Boys will be boys. But can role models in movies help them become men?
A boy in my class this summer wouldn’t stop spitting.
His name was Rodney. During a screening of Apollo 13, he sat utterly detached from others, idly drooling streams of saliva onto our classroom floor. He savored the sensations of sourcing and secreting it. He studied its spill, swell, and spread. He lolled in his chair, ignoring even the most enthralling scenes of the movie. The puddle grew.
When ordered to stop it and scrub up his mess, Rodney looked bewildered. Why should he be the one to clean it? The boy stared at his teacher, not so much in insurrection or impudence as in incomprehension. At last he shoved his shoe across his dribble, scraping and scattering the puddle. When told that wouldn’t do and directed sternly to retrieve paper towels, water, soap, and disinfectant, and properly wash his slobber, he appeared absolutely befuddled. And then we realized: Never before, at home or in school, had he been directed to behave himself.
I direct a series of four intensive one-week workshops in writing and presentation skills for children in the Silicon Valley region. Our learners range in age from 8 to 14 years. During each day’s four 45-minute writing and editing sessions, we provide our authors with carefully structured individual coaching. Our writers close their day by standing at a raised podium and reading aloud to their peers and parents the work they regard as their most interesting and successful piece.
Our program’s content is demanding, its expectations high, its criteria rigorous. Many of our students achieve startling progress in their work, and a significant transformation in their attitudes toward intellectual life, spiritual awareness, and personal ambition.
But during recent years, my staff and I have noted with growing alarm that the girls who participate in our workshops outperform the boys by an ever more conspicuous margin.
In terms of motivation, effort, achievement, and conduct, the girls have a dramatic advantage. They are almost always cheerful, enthusiastic, assiduous, and prideful. The boys in our classes can be indolent, insolent, palpably unhappy, apathetic, and, in many instances, almost devoid of affect—save for an affinity for electronic games and, in cinematic surrounds, a vocalized delight in loud noises, violence, and virulent profanity.
In our writing courses, for example, we witness a broad inability or refusal among boys to feel, invent, imagine, and express. Their work, to put it simply, has no personality. The boys are unable to project anything except inert passivity.
They seem to struggle with the most rudimentary human performance requirements. They can’t get out of bed on time. They won’t take care of their personal space—their classrooms and bedrooms. They can’t even feed themselves. Activities are met with “That’s no fun” or “That’s boring.” They’re blatantly disrespectful. And they’re incapable of both creating and fulfilling personal goals.
What’s at fault here? It can’t be the boys. They’ve been conditioned to behave like this.
The problem, as I see it, is related to their privilege. Their easeful life seems to be promoting a bizarre conviction that they’re entitled to effortlessness. Without challenges, my students are denied the pleasures of overcoming them. At home, success is granted, not earned.
It seems that economic abundance, obtained by parents and conferred upon their sons, has collapsed the aspiration, effort, and self-esteem that are instrumental in the way many males define character, secure confidence, exercise leadership, and achieve contentment. I believe these traits constitute the core of masculine identity: the elemental nature of appropriate maleness.
Our boys in trouble usually share one glaring problem: They lack a visible father who participates vigorously in parenting. Their fathers are often occupationally busy, frequent travelers, corresponding with their sons remotely. To compensate, the fathers replace personalized parenting with gifts of money, gadgets, or video games.
But my students aren’t fooled: They crave parenting and they resent its absence, and they’ve learned to expect unearned largesse in substitution. And the sad result of all this: The boys really do seem unhappy. Unhappy and scared. Some arrive with diagnoses of clinical depression. Others may reveal in writing or discussion that they feel undeserving of friendship, even love.
These children have a right to be frightened. What can they expect of their adulthood? Where are the adults at home emulating their sons’ potential? When happens when “marriage” and “family” are abstract concepts? Do these boys’ parents intend to confer life-supporting trust funds on all these boys? The boys will need them if they keep on getting mediocre grades, disclaiming maturation, and relying on unending nursemaid or manservant care.
We knew we needed a change in curriculum, and we decided to start with simply swapping out one of our films. We needed something that appealed to our boys’ inner masculinity, something entertaining enough to capture short attention spans, and something containing a role model whose lessons they could carry home with them.
We chose Gandhi.
It’s a brilliant film—and it resonated. We accompanied it with ambitious discussions about his life, work, and teaching. The Mahatma’s example of goodness, grace, and genius was our seminar’s standard. And it seemed to work: Even our most abandoned boys seemed, by the end of the seminar, to be attuned to the pleasure of aspiring beyond their present capability.
We pushed them—and pushed hard. Boys tend to resist intervention much more than girls. We demanded that the students’ thinking, writing, and public presentations could be held to even Gandhi’s standard. The same applied to their expectations of themselves.
Gandhi was a hero to them, a hero they’d been missing. Before the film, I often asked the young men who study with us who their heroes were. Every time I did this, every boy stared blankly at me and couldn’t reply. Our sons had no idea who their heroes were. And the problem was deeper than that: The boys weren’t sure what truths and virtues their champions ought to exemplify. The boys idolized no one and cared about nothing, practically to the point of nihilism.
They didn’t even know what I meant by the question. Heroism? What is it? Heroes? Why should I want one? Why do I need one?
But Gandhi became that hero. He was the valued elder whose expectations of emotion, action, and attainment elicited responses from the boys. As teachers, we fit that role, too, although we may have just been easier to resist. Gandhi—the lasting presence of the man from the film—seemed to take interest in the boys’ minds, their thoughts, their beliefs, their principles, their creativity, and their goals.
Better yet, the film’s popularity provided a catalyst for the classroom. We got comfortable, and we began to laugh. We laughed at everything. We laughed at ourselves, we laughed at our students, and, best of all, we laughed at the “elders” of our program—the wise ones, the adult ones—to show that we’re all flawed. Making our shared imperfections material for fondness and fun, rather than fodder for shame, freed the boys from guilt, encouraged a sense of commonality and safety, and fostered hope. If a boy can laugh at a defect, he can’t be afraid of it and he can’t be affected by it.
Trust began to build. Confidence soon followed.
It’s easy for teachers to shift self-directed humor outward. We can render a specific boy’s traps, travails, and peccadilloes absurd rather than awful. We can shift the atmosphere from crisis to fun. Simultaneously, we can command correction without overt imprecation.
Early in my career I felt astonished by how rapidly caring and enlightened teachers can confront and change young people’s unproductive stories about themselves. Now I know almost all children respond quickly and intensely to mentors whom they trust and like—mentors whom they know care about and respect them, and accordingly demand much of them.
The power of simple caring, the influence of sheer concern, can be immediate and consequential. It can drive change. More important, it quickly becomes, as it must become, internalized. The child absorbs the mentor’s respect and affection, and instinctively transfers it into an interior reservoir of worth, motivation, and potential life direction.
My staff and I no longer feel surprised by this marvel. We no longer feel mystified by the miracle of a child’s self-directed life change. We now rely upon it and program for it. How? By communicating that we care about our learners. By connecting our caring with our far-reaching demands for excellence. And by building academic and spiritual excitements that make the experiences of thinking and creating joyful rather than laborious.
The best way to deal with the spitter, it turned out, was with a joke. I waited to catch him in the act, and when I finally did, I confronted him with a smile on my face.
“Rodney,” I said, “What’s the story with your mound of spit? Is it a launch? A salivation start-up?”
He looked at me, confused. Then I asked, “Are you planning to sell it? How much per liter?” and I handed him a dollar bill.
Watching the twinkle enter his eye was priceless. And so was the smile that was freed, the giggle that erupted. The effect was unmistakable. It had the potential to become a vast unconquerable energy for change.
If male estrangement is an epidemic, the remedies are obvious, freely available, easy to implement, and consistently effective. Inspire a boy with a thrilling hero. Then get him to laugh. He’ll quickly surrender his unnatural benumbed stupefaction. He’ll swiftly renounce his artificial incapacity, throw off his hateful shackles, and do what boys inherently long to do: imagine, aspire, seek heights, aim for the stars, dare, and dream.