How to Raise a Boy

I’m not sure what to think about what my dad tried to teach me. So what should I teach my sons?

How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.

Sometime around 1987, my father tried to teach me how to shoot a gun. It was a Winchester Model 37, 20-Gauge shotgun that had been in the family for years but had been encouraged to be unpacked from mothballs by a fellow electrician who had a son about to enter high school like me, and it was agreed upon by all that Bryan’s bookish son needed to learn to hunt.

I’d never seen my father hunt, he’d never talked about hunting, and I’d never seen a gun in the house before. But one day I came home from school, and Dad was home early, waiting for me with that gun. “Time for you to learn this,” he’d said.

We were both shivering; it was freezing in rural Mattoon, my tiny hometown in southern Illinois, closer to Kentucky than Chicago, but it wasn’t just that. Unsteady and unsure of himself, he loaded a bullet into the chamber and told me to aim somewhere deep into one of the endless cornfields that make up whole swathes of this country still, the sort of vast expanse that you can fire a rifle blindly into and not worry about hitting anything anyone would ever notice. I told him I did not want to. He nodded gently and said he knew that but I had to fire anyway. I wanted to make him happy, or least not make him mad, so I held the gun out in front of me, with dinosaur arms, put my finger on the trigger and, holding my breath and biting my lip so hard that my braces started to crank and ache, pulled it.

How should you raise a boy? For some time now, the urgency of the dilemma has seemed to ratchet up with every news cycle. Last month’s Parkland school shooting was just the most recent massacre committed by a young man filled with rage and resentment — and there have been multiple shootings since.

For generations, boys have been raised in environments that seemed designed to cultivate, and then sublimate, aggression, sometimes right up to the border of sociopathy. (We recoil at Fight Club, but it basically depicts the secret life of boys aged 8 to 14. Men are Tyler Durden spliced with Beavis.) But those masculine scripts seem especially problematic today: Trained by superhero movies, inspired by planet-straddling athlete-gods and tech tycoons more powerful than entire governments, boys are reared to tame their aggressions, then asked to navigate a bleak, winner-take-all economic landscape. Thanks in part to more enlightened attitudes about gender and parenting, it is hard not to see male entitlement and aggression as toxic forces degrading our culture. But it is also hard not to notice that the world is now run by the aggressive and the bullying.

It is also hard not to notice that, in many ways, and on average, boys are falling behind.

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