Mapping the journey from boy to man

"A boy can become a male adult, physically and socially, but he isn't a man until he has become loving, wise, and responsible. In terms of the individual, every boy has within himself and within his family and his community, a code of manhood that is trying to emerge ... " - Michael Gurian, author of 'The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men,' in an interview with the Monitor's Brad Knickerbocker, page 14.

For years, Michael Gurian has worked with families, school districts, churches, and criminal- justice agencies - as well as in his private practice as a family therapist in Spokane, Wash. - on problems of raising boys. He's written several books on the subject, including "The Wonder of Boys" and "A Fine Young Man." His latest book, "The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of our Boys and Young Men," asserts that the causes of - and the solutions to - such problems are societal, involving all Americans.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview:

Having studied 30 cultures around the world, and lived in seven, you've come to the conclusion that American boys "have the least moral development of any boys in the world." What are the evidences of that?

We imprison more males than any other developed country except Russia. In our schools we have more discipline problems and more visits of our children - 90 percent of them males - to the principal's office than in any other developed country.

What do you see as the root causes of this?

No. 1 would certainly be the breakdown of the three-family system - and by that I mean the nuclear family, the extended family, and the communal family.

The advantage of American individualism is immense creativity and technological development, and we're the richest country in the world.

But the disadvantage of Jeffersonian individualism is that in child-raising we don't spend time on bonds in the three families.... We're ending up with kids being raised with one parent, no extended family, and going to a school with 2,500 kids in it. And that means less chance for moral development.

More specifically, we're not sitting together at the dinner table talking about right and wrong. [We're seeing] a 10-year-old who goes into his room and closes the door and gets on the Internet, or a 12-year-old who spends two hours a day playing the video game "Cardinal Sin."

Those are symptoms of the fact that many of the systems are breaking down by which moral development was a daily occurrence in the life of a child.

A recent survey found that twice as many youngsters say it's easier to talk to their mothers than their fathers about drugs. What does this say about a dad's role in the moral development of boys?

At first impression it sounds like it's saying the mother is the one that boys should turn to. But I think what it's saying is that the father isn't close enough.

A lot of these teen boys are yearning to talk with their dads. The divorced dad sees his kids, on average, two days a month, so that's a third of the boys right there who aren't close to their dads.

At a certain point, an adolescent boy starts pulling away from his mother and he needs his dad to be teaching moral development. At 14 or so they really need elder males - fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and other male mentors - to teach them moral development.

At a certain point, what the mother can give them ends and they've got to get the lessons from men about what it means to be a man. Big Brother, scouts, a coach, a church leader, an older brother, a teacher, or counselor - somebody who becomes emotionally intimate with a child.

Why is it important that that individual be male?

Boys are really hungry for male attention. That's primal, and that's natural. I find it in every culture. As the boy hits puberty, he starts looking to men, and it's the culture's job to provide him with men. That means his dad, but it doesn't just mean his dad. At some point he'll start rebelling against his dad.

It's actually our job as men to raise other men's sons - to the extent that other men and women want our help and the child reaches out to us.

It's my job as a neighbor to reach out to the boy down the block, because he's hungry spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and morally for my attention, and if he doesn't get it, there's a hole that grows inside of him where manhood should be. And by manhood we don't mean some macho thing, we just mean whatever being a man is for this boy....

A boy can become a male adult, physically and socially, but he isn't a man until he has become loving, wise, and responsible. In terms of the individual, every boy has within himself, and within his family and community, a code of manhood that is trying to emerge....

It's the responsibility of these three families to teach the boy how to access this in himself, how to build it and develop it - develop this soul in himself and this maturity in himself.

What role does the greater society, especially popular culture, play?

The problems are the moral and emotional vacuum that's created in the home and school. I'm not as strident a critic of video games as some, but our culture is poisoning its own children.

Kids want the primal stories, they want their families and their community to be speaking to them in primal language and primal stories - the great stories, the stories of heroism and fairness, justice - those are the stories kids really want (See accompanying list, left page.) When those stories don't exist, kids are perfectly happy to take whatever story comes along.

What are primal stories?

Primal stories carry within themselves the roots of humanity. Bible stories are primal, as are fairy tales, and then things like the Harry Potter stories. Those are a contemporary manifestation of formulas and archetypal characters that we can identify with ... doing things we want to do, which is to serve and to live morally with a mission. Any media can create them, it's just that our 20th-century TV and movie culture hasn't tended toward them.

I make a distinction between a primal story and a visceral one. The primal story carries the archetypes of our humanity. The visceral has a sensational appeal. I don't find in our contemporary media these primal, archetypal, moral stories.

There are some exceptions. "Saving Private Ryan" seems to me a primal story. That's about the male developing self-worth and self-sacrifice. "Schindler's List" is another example. We could even make the argument that "The Matrix" is trying to be a primal story. It's too violent, but it's grappling with deep moral and metaphysical questions.

"Hill Street Blues" was in that realm. Every episode was emotionally and morally deep.

In talking to troubled boys, you ask them about the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. Is there a particular religious agenda here?

Not for me. I was born a Jew. Then we moved to India [where Mr. Gurian's father was in the Foreign Service] and my parents got very into Hinduism. Then we moved back to the US and my parents became Bahai for 13 years. Then they became Quakers.

I went to a Jesuit college. I'm a person who's lived all over and who's taking the best from every tradition, and what I'm finding are universal principles. Every tradition teaches that the seed of morality is compassion. My family [my wife and two daughters] are both Unitarians and Jews. We go to temple and we go to Unitarian church.

Do conversations about right and wrong make boys uncomfortable?

Initially, yes, it will make some boys uncomfortable. It amazes me, but some have never had a dialogue about it. I get them engaged and at some point I will discover where they are empty. Or maybe I'll find out that they know more about right and wrong than they're willing to talk about at first. I am discovering, more than I would like, kids who don't have a language for moral development - who are 12 years old and talk with a six-year-old's language about right and wrong.

Do you believe that boys have a natural inclination to be good and do the right thing?

I think all children do. All kids are naturally compassionate. My research shows me that boys are more morally fragile than girls. They can't access that compassion as quickly and completely as a girl because of all the brain differences - less impulse control, more aggression, and all of that.

We want to watch out because sometimes boys show their compassion in a different way than a girl does. Girls tend somewhat more toward what we call empathy nurturance, and boys can tend more toward aggression nurturance.

The anecdotal story that's useful would be a bunch of kids playing a game of street hockey and a boy falling down and skinning his knees, and the girl coming by and saying, "Are you OK?" and the boy coming by saying, "You look OK, come on we need you."

Both of those are forms of nurturance. But one of them - the girl's - is much more immediately empathic and the boy's is more long-term empathic - it's "Hey, if you don't perform in our group you're actually going to suffer more in the end so you might as well perform on our team and let's go and get the goal and be happy."

That's still good nurturance, because it's true that boy wasn't really hurt that badly and it is good that he gets up and continues the game. And also the girl's way is great because it gave him that immediate empathy that helped him get back up.

So the two things I want to say are, boys and girls do their compassion differently, and in some ways boys need more help developing that natural compassion.

What is needed for boys to become good sons and eventually good men?

No. 1 is the bond or attachment between the primary caregiver and her son - I say "her" because it's generally the mom. We would cut down on a lot of [school shootings] if in the first two years of life we had better attachment between our infant boys and their caregivers.

No. 2, we have to utterly revamp our attitude toward day care, and we have to see that day care is extended family.... These people need to be paid $10 an hour, not $5 an hour, so that they'll stick around for a year or two ... and become a second mother.

No. 3 would be the dad. All sorts of studies show us what happens when a boy is not attached to his dad, how he's more likely to live in poverty, more likely to end up in jail, do drugs, and so on. So we just have to say, "Look, if we want moral sons we've got to have fathers." And by father I also mean the "second father,"... an uncle or a grandfather.

No. 4, we've got to have ethics taught in our schools from the very beginning. In my book I cite the 10 universally accepted moral competencies [decency, fairness, empathy, self-sacrifice, respect, loyalty, service, responsibility, honesty, and honor]. I don't think I've ever found a school district that would disagree with any one of them, and I don't see how a parent could.

And then on the home front, parents need to be spending more time on spiritual and moral discussions with their kids. They need to invest their kids in church, synagogue, mosque, or other spiritual communities. That would help a great deal. And parents simply have to spend more time with their kids - yes - but they also have to curtail their kids from doing things that don't develop their moral sense.

Most parents are really good parents.... They just need to spend a little more time with their kid, speak the right language, tell the right stories, and engage more. I think every parent's intuition is pretty good. The less isolated we are, the more human intuition will guide us to make the right choices.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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