What Should a Pastor Say to a Group of Boys?
A friend who is youth pastor at a “mainline” Protestant church has invited me to speak with the boys of his youth group. Fortunately, the youth pastor sees the precarious situation of boys in our contemporary American society as it really is—precarious and pernicious. He wants me, as an academic theologian with strong interest in helping boys in our society gain a sure footing, to, what I would call, “conscienticize” and encourage them.
I read a lot of books and articles about “the boy crisis” in American society. (I don’t know if it’s as true in other societies.) Every few months another book appears by a sociologist or psychologist or pastor or religion scholar attempting to shed light on “what’s wrong with boys and young men.” Some of these are written by women; some of those are helpful and some not so helpful. I personally do not find “man up!” advice very helpful—especially from women.
In my view, much of the trouble with young men in our society stems from our society’s general lack of interest in boys and young men except as candidates for being changed—into girls and women (except for their physiology). Television and movies are constantly portraying masculine men as sinister or stupid. The only “acceptable” men are those who are feminized in their consciousness and actions. But even they are subjects of humor for that (e.g., Phil Dunfey on “Modern Family”).
There’s a memorable line in a song in the musical “My Fair Lady”: “Oh, why can’t women be more like men?” Professor Higgins sings it much to the amusement and agreement of his sidekick Colonel Pickering. For the past two to three decades the question bombarded at us is the other way around: “Oh, why can’t men be more like women?” And those men who resist, even gently but firmly, are treated as objects of scorn in the media and in the academy.
I recommend you stop here and read a post by another Patheos blogger—David Murrow. The blog post is “Why men aren’t stepping up” and I find it very insightful. (Go to www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/author/dmurrow/ .) The industrial revolution and now the technological revolution have both contributed to dispensability of men and the feminist revolution has (perhaps unintentionally) contributed to boys and men being viewed as simply a problem. (I’m not saying that was feminists’ intention; it’s perhaps an unintended consequence of the “women’s movement.”)
So what ought I to say to a group of Christian seventh through eleventh grade boys?
First, I plan to tell them it’s good to be a boy—and a man. They should be proud of it. Not proud as in “better” than girls or women. Not at all. Just as girls and women should be proud of being that, so boys and men should be proud of being what God made them to be and make the most of it—as God intends it to be. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being male in spite of many of the not-very-subtle messages bombarded at us by advertisers, entertainers, journalists, educators and public attitudes in general.
Second, I plan to tell them that being a boy or man does not automatically mean being “masculine” in the stereotypical sense. They don’t have to prove that being a boy is good by going with all their testosterone-driven impulses. In fact, they should rein them in. Both genders have tendencies, whether from nature or nurture, that, if driven too far lead to trouble. One testosterone-driven impulse is to be aggressive and dominate others. Not all boys or men feel that impulse to the same degree, but studies have shown that testosterone does tend to make even women (when increased in them) more aggressive and less compassionate.
Third, I plan to tell them that they need to ignore the stereotypes of “manhood”—whether those come at them from their male peers or from the media or anywhere. What are those stereotypes? Well, of course, “boys don’t cry” is one. I will give them permission to cry and even encourage them to cry. Everyone needs to cry sometimes just as everyone needs to laugh sometimes. It’s human. But the “boy code” teaches young men to suppress feelings of weakness, vulnerability, need, and to act strong, invulnerable, self-sufficient. The boy code is one of the worst problems boys and young men face. And women understand very little about it. It’s kept secret among males. But it’s the source of much of what girls and women find troubling about boys and men. And it starts and becomes very strong and controlling in middle school if not earlier.
Fourth, I plan to tell them to choose their heroes carefully. Just because someone is a monster on the football field or basketball court doesn’t make him a worthy hero. Read a lot and find a worthy hero—based on his character—among fictional heroes or in biographies. Or choose someone closer to home—a youth pastor, coach, teacher, social worker, whatever. Your heroes do not have to be the “macho men” of sports or war.
Fifth, I will tell them to put down the video games and read. Studies have shown that reading wires the brain for success. Reading makes readers smarter, more critical thinkers. It cannot be replaced by video gaming, watching television or movies, etc. “If you wish to succeed and make something of yourself—read, read, read.” It’s not a “girl thing.”
Sixth, I will advise them to find a trustworthy adult outside their family to confide in. The natural candidate for a Christian boy is his pastor or youth pastor. Or it could be an uncle or other relative. But it must be “someone you can trust to listen and not get all bent out of shape about what you tell him. Secrets corrode the soul. You need a mature confidante and counselor.”
Seventh, I will tell them to turn a deaf ear to peers and others who attempt to tell them how they should act and just be themselves in the best sense—of what God calls them to be. If they’re more attracted to libraries than athletic fields, they should go for it. If they’re more drawn to drawing than to video games, they should do it. If they’re more fulfilled by volunteering with Red Cross or Civil Air Patrol than partying, they should volunteer. There is no one path for all boys and young men to being “masculine” and “a real guy.” If they enjoy shopping; they should ignore those who deride boys shopping (except for trainers, of course!).
Eighth, I will suggest that they avoid spending time on the internet in private. Even if they’re parents allow it, they should move their computer out into the public spaces of the house where others are around and browse there. The internet is a wonderful tool for learning and expanding the mind, but it’s also a dangerous playground for adolescents—just as an urban playground can be for children without adult supervision. The “candy man” is now in cyberspace more than stalking children in parks.
Ninth, I will say that they should talk openly with their parents and even insist that their parents sit down with them and listen. A gulf begins to open up between teens and parents and it’s encouraged by our culture—especially the media that portrays parents as stupid, intrusive, out of touch and spoil-sports (unless they are portrayed as enablers of bad behavior). “Tell your parents what you want from them in terms of guidelines, space, understanding, communication, etc.” Often parents of adolescents are afraid of them; sometimes it takes the adolescents simply opening up and telling parents what they want. For example “Dad, I need more time with you. Will you please come to my game Saturday?” Or “Mom, I wish you would not open my bedroom door without knocking first.”
Tenth, finally, I will tell them to pray and read their Bible every day especially when they don’t feel like it!
Far, far too much positive attention is given to girls in our society—compared to boys. The general attitude is that boys are either to be contained, curtailed, limited, or socially engineered to be like girls. If the latter isn’t working, just do the former. Boys are far more likely to be given drugs for ADHD than girls—often just because they have trouble sitting still as long as girls. Churches should be places where being a boy or young man is affirmed even as that condition is trained and carefully managed. Yes, true, boys and young men need to be civilized and it should be by responsible, caring, male adults. Too often, though, they are left to their own devices (except for being criticized) as the girls, so much more easy to manage (in most cases), are given all the positive attention.