Celebrating Boys’ “Boyness”

As someone who is (a) the parent of both two boys and a girl and (b) consequently has become even more convinced the two sexes are definitely not the same, my eye naturally caught a headline yesterday that read “Celebrate Boys’ Boyness—and Work with It.”

I’ll mention at the outset that I need to think more about much of the “prescription” contained in the article, which comes from Margaret Wente in Canada’s Globe and Mail. I’m certainly not an expert in evaluating social science on this subject. But I did find a few paragraphs to be particularly resonating from the standpoint of a parent, pastor, and even more broadly, an observer of culture in general:

“Part of the boys’ crisis is that the culture doesn’t like them,” Mr. Adams says. Our culture is deeply uncertain about the value of masculinity, and even less sure about how to preserve and protect its positive elements while also encouraging boys to adopt more fluid gender roles.

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But, in the modern world, boys are often treated as a problem. The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening. Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.
This argument might make some sense – if you’re someone who believes that masculinity is nothing but a social construct. But people who care about real boys know that’s not true. They know you have to celebrate boys’ boyness – and work with it. Many boys’ schools are trying to do just that. 

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But schools can’t give them everything they need. Boys also need the company of men – men who will guide, instruct, esteem, respect and understand them. When asked about the happiest experience of their lives, boys often say it was the time they made something with their fathers. Their mothers matter, too – but, sometimes, there’s no substitute for Dad.

A few thoughts in response:

1.    First, I’ll note I don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak, between boys and girls. I’m a parent of both and grateful for it. And theologically speaking, both sexes share the dignity and value of being made in the image of God. To see this, we need look no further for this than the very first chapter of the Bible (see Genesis 1:26-28).

2.    That said, the same text also points to a real distinction between the sexes. “Male” is not equated with “female,” or vice versa.

3.    This argues that, not just parents, but also the church as a whole would do well to think carefully about what masculinity and femininity, as defined biblically, actually entails. No doubt that some of what our culture has historically ascribed to gender roles is just that: cultural (and therefore arbitrary, though also not necessarily good or bad at the end of the day). On the other hand, we do want to acknowledge and live in light of the way God has differentiated his male and female image bearers. This whole endeavor may not be easy to accomplish, but worthwhile things usually aren’t. (And on a personal note, this is certainly a subject I need to think more about.) 

4.    With the above in mind, I would agree with the article that our culture has become less friendly to boys and even to the idea that distinctively masculine characteristics and actions are good and healthy things. No doubt some would respond that the shoe is now justifiably on the other foot in regard to gender. But while we shouldn’t at all ignore historical inequities against women, that kind of thinking ignores the fundamental maxim that abuse does not preclude proper use. And further, if God has given a distinct character to the sexes, failing to nurture a proper masculinity will bear no better fruit than failing to nurture a genuine femininity. In either case, both our culture and church will suffer.

5.    One point remains intuitively clear. As the article suggests, boys need solid male influences in their lives, and particularly solid fathers whenever possible. For those of us that are fathers, this is surely a goal to pray toward: that by God’s grace, we’ll increasingly be the right kind of models and offer the right kind of encouragement to help our sons grow into the men God intends. But this should also be a priority for churches, to help reinforce that effort and even supply a need that may be lacking otherwise. After all, God is in the business of straightening what is bent, of fixing what is broken.  

Additional note: for an illuminating read on gender roles and influences in both society and the church, see chapter twelve of Nancy Pearcy’s, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).

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