Current affairs

Are Boys Broken?


Last week, in the wake of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, I found myself doing what I always do when one of these shootings occur: devouring all the information I could on Twitter and trying not to let rage take over.  Innocent children (and adults) injured and killed for no reason…if that doesn’t get your blood boiling, you need to look in the mirror again, whether you own a gun or not.  I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across a post that A New York Times reporter retweeted — a thread from a semi-famous actor/comedian, with the question “Are Boys Broken?”

There were some interesting comments within the thread about the concept that boys are broken and that’s because of how boys are taught from birth to “be a man,” and because traits that are deemed feminine are an anathema for a man to display.  Are boys really broken?  Will my boys be broken? Are boys any more broken than they have been?  Cain killed Abel, after all. Broken boys are as old as time itself.  Girls are broken too, in all the same ways they have always been.  What I think is correct to say is that some boys are broken some of the time, and when boys are broken, unlike girls, violence ensues.

One part of the Twitter thread that did resonate with me is that girls are told now “you can do anything…you can be anything you want” but the message to boys hasn’t evolved in the same way.  It is still “man up” and “be a man” and messages of power and strength.  This has to change if we expect boys to change.   Messages of power and strength start from such an early age and are reinforced all the time.  It’s pervasive throughout our culture.  Why should I be surprised that Alex, our seven year old, doesn’t think girls could be Jedi? Or why doesn’t he think girls play baseball?  Perhaps because when I watch a baseball game on TV, he only sees men playing.  Alex’s elementary school is one the best in our area.  Want to take a guess as to how many teachers are men in the ENTIRE school?  If you said zero, you would be correct.  There is one man on campus, ONE, and he is the Principal.  We turn on the TV and Alex sees the President is a man (not much of one to be honest).  What’s the message?

As a parent, I feel like there is always this undercurrent of a theme that girls are harder to raise than boys.  How often do you hear…”oh man, you’re going to have your hands full when she’s a teenager?”  The reality is that it’s really hard to raise a boy.  Trust me, I’m trying to do it every day.

So is there really a way we can fix boys?  The bigger problem to me is the fact that it’s the wrong question to be asking. Why would we even think that if boys have always been broken that somehow we can fix them now? We can’t fix ALL of them and that is what is required.  I’m in no ways being defeatist, I’m being realistic.  Things that are this complex, that involve all of society to “fix” take time, too much time, and progress is way too slow if it happens at all.  Title IX happened in the early 1970s and we just now are having the #metoo movement.  The civil rights movement was in the 1950s/1960s and I can’t imagine if you asked an African American teenager about justice he or she would give you a “thumbs up,” even if some progress has been made.

I believe that the question “are boys broken?” isn’t that different than when people yell “mental disease” when a shooting occurs — it highlights a problem that is so complex and complicated to fix that ultimately people will give up.   We feel helpless because no one alone – and no small group – actually has the power to fix boys or create a mental health system where we can guarantee that boys will not fall through the cracks.  And for whatever the reason, the fact that there are broken boys in Australia and the UK and Japan and little gun violence comparatively doesn’t seem to persuade certain lawmakers that perhaps the issue isn’t just broken boys…

Alex receives a “Paw Slip” at school for helping at recess.

The issue is access.

In the absence of being realistically able to fix boys quickly, you have to protect the rest of us from what they can access.  We can’t solve the world for all of the broken boys, but we can limit their access to things that can hurt other people.  Take away their access to guns.  It’s so obvious, it actually hurts that we even have to have this conversation.  I understand that the counter argument is that if people want to hurt other people, they will find another weapon.  And it would be tragic if the Parkland shooter brought a knife to school and perhaps a few people would have gotten hurt or killed, but the football coach would have had a better chance of disarming a student with a knife.  Instead, he used his own body, and sacrificed his life, to shield kids against bullets.   The first thing parents or soon-to-be parents do when they are going to have a baby is baby proof their house.  We do this to limit a baby’s access to areas or things that can hurt the child, or others when they get older.  It’s about access.

Once we cut off access, then we can feel safer and not only create systems to help the broken boys, but work hard to ensure that we don’t create new levels of brokenness.  It’s not going to happen overnight, but we can’t sit on our hands and do nothing.  We have to believe in our boys.  They are receiving so many messages now about how terrible men are; we have to change the narrative or we are just perpetuating the problem.  And men, honestly, we need to be out there in every small way that we can and show our boys what being a man is about.  It doesn’t have to be about strength and power — it could be about creativity and kindness and love (yuck, gross, I said the word).

Take your boys to see Black Panther and have them understand that you can be powerful and do the right thing.  Have them listen to Anthony Rizzo or LeBron James or Chris Long — there are plenty of men out there that are doing the right things and are still big, tough men. It’s a grind.  Alex is already trying not to cry when he’s upset (Ryan has no issue crying), and Amy and I are always reminding him it’s ok to cry.  I never shy away from crying in front of him.  I’m coaching his Little League team this year and crazy as it sounds they have a draft for 8-9 year olds — my only request of our head coach was that we needed to draft Alex’s best friend and we were going to take one of the eight girls out of 140 kids in our league.  Our boys are going to see that girls can play baseball (and she’s as good or better than most of them anyway).  I volunteer at Alex’s school every Friday to help give out hot lunch.  I talk to all of the kids.  Everyone knows — that’s Alex’s dad. And along with the moms that volunteer too, we always talk to the boys that are lurking by the library and intimidated by the 200+ kids on the playground to make sure that they are okay.  It’s nothing special, that’s what we are supposed to do. Kids need to know all the time that people care about them.

I love the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi.  Feel free to unfriend me or never read my blog again if you don’t.  The Star Wars saga consists almost entirely of broken boys (Anakin Skywalker, Kylo Ren, Han Solo, Boba Fett) who all at some level were abandoned and spent their fictional lives trying to figure out who they are.  One of the key themes in the movie that I loved was “darkness rises…and light to meet it.”  Remember, whenever there is a tragedy like the mass shooting this week, there are always countless examples of men protecting people from harm; the high school football coach; the dad who laid on top of his adult kids in Vegas so he would take the bullets for them and countless others who ran among the bullets to help others in need. When darkness rises…light to meet it.  Lightness doesn’t just have to be sacrificing oneself, it can be believing that you can make a small difference in the lives of people; it can be becoming more active, it can be actively working to vote out people who have been consumed by the dark.  And it will happen by redefining what it means to be a boy.

The darkness is most definitely rising in our society today and instead of sitting back and believing there’s nothing you can do about it, I say it’s time to kick darkness in the fucking ass.  If you don’t believe me, just check out these kids from Stoneman Douglas.






3 replies »

  1. Good Post, Neil. I always say there is more good in the world than evil, but it’s the evil that gets all the news.

    There were a lot of heroes at this school and only one evil person (unless you start counting all the politicians who refuse to face up to this gun issue).

  2. Inspiring post. Our kids are growing up in a world so different from ours. They need all the guidance, compassion , nurturing , of having the right values & character so they will grow into better persons. I was glad I brought my son to watch the black panther, it’s a superhero movie with the right values we so badly need today. Great post

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