Opinion: Boys in trouble


In South Africa in the 1990s, white rhinos were disappearing, being murdered not by human poachers but by young male elephants gone berserk.

The perpetrators, it turned out, were mostly orphaned, left fatherless by excessive herd culling in the Kruger National Park. The way to stem the violence was to restore populations of older, male elephants who could socialize the teens and teach them what it meant to be a pachyderm bull.

These thoughts occur to me in the wake of more school shootings and the rise of the #MeToo movement, extreme examples of men behaving badly. Amid the talk of guys, guns, power and privilege (all part of the deadly equation), less focus is on the crisis in masculinity, raising the question, where are the bull elephants in our society teaching our young boys manners, morals and what it means to be a gentleman?

Casting men in the role of perpetrators may be a self-fulfilling call if we fail to see how boys are also victims: three times more likely than girls to drop out of school, five times more likely to be labeled as hyperactive or special needs, four times more likely to commit suicide. Men aged 18-19 are 16 times more likely to be in prison, 20 percent less likely than their female cohorts to be entering a four-year college.

As a personal disclaimer, I was reared without any "bull elephant" in my life. My dad died when I was five, and my mom did a pretty terrific job of being both parent and provider. (Although as a woman of her generation, she worried excessively that, without a father figure, her two boys might grow up to be gay).

Stable families are necessary ingredients, but stability can take many forms.

What is the solution, then? The temptation is strong to apportion blame: entertainment and video gaming that glamorizes violence; the paucity of male role models, with the ultimate bad boy occupying the White House; the isolating effects of social media; a gun industry run amok. All probably bear some responsibility and need to be fixed.

But beyond tinkering with social reform, along with the need for more Big Brothers, Little League coaches, Scoutmasters and Sunday School teachers, men as a class need to ask themselves some hard questions about what makes us feel manly, where we derive our self-worth, what lessons (and mistaken messages) we absorbed about being tough, and what teachings about sexual prowess and mutuality we want to pass on to our sons and daughters.

There is a male dysfunction in our culture, not mentioned by the pharmaceutical industry, that no quick pill is going to fix.

Thoughts and prayers are indeed in order, not as a substitute for gun control, but in the form of close attention, support, guidance and encouragement for our boys and young men. They need all the help they can get.

And that's no bull.

The Rev. Gary Kowalski is co-minister at the Unitarian Congregation of Taos.