptom of all of this is the diminished status of fathers in this country. These days, fathers are frequently ridiculed in the media for being inept morons. Worse, they are often portrayed as being inconsequential.

Case in point: In a burst of self-important egotism, writer Lori Gottlieb published an article in The Atlantic about her decision to have a baby using a sperm donor. The subtext of the article was that if women could reduce men to being nothing more than a sperm vending machine, they would. Fathers, she seemed to say, are unimportant. (She famously revised her position some years later.)

But fathers and boys are important, and we must reverse the current trend that is treating them as otherwise. Because sooner or later, another boy pushed to the margins and made to feel insignificant will get his hands on a gun, and the carnage will start again.

Next week: The Roots of Newtown, Part III: Where the NRA has it wrong

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6 comments

  1. Angela

    I think girls are capable of the same if brought up in the same culture. I like this post because it points out that being male is a factor for high risk behaviors. Our systems, particularly, education make this worse based on policies that ignore the differences between males and females. Boys are more aggressive (they produce more testosterone); however, schools crack down on anything considered aggressive. The educational environment is emasculating boys.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thank you for your comment. I agree (obviously) with your observations. I think it is exceptionally difficult to raise boys today without a support system that works with the way they function. Gurian’s book even makes the controversial point that the pendulum of feminism has swung too far, and we need to make some corrections. And regarding education, my son has always done better with male teachers. I can’t quite say why, but something just clicks.

  2. marymtf

    A few years ago a father’s group paid for an advertisement that in essence said, ‘every boy needs a dad.’ (This was in Australia). Sounds pretty mild and inoffensive, doesn’t it? Neo-feminists made a meal out of it and it was quickly taken off air.
    As for your comment about sperm donors. I’ve heard it before, What I say is, until some scientist can (excuse me) produce man made sperm, women can sneer all they like, but they are still going to have to rely, directly or indirectly on the essence of men.
    Last comment, promise, don’t people who dismiss men as the inferior sex have male children? Does original thinking exist in the neo-feminist world or is it all one idea suits all?

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks for sharing, Mary. The brou-ha-ha about the public service ad for fathers is very interesting. I can only hope that the pendulum will begin to swing the other way, for the sake of our boys.

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