THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS—And the Death of Childhood
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
In Irving, Texas recently, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohammed brought a homemade clock to school to show his science teacher. Paranoid school officials somehow hit the panic button, concluding that the clock was a bomb. Police were called, and young Ahmed was handcuffed, arrested and taken to headquarters for interrogation. Ahmed is an inventive boy, who enjoys experimenting. He has built a radio and repaired his father’s computer and car. And yet, he was accused of being a Muslim terrorist.
There are multiple outrages in this sorry tale of hysterical school administrators and bullish local cops. Overlooking for a moment, if we dare, the glaring ethic and religious bias, Ahmed was punished for being a boy.
Many boys like to do things like build radios and clocks, to tinker and fix things. Compasses, maps, camping gear, secret signals and codes, slingshots and bows and arrows fascinated me when I was young. When my dad was a boy, he built a crystal radio set. Today, such pursuits might earn us a session with the Gestapo.
Adolescent girls confront manifold traumas as they navigate through the sexist, appearance-obsessed society of contemporary America. Dr. Mary Pipher’s 1994 book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls plumbs those dark depths. And yet, boys are more likely than girls to die in auto crashes, spend time in jail or prison, become addicted to narcotics, drop out of school and commit suicide. It is more challenging to be a boy today than ever before; the rampant drug culture and the advent of cyber-bullying present challenges unheard of in days past.
This summer while working as a ranger on an island in Lake Erie, I picked up a book in the visitor center that struck my fancy, Conn Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys. I wish I had had it when I was a boy.
Among its 84 entries are: How to build a tree house, how to build a bow and arrow, secret codes and ciphers, the Navaho Code Talkers Dictionary, but also famous battles, dog tricks, star maps, poems and Latin phrases every boy should know, sample quotes from Shakespeare and advice about girls.
There is even a section on “Essential Gear,” stuff that boys in my day considered necessary, like a compass, magnifying glass, matches, band-aids and a Swiss Army Knife. The book reminds me of those wonderful Straight Arrow “Injun-uity” cards, filled with useful wilderness and survival skills that I collected religiously from boxes of Nabisco Shredded Wheat when I was a boy.
Boys will be boys, if they are permitted to be, but the cards of the educational/psychological/pharmaceutical monolith are stacked against them. If boys were docile, even apathetic, people pleasers, life would be more convenient for parents and teachers. That is not the nature of most boys. Boys tend to crave adventure.
In my 36 years in the classroom, I had many male students who were diagnosed with a variety of behavioral disorders that miraculously didn’t seem to exist when I was a boy. Perhaps we do a better job of diagnosis now or, perhaps not. While corporal punishment of disorderly boys is now considered abuse, the infliction of brain chemical altering medications, with a long list of horrifying possible side effects, is socially acceptable. The profit motive lurks behind such prescriptions. “Follow the money. It’s all about the money,” as the serpentine Brian Gecko says in the film Wall Street.
In my experience, most boys identified as suffering from such disorders were more likely to be emotionally crippled by a helicopter parent poised precariously on the verge of Munchhausen by Proxy Syndrome.
Childhood has taken its hits during the course of my life. All activities are now directed by adults, leaving no time for play, make believe, problem solving, critical thinking. Children are shoved into school earlier and earlier, a convenience for parents living lives of quiet desperation in a two- income economy.
While acculturation and socialization are essential aspects of elementary education, the lockstep conformity of school and playground somehow manages to weaken and even erase the curiosity, creativity, spontaneity and zest for life that characterizes early childhood. Boys need shorter, not longer, school days and fewer, not more, days in the school year. Boys need time to construct tree houses and lean-tos, build campfires, swing on grapevines and fantasize about great adventures.
With his mischievous characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Mark Twain exhibits a deeper understanding of boyhood than do the mindless wonks in distant bureaus with their charts and graphs, hopelessly floundering in the aftermath of the abomination known as “No Child Left Behind (Untested).”
I cherish the memories of long school-free summer months spent fishing and exploring, digging trenches across sand bars and declaring the new “island” a secessionist province, damming small streams to create waterfalls.
Today, I would probably be medicated into a compliant, vegetative state by a combination of muddle-headed school administrators and well-meaning but naïve parents. I cringe at the thought.
Boys in our culture desperately need help but not the same kind of help that girls do. As a start, I wish that every boy could own a copy of Iggulden’s book, The Dangerous Book for Boys.