'Son's Day' Takes On 'Daughters Day' To Meet Boys' Needs

For millions of American girls, next Thursday will offer a once-a-year chance to play hookey legally. Instead of spending the day at school, they'll tour offices and factories, supposedly getting real-life lessons in careers as part of the high-visibility Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

But left behind in partially empty classrooms, and virtually ignored by the media, will be millions of boys who are perceived as needing no such special attention. Boys, according to popular stereotypes, don't lose their bearings - read "self-esteem" - along the path to adolescence. Boys supposedly don't scale back their ambitions, as girls reportedly do. And boys don't value themselves more for what they look like than for what they can do.

Maybe not. But boys have other needs, and ever since the Ms. Foundation's much-vaunted day for daughters began four years ago, some parents and family specialists have been asking a serious question: What about our sons?

So important is the issue that an informal coalition of men's and boys' organizations has devised a novel way to address it. They've designated the third Sunday in October - Oct. 20 this year - as Son's Day, a time to affirm the importance of "raising caring and responsible sons." The national event is being coordinated by the Northeastern Community Development Corporation in Charlton, N.C.

Clarke Martin, executive director of the community development group, explains that the purpose of the event "is to get people involved in the lives of boys." Initially, the focus will be two-pronged, emphasizing conflict resolution and men's nurturing roles. Peaceful conflict resolution, Mr. Martin says, "is one of those things little boys just have a hard time learning." He also points to out-of-wedlock fathering, domestic violence, and nonpayment of child support as evidence that boys and young men need help understanding family responsibilities.

Sharing that viewpoint is Michael Gurrian, a family therapist and author of the forthcoming book, "The Wonder of Boys," to be published by Putnam in October. "We have a misconception that men have power and women don't, and that boys have power and girls don't," Mr. Gurrian says. Arguing that "boys are not getting enough parenting, mentoring, and educating," he adds, "Boys have as many problems as girls - just different ones." Those problems, as he sees them, include higher suicide rates, higher rates of violence, and higher school dropout rates.

To help boys, organizers of Son's Day encourage parents, relatives, and friends to spend time with a boy "to show him that he can make a positive difference in his family, neighborhood, and the world." They suggest a variety of activities, including:

Take boys to visit a homeless shelter, or a senior or child-care center, to emphasize the importance of caring and compassion.

Take a son - or "son for the day" - to an action movie and talk about the male-on-male violence that appears in entertainment.

Take a group of boys to an event where they'll be exposed to a different racial or ethnic group. Talk about the similarities among people and show the need to appreciate differences.

In an ideal world, there would be no need for these artificial "days" for sons and daughters, where hype risks turning potentially worthwhile activities into media spectacles. In the case of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, for instance, how much real mentoring can take place when TV cameras are whirring and sponsors are hawking T-shirts, hats, buttons, and mugs? This year the Ms. Foundation is even holding a sweepstakes to award three $20,000 scholarships. Is it only a matter of time until Hallmark sells "Happy Take Our Daughters to Work Day" greeting cards?

Yet for now, however imperfect and self-conscious the two events may be, they offer equal-opportunity reminders of our collective obligations to the next generation. The famous saying of China's Chairman Mao that "women hold up half the sky" makes an important point that helps to justify "daughters day." Son's Day does the same for the men - sons and fathers, husbands and friends - who hold up the equally important other half.

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