how to raise a boy

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?

From the series “Consolation,” by photographer Achim Lippoth, an examination of family life and emotional moments within families. Photo: Achim Lippoth
From the series “Consolation,” by photographer Achim Lippoth, an examination of family life and emotional moments within families. Photo: Achim Lippoth
From the series “Consolation,” by photographer Achim Lippoth, an examination of family life and emotional moments within families. Photo: Achim Lippoth

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.

The kickback was so powerful and immediate that it sent the weapon flying behind me, but what I most remember was the sound. The whole world screamed blinding white; I didn’t even hear my father scramble behind me to pick the rifle off the ground. He was ashen — plainly terrified, even though nothing that bad had actually happened. I must have looked stricken, too, because he put his arm around me and, for one of the few times I can remember, apologized. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “I know you didn’t want to, but I thought it was something that a man was supposed to do. It wasn’t.” He smiled. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to do that either.”

At least I think this is what he said: My ears were still screaming. Neither one of us ever fired a gun again.

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.

Girls are getting better grades in school than boys, women are graduating from college at higher rates than men and slowly (too slowly, but still) taking over in the boardroom, thanks in large part to the famed “Quiet Revolution” of the last 30 years. That transformed landscape is part of what led the country to properly recognize, for the first time, the problems of sexual harassment and assault, and then to the revelation that much of the country’s still-male powers-that-be were guilty of one, or the other, or both. There is a male chauvinist and part-time white supremacist in the White House, but at some basic level that came to pass in part because both groups came out in droves to vote feeling themselves pushed into retreat.

Which they are, in a way. The country was once set up solely for the benefit of dudes like me. Now, it is merely mostly set up that way. In a generation, maybe we’ll hit slightly. For essentially all of human history, science fiction writer John Scalzi has memorably written, if you have been born a straight white male, it is as if you are playing a computer game called “The Real World” with the difficulty set on the lowest level. As children, we have not had parents setting us aside to tell us the dangers of walking down the street alone at night, or being pulled over by a police officer, or heading to a party with alcohol and strangers. We are told the opposite, in fact. We have been encouraged, almost demanded, to be aggressive — to assert, yes, our privilege. We are told, in more innocent, even helpful terms, that we belong everywhere. We are expected to see what we want and to grab it.

The thing is, as we know, we do not live in a context-less world; this is a zero-sum game. And that aggressiveness and entitlement — the positive advice to children to be whatever they want, weaponized over the generations — has to come at a cost, someone else’s cost. The power white American boys have been taught to seize for generations comes from the already powerless, women, people of color, everyone who isn’t us.

Which is why, in a macro sense, the lessening power of men (straight and white particularly) is an unquestioned societal good. When others rise, we must fall. It will be good not just in a moral sense, but a practical one. As a patriotic American who believes our country is a better place when all have an equal chance, and who believes it is time for the historical ledger to be balanced, this is what I want for the future.

The only thing is: There are two little future white men who live in my house, and I love them very much.

Thirty years after I fired a gun for the last time, I now live in Athens, Georgia, with my wife and my two sons: William, who is six, and Wynn, who will be four in June. We moved here from New York City, where I lived for 13 years, almost five years ago. We left for all the reasons that many young families leave New York City: expense, schools, desire for more comfort and space elsewhere, the undeniable pull toward home, or somewhere like home, that one would expect from two people who’d never visited the city until they moved there as twentysomething dreamers.

But mostly we are here to raise our boys. Athens is a place where our boys can be boys, where they run around like idiots, where they can play Little League baseball, where they can ride bicycles down empty streets not realizing that we’ve taken our hand off the seat and they’re actually pedaling on their own. They can stretch their arms, they can run around like crazy, they can make stupid mistakes without hurting that many people. They can … be aggressive, snot-nosed, messy little boys.

Because I do want my boys to be boys too, and all that comes with that. They are brothers, and around the same age, which means there is punching and wrestling and aggression and everything you’d expect from little boys. I recognize that this is playing with the idea of gender normativity, exactly the sort of thing that the last ten years of culture progression has helped Midwestern farmboy straight idiots like me better understand, but I also am not going to try to stop my two sons from doing normal boy activities because I’m trying to prove some sort of post-graduate thesis. There are things that I think I’m supposed to show them, like my father with that rifle, that I don’t necessarily agree with but don’t want to stand in the way of. What do I know, you know? Every parent is only pretending that he or she has any real answers.

Like any parent, I would do anything for my children, and like any parent, and especially like my parents and many of their generation and the one before, I want them to have a better life than I did. My father taught me that if I worked hard and went to college — unlike him, and unlike any of his seven brothers and sisters — I wouldn’t have to build houses and fix downed power lines for a living: I’d “use your brain,” as he put it. (It wasn’t until I got older that I discovered his living was a far more honest one than mine.) He believed that I could have that life if I worked hard and studied hard. He saw my life as a way to improve on his, like his father, who laid asphalt for a living, did for him and his brothers. This is the way we have always thought it would work. This was the way we were all told it would work.

It’s certainly the way I’ve always tried to run my life. As you can surely tell having made it this far into this piece, I am not the world’s greatest writer. I recognized this long before you, I assure you, and my strategy to survive in this terrifying and constantly imploding world of media has been simply to outwork everyone. I never turn down an assignment, no matter how much or little it pays. I never miss a deadline, not even by a day. In a field where many consider themselves moody artistes, I take a workmanlike approach: It’s my job to type words and shut up about it. This is taking a cue from my electrician father and my nurse mother. There is nothing special about writing, it’s just a job, so do it, do it fast, do it well and then move onto the next patient. It is the only way I know how to succeed in this field, and frankly, I’m not even sure how much longer it can work.

But this lesson of self-reliance is not only an illusion, it brings with it its own privilege. I can tell myself that any “success” I’ve had has been because of “hard work” and “perseverance,” but I’m kidding myself. I’m a middle-class white kid who was encouraged to go his own way, to be his own person, in a way nobody even bothered to question; being America’s default on the form meant I was never expected to stand in or up for anything other than myself. Sure, I could barely pay my rent for a half-decade trying to find my way in the world; get in line, pal. I can tell my children that I broke through by putting my head down and working hard, in hopes that they’ll follow my example and be diligent and persistent themselves … but that isn’t even close to the whole story.

And yet, I do want my kids to work hard — to be diligent, and persistent, to take the opportunities that present themselves. Letting that aggression run free, to run too unchecked, plays into the same instincts that give us male supremacy in the first place — this I know. It’s hard not to worry about how “boys will be boys” leads to “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Whatever you want.” (Also known as: How do you make sure your boys don’t turn into assholes when the president is an asshole?) Which is why it’s so important to talk about that hard stuff, with our kids: talking about consent, and gender identity, and power dynamics.

But the flip side still itches at me a bit, too. Persistence, opportunism, even a bit of youthful, unearned cockiness — if I’m honest, I owe a lot to these things. Do they really have no value for my sons?

Last year, my wife and I met with my son’s teacher for a parent-teacher conference. He was only in pre-K, so there’s only so much useful information such a meeting can bring out: Unless he’s stabbing kittens in the back of the room, it’s a little early to start drawing a bunch of conclusions from his behavior. He was five: It’d be okay with me if he were spending most of his days picking his nose and eating grass.

The teacher, though, had plenty to say, and much of it was full of the sort of details every parent dreams of hearing. William was one of her brightest students, reading at a third-grade level already, and he’s diligent and patient and “picks the right friends.” The only struggle she’d had with him was keeping him challenged: “He’s so far ahead of almost everybody else that I sometimes worry he’s bored.” She said he’s personable and friendly; “when you think of what you would want a kid in your class to act like, it would be William.” It was around now that I started tapping my foot uneasily and looking warily around the room. Something about this felt vaguely wrong in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, and what she said next said cinched it for me: “He’s just the golden boy.”

Is he? Or does he just look the part? What makes my kid so special? Oh, and: What kind of jerk am I for questioning such a lovely compliment about my own child?

But how am I supposed to feel about my children’s success when I know, deep down, in my heart of hearts, that the world around them would be a better place if more children like them won fewer of the spoils? Am I a jerk for cheering for them? Would I be a jerk if I didn’t? I want equality, and a fair playing field, and more opportunities for people who haven’t had them in centuries past. But I’ll be damned if I want my kids to fail. Who in the world wants their kids to step aside? I want my kids to become co-presidents of Mars: I want them to invent cold fusion; I want them to learn to fly. I want them to believe they can do everything. Isn’t that, in its own way, entitling them?

We left the school and my wife and I argued about this for a little bit while William ignored us, reading a sports magazine and then asking if we could stop for ice cream. We did, of course.

The day of the election, my wife took my son with her to work. They were both wearing their “I Voted” stickers, and a gay man my wife works with, celebrating, asked William who he voted for. William smiled and yelled, “Hillary!” and the man started crying and William frowned and tried to cheer him up before he realized he wasn’t actually sad.

Election Night was harrowing, and, somehow, remains just as much more than a year later. What was supposed to be a midnight glass of Champagne to toast our first woman president and a restful, satisfied night’s sleep turned into an evening of terror and fear — a silent, jaw-agape stare at the television until dawn. The day before, I’d gone to lunch at a local sandwich joint, and the women-owned business was hopping, with the staff wearing “We’re With Her” T-shirts and showing off their “I Voted” stickers while Katy Perry played over the loudspeakers. There was a time that some felt Georgia, with its increasingly well-educated and ethnic population, could end up in Hillary Clinton’s column. That lunch, only about 13 hours earlier, felt like it had taken place decades ago. The world felt different, scarier … meaner.

My wife and I, like many parents, felt we needed to say something to our children the next morning. But what do you say to a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old who only knew Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as television people, an orange man and a yellow woman yelling at each other? We sat William down and explained that he needed to be good to people, that he needed to be kind, and patient, and gentle. Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated. What else could we say? “It’s your job to be nice,” we told him, faces tired and sunken and beaten. “Can you be nice? Do you promise?” William popped the rest of a banana in his mouth, mumbled “sure!” and grabbed his book bag. Then we watched him bound into his school, my blond beautiful son with his nice clothes and devil-may-care attitude, happy, unaware, confident — bounding like the world was owed to him. I looked at my wife. We were both shivering.

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*A version of this article appears in the March 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What Should I Teach My Sons?