BEYOND BROKEN BOYS
Contemporary culture has lost touch with its children, and as a result children are experienced as a proliferation of “problems.” The continuing stream of journalistic and analytic attention to perceived crises in children’s health, learning and viability intensifies rather than clears the fog. This is because the apparent attention is not really focused on children—that is, on individual beings with distinctive natures—but on the inconvenience, difficulty or threat children pose to civil order. To commerce children are a promising and readily manipulated market. To an educational complex dedicated to the maintenance of its established assumptions and protocols children present a collective bundle of under achievement, disabilities and behavioral management challenges. Medical and therapeutic establishments identify a bewildering profusion of new pathologies in children: rampant, lethal allergies, attention deficits and hyperactivity that must be treated with powerful psychoactive drugs. More and more children are reported to suffer from autism and Asperger’s syndrome, pathologies in which children appear unable to feel what others feel and to respond to them appropriately. Children are found to be profoundly susceptible to debilitating conditions formerly confined to adults, including addictions, severe depression, and suicide. Millions of children are lost to the world, transfixed before video or computer screens for most of their unassigned waking hours. Children give up their personal identities to groups and gangs. Children are in danger of being hurt or killed, of hurting and killing others.
In such a culture the remedies are as problematic as the pathologies and dysfunctions they set out to remediate. Parents obsessed over their children’s potential failure to gain impressive college admission pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for special tuition, test preparation, and college brokerage. They are called soccer moms and helicopter parents, providing and demanding too much of everything for children already overstocked with possessions and privileges and unnaturally buffered from developmentally necessary disappointments and losses. At the same time there are legions of “latch-key” children who are unstimulated, unsupervised and otherwise uncared for by working or otherwise preoccupied parents. As for pathology, suspicions mount that medicines are cause, not cure. Perhaps required inoculations cause autism. Perhaps antidepressants stimulate suicidal thinking. Perhaps the attention deficit prescriptions are medicating not a boyhood pathology but boyhood itself. Does a lack of scholastic rigor “leave children behind?” Or do we do children worse harm by hurrying them along? Is the school year long enough? Have we lost the pastoral ease and occasions for inventive play children experienced when school ended sooner and started later?
Not surprisingly, there are no satisfying answers to such questions, only mounting new concerns. This, again, is because these concerns are not really about children; they are about adult ease and unease. In this cultural climate the most urgent and compelling features of a child’s life will not be recognized or even seen. The problem of understanding a child’s experience is similar to the problem of understanding a prior historical period or a geographically remote people. We bring to the task the conceptual apparatus, language, and values we have acquired in our own time and circumstances. Without knowing it or even wanting to, our attempt to understand becomes little more than a reduction of the alien to the familiar, of their way to our way. Where reduction fails, we attribute the inassimilable material to inferior or primitive practice, or we simply fail to recognize certain features and practices at all. Thus it is with our attempts to understand children. This is not to say the enterprise is hopeless, just extremely difficult.
In order to understand and appreciate children, to love them and to help them make their imaginative and practical way, we must willfully suspend anything like certainty that we know what children are like and how they are supposed to think and behave. We must put aside, if not abandon outright, our most cherished notions of child development, of stages and phases. Our allegiance must be to children, not to conceptual models, tests, and norms. Even more important is a willingness to reconsider what constitutes data about children, especially if that term is regarded scientifically, as in measurable, replicable units of something or other. Pace social science, but reducing childhood experience to that kind of data contributes to the fog we are trying to dispel. Here one might well ask: what have we got then? This is what we’ve got. We have a loving disposition to actual, particular children, we have memory, and we have a treasure trove of stories. These are necessary but perhaps not sufficient conditions for understanding and appreciating children. There is also a biblical injunction to do something very basic and humbling—to become as little children. Perhaps the surrender of assumptions suggested above will, if it is a real surrender, amounts to the same thing.
Memory is crucial to accessing childhood, and memory is gendered. As a man, my consideration of childhood has taken me to boyhood where, in our era, all is far from well. Was it ever thus? No, it was not. Great and enduring stories remind us that boys once made rapt progress through beckoning worlds, worlds worth exploring, however perilous the way ahead. Memory, if we dare, will do the same.
Boy spirit is not understood through analysis but through witness. The first impression is more feeling tone than describable quality. We sense a spark, something infectious in boy’s urge to get up and out and away. He wants to move, to touch it, hold it, grab it, put it together, build it up, knock it down. He wants to make it move, get inside it, drive it, fly it away. He loves the look of it, the feel of it, the noise if it. He wants to take it outside, take you with him. He wants to show you, wants you to watch him. Maybe, for a minute, he wants you to help him. He wants to be amazed. He wants you to be amazed. He wants to run off, and he wants you to chase after him. He wants to get away, and he wants you to catch him. He wants to do it again.
He loves that you love him, and that is how he begins to love. In this he is irresistible. He is outraged but not cowed by meanness, neglect, and injury. He is neither aware of nor grateful for safety and comfort, but he thrives in them. Safety and comfort are the beginning of his understanding of home, of glad return. If he has been sufficiently loved and safe, if he knows home and loves home, he will play the hero and then one day possibly be a hero, a protector of loved ones, a savior of the city. He may also, even if he is safe and loved, play other parts. He may play villain or fool or rascal or wizard, but if he has been safe and loved, he will hold the hero above the rest.
He does not have to be taught place or how to feel about place. He is born prepared. His senses and his heart are keenly receptive to the print of places. Here you can serve. Take him outdoors, to parks, ponds, darkly canopied stands of trees, to stream beds studded with climbable rocks. Take him to the shore. Let him peer up into the faces of cliffs. From great heights let him gaze out over vast expanses. Hold him tight.
You cannot know and needn’t bother about the thousands of place impressions that he will treasure and store when he is alone: the swirl of the wall paper by the bed, the geometry of the dormered window, the pattern of tiles on the bathroom floor, the snow curled over the eaves, the creak of the stairs, the beckoning dark behind the furnace.
In pictures and in your travels, stand him in front of handsome structures: the classical court house, the cathedral, the castle, the imposing fortress. Let him behold the skyline of a great city .Tell him stories of great cities, great kingdoms. He already holds an intimation of such places and will store the images and stories in his deep knowing. He will go to animals, take their measure. Let him. Watch him watch them, squirrels, yard birds, rabbits, cats. Have a dog. Have two dogs.
Understand that he can lash out suddenly, that he can hit. Understand that he will throw things, drop things, break things on purpose. He can push. He can knock down. He can snatch what he knows is not his, hide and hoard it. He will press every boundary, and he will long to trespass. Understand these things. Feel them as he is feeling them. Remember feeling them. Then correct him. Then stop him. In time he may feel a helpless longing to set fires, to shoot, to stab, to pierce, to blow things up. You must acknowledge these urges, too, perhaps remember them. Then instruct and correct. When you must, stay his hand, tell him no.
As soon as he can, he will turn his imagination and longing to remote times. He is equally charmed by the deep past and the deep future. He seems always to have known that there was a time of dinosaurs. Dark forests and remote jungles are equally familiar. Just as readily he will extend himself into the future, outer space, worlds beyond worlds.
He will be drawn to the trappings and the clothes of prior eras: the knight’s armor, Robin Hood’s tunic and tights, the pirate’s buckled shoes, the tricorn hat, the cape, the sword, the bow and arrow, the chaps, the spurs, the six guns. These dreams will flow seamlessly into dreams of sport, of colossal work. He will be enchanted first by the uniforms and equipment, tools and vehicles. He will treasure, then scatter and forget hats, helmets, balls, mitts, clubs, bats, rods, reels, skis, goggles, fins. He will mount and ride anything that moves. He will quickly learn to steer but not to slow or stop. He does not love the big machines but wonders how to reduce them to his size.
He is responsive to music, even when he seems oblivious. He can feel music carrying him. He will mouth the words without regard to their sense but feeling their attitude. In music he will sense crisis, sweetness, danger, love’s longing and its loss. He will rise at once to making music, to the instruments, their burnished wood and gleaming brass, the thrilling complexity of stops and valves and felts and hammers. He moves at once to percussion.
He will enter stories earlier than you think, even as he fidgets, looks, away, squirms off your lap. You must understand he enters the story long before he follows its sense.
He enters the characters and the creatures. He enters the colors and the shapes. He is able to make them pulse with his own feeling. Show him, read him, tell him stories. When he has sufficient language to follow a story’s sense, some stories will hold him fast, confirm him. Grimm tales of abandoned or imperiled children who make their way will do this almost certainly. Stories of the destined, miraculous birth will do this, stories of Moses in the bull rushes, Romulus and Remus, Jesus in the manger. Do not interpret or explain his stories. Do not tell him the moral of stories. He has already gone deeper than that. He has lived in those stories, and there is every chance that he will go on telling the story because it is now the story of himself.
He enters stories before he reads. Reading does not unlock stories or open them up. Reading is only the medium for accessing stories in texts. Reading, even facile reading, can deaden stories, even as the reader is carried along in the act. The effort and awareness of reading will begin to form a barrier, distancing the boy from the world in the story, so that in time he will be able to say and begin even to believe that it is only a story.
A boy’s experience of other people, of his parents, siblings, adults and other children compose his first stories. Before he enters texts, he enters them. He does not come to know them as he learns their names and qualities. He enters into them, absorbs them before he names and categorizes them. In this he is utterly indiscriminate. If he is safe and loved, he will enter, know, and love others eagerly. He will observe, he will wait before touching, before imposing. He will play along side, listening, watching. Then he will risk offering a gesture, an exchange. He will follow or he will lead. He will do what the others are doing. He will play. He plays long before he is “taught” to play; he is not taught to play.
Boys who are loved and safe, boys who are witnessed rather than guided and shaped, are neither fearful nor fearsome. Such boys enter an open world, a story with all the elements, including loss, danger, evil, and death. In an era when boys, at least some boys, were loved and safer, there was no harm in martial play, in stories of boy orphans, boys kidnapped, boys taken up into a band of child thieves. In that era there was no harm in fantasies and cartoons of edgy cats alternately pursuing and fleeing mischievous mice or canaries. There was a zest, a lilt to the breakneck pursuit of predator and prey, heads flattened with frying pans, falls from cliffs, spectacular electrocutions. In that world the hapless and foolish sufferers always recovered and resumed the chase.
By contrast, in a culture in which children are really neither safe nor loved, where they are shaped and guided and lavishly provided for but insufficiently witnessed, danger lies everywhere. It lies in the coloring of apples. It lies in peanuts and in bees. It lies in fiber glass and household cleansers. It lies in competitive sports, in hurtful toddler games like musical chairs, in sadistic playground games like dodge ball. It lies in animal fat, in milk, in new strains of bacteria, in viruses, in the medicines devised to treat the viruses. If children ride their bikes down the street on an errand, they may be abducted and disappear. Pedophilic predators arise in profusion, insinuating themselves into children’s chat rooms, their vans idling just outside the school yard. Teachers and coaches and counselors are pedophiles. Scout leaders are pedophiles. Priests and rabbis and congressmen are pedophiles. There is no end to the succession of new child pathologies and syndromes and disabilities. Desperate efforts to shield children from threats on so many fronts give rise to monstrous parental excesses, resulting in new pathologies and syndromes. The ambient mood in such a world is terror. It is an age of terror.
One cannot—and should not!—say with certainty how the world will look, how conditions will improve, what fears will be dispelled and what errors will be corrected once we regain an understanding and appreciation of children. To do so would be to set up as if one had figured it out, drawn closure, adjusted the engine, patched up the infrastructure. That is the last thing children need.
Whether born of arrogance or desperation, the assumption of certain knowledge about children and what is good for them is the heart of the problem. There is no such certainty, no such knowledge. Every boy, if he is safe and loved, is a work in progress. If he is lovingly and appreciatively witnessed, he is very likely to emerge a surprise, possibly a pleasant surprise, perhaps the last thing you expected. Hedged in by knowing expectations of what he is like, of how and what and how fast he should learn, of how he should behave, whom he should love, and what kind of work he should do, he will refuse in the now familiar ways: he will draw inward, act out crazily, rebel, get sick.
Because we cannot nurture viable children with certainties does not mean we cannot nurture them. It is disposition, not certainty that is required. The basic dispositions have already been named: the disposition to love, to appreciate, to witness. When these dispositions are central and uncompromised, they are more than capable of resisting seemingly enormous cultural pressures to nurture and school children otherwise. Rightly disposed parents, joining will to instinct, have always done this, but because this disposition is by its nature unformulaic and fluid, there has been no movement or theory or school to carry it forth.
The first condition sought by the loving parental disposition is safety, and this cannot be overemphasized. Abraham Maslow rightly put a child’s safety at the foundation of any possible future realization. This is real safety, the soul’s apprehension of safety. It cannot be materially produced. It cannot be abstracted to suburban or rural refuges. It certainly cannot be gated. No privilege can buy it. A child can be safe and loved in a tenement or in a trailer park. Children who live in unworldly opulence, with every toy and diversion, can and do live in hellish anxiety and fear. For many western children unworldly opulence has become normative, generating its own stream of anxiety, the anxiety of not getting it, of not having it yet, of losing it. It is harder than almost any idealist imagines to shake compulsive acquisitiveness in a culture predominantly dedicated to material acquisition. In that culture, so fundamentally lacking in real safety, acquisition holds out the desperate promise, a promise never fulfilled. Children who sense their parents’ desperation in this regard become doubly so.
If a loving disposition can rise to resist crippling, dead-end acquisitiveness, it can also stand guard against and resolutely refuse to practice what the angry Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing called psychic robbery. Psychic robbery is the practice of substituting one’s own desires for what a child is thinking and feeling. Psychic robbery occurs in seemingly benign ways, as when a child declares, “I hate broccoli,” and a parent responds, “You don’t hate broccoli.” It also occurs—normatively—when children express their darkest and most intense feelings: “I hate baby,” “I want to kill you.” When parents and other nurturers answer “no you don’t,” “you don’t feel that way,” the child is not reassured; he is made anxious and hurried into despair, because the truth has not been acknowledged.
Psychic robbery is exponentially worse than disagreement. A child’s dark or challenging declaration can be met with sheer witness, with questions, with consolation, or with objection, but if it is met with a knowing, manipulative, or perhaps angry insistence that his feeling is not felt, that what was actually felt is an alien mental state, that is the beginning of a child’s profoundest anxiety and despair. The child is easily cowed into verbal denials and recantations, but the underlying and now inaccessible interior condition is deepening anxiety and despair. To deny and replace any true mental state felt or declared by a child is in effect to negate him, to cut him off from connectedness to others, to undermine his safety. Children detached in this way do not forsake the dark or unwanted sentiment. To the contrary, because the sentiment has been unwitnessed and unmet, it will become a fixation. Only in a detached, unreachable condition can a child live on in a world of psychic robbers. He will not relate to or find himself in seemingly well-intentioned but actually frightened classrooms and school curricula where the dark thought is unutterable on pain of expulsion, where it cannot be found in the assigned texts or even in the libraries, where organized exercises to identify and express “feelings” are highly manipulative, transparent attempts to lighten and sweeten the real thing, not to open it up, but to seal it off. There is ultimately no denying the darkness. Psychic robbery is both a selfish and futile practice. It is generated by a fearful disposition, not a loving one. The culture in which psychic robbery is normative will find itself overwhelmed by the very terror it refuses to witness in children.
I hope by now it is understood that all of this is offered out of a particular disposition, not out of certainty. This is not to say that disposition is weak or somehow inferior to certainty. Love and appreciation of children can infuse disposition with great strength and clarity—but again, not certainty. Beware of certainty, of the need for certainty. Certainty can only close off and cut short the continuous process of our understanding. Forsaking certainty does not mean you cannot know things. Knowing is not confined by certainty. It is possible to know, for instance, that the pursuit of certainty is futile, that the assumption of certainty does not satisfy.
All of so-called “self-help” is driven by the illusion of certainty: that some sage or therapist knows for certain why what’s wrong is wrong and how to make it right. Like addicts on the prowl for a fix their enfeebled forebrains know full well will not permanently satisfy, like unlucky gamblers emptying their wallets to place yet another bet, like school girls prowling the malls for yet another tank top or lip gloss, strangely aware that these items will not transform or satisfy them any more than any of their prior purchases, the self-helpless continue to kneel at the alters of certainty.
It is by no means certain but perhaps very promising that in addition to a loving disposition to children, certain pathways ahead beckon brightly—in fact, have always beckoned brightly. Again, my experience limits me here to the experience of boys.
I believe boys can thrive. In the past some have thrived. We have their stories. Loved and safe as they begin, boys have and perhaps can again make their way vigorously through experiences both enlivening and self-affirmingly great. In this condition their lives unfold as in a story. The first is the story of boyhood itself, the limitless exuberance and danger and wonder of the puer-spirit, the puer-spirit played out in every way, in every place, with whatever kind of gear, and with whatever companions happen to be at hand.
The boyhood story is busy and charged with movement, but there is no forward motion. Forward motion begins in another story, the story of a passionate quest. This is a love story. The boy is taken up, consumed in, enchanted by someone beloved, someone perfectly good, perfectly beautiful. The nearer he gets to the beloved, the deeper the communion, the more vaulting the love. There is no end to this, but even as the lover feels and seems to have it, it is at risk, it is elusive, it is gone. There must be a quest to regain this. Its allure is at the same time utterly chaste, deeply sexual and holy. The quest is for something like the legendary grail or a magic ring. It is for somebody like Dante’s Beatrice or Romeo’s Juliet. There is no certain end to this quest. There is every peril and obstacle. The quest could fail, could end in disappointment or even death. The very sadness of that prospect intensifies the beauty of the condition. The great boy does not care. He wants only to try. He wants to be consumed in the trying.
There is another boy’s story, perhaps the final story. This is the story of saving the city. The very best of cities has enemies within, enemies without. The great boy realizes early on and will continue to realize through the course of his life that the city, like his loving parents, has been his playground, his school, his home and his safe return. He has always loved his city, and even as he quested far from home, he realizes that without the city he could not have been. His happiness and all of his beloved could not have been.
His love helps him to see that the city is in peril and he musk risk everything, face every danger to save it. Saving the city is now the quest. It will require every thing he has mastered and understood. He will not, or not for long, attempt political reforms. He will not fall back on reasons and arguments. He is driven by no vision of clean streets, prosperous commerce, or civic conduct. He will of course create or preserve order, but he wants to save to soul of the city, its vitality, its loving disposition. We cannot of course know exactly how this new order will be constituted. It will be the kind of order a spirited boy who wants to save the city would create. It would be an order good for spirited boys. It might be the salvation of all of us, although nobody can say for certain.