As part of the Practical Parenting column, I am re-running Susan’s Musings that had to do with parents and children. The “Little Yosef” of this column is now a fifteen-year-old young man who spent the last two weeks hauling water-sodden loads out of our flooded basement.
Little Yosef, age 6, is busy writing stories about fending off wolves and building log cabins. The Little House on the Prairie series and other books depicting the same period have stimulated his imagination.
His mother tells me that he is particularly taken with the idea that children not that much older than he is now might be left alone to do a daunting job and expected to cope with all contingencies that arose.
While I don’t believe his parents are even close to handing him a rifle and instructing him to protect the homestead, Yosef’s fascination with the concept of responsibility is a positive one. As the eldest of four children, he already has been initiated into the club of those who know that what they do matters to the family. If anything his mother, as an eldest sibling herself, is sensitive to not putting too great a load on his young shoulders.
Nevertheless, hearing this made me realize that it is not always easy to give boys the soul satisfaction they need for healthy growth, especially as they approach and live through their teen years. While it is not healthy for either boys or girls to feel that they are takers rather than givers, in other words, to be solely occupied with their own happiness, concerns, education, and friendships, I do think it is harder for boys to move beyond that. At the risk of provoking a firestorm, a girl who takes care of younger siblings and helps with meals and laundry while recognizing that these are not made up chores for her but actually are needed for the house to function, can feel rightly valued. A boy who takes care of the baby and chores is indeed making a needed contribution, but I don’t think it fills a psychic need. Boys need to face physical challenge and slay dragons. Just watch them seek danger and risk.
I’m not eager to see thirteen-year-olds return to the coal mine or fifteen-year-olds hauling cement rather than going to school. But with the implementation of child labor laws and the fear of litigation hovering over employees, in addition to urbanization, we have removed from teenage boys many opportunities to test themselves and their courage, strength, tenacity and resilience. Playing football may be hard work, but it cannot compare with knowing that the family is eating because of crops you harvested or a salary you earned doing construction work. Today’s rare prodigy is making big money creating a new iPhone app, but somehow I don’t see masses of boys doing so, and I doubt if the industry is being spurred by a realization of the family’s economic need.
As our society and schools become increasingly geared towards feminine predilections, encouraging Yosef and his fellow males to grow into healthy men becomes a more difficult and less easily resolved task. How do boys discover manliness with nary a wolf in sight, and too frequently not even a father or role model, to be seen?
Since I wrote this, I think the culture has moved even more to portraying boys as either bullies or feminized. If I was raising boys today, I would actively seek out older boys’ adventure stories. In general, I’m a fan of older books (though there are some excellent new ones as well).
If you have boys, I suggest taking a look at Farmer Boy in the Little House on the Prairie series. Check out Little Britches by Ralph Moody and if it goes over well, it is the first in a series of books. Girls will enjoy these books too, but it seems to me that there are more books available where girls are the protagonists and it is worth making the effort to find books that highlight boys. The recommended reading age for these books is 7 or 8-12, but you need to know your child. Especially when you are reading aloud to a child, which I heartily recommend, most younger children will enjoy books above their independent reading level.