We men must love our boys.
Subject: Mentors (Analysis)
Domestic relations (Analysis)
Author: Groth, Miles
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Journal of Men's Health Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1532-6306
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 10 Source Issue: 1
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 262787301
Full Text: Men are called on to step forward to mentor boys and young men whenever possible, but especially in situations where boys are in households where there is no father. The weakening of the nuclear family is in large part due to the absent father in the generations since Worm War H. The social institution that will replace the traditional nuclear family will likely depend on such mentoring relationships. Both the institution and nature of the relationship are being created in a time of rapid social change. It is argued that mentors as fathering figures will be important for the well-being of both boys and girls, women and men in the 21st century, but that boys are in an especially precarious situation. Originally given as an address at the biannual gathering of men at Newcastle University in Australia in 2009, the text singles out the words of the title as starting points for reflection on the importance of mentoring relationships between men and boys throughout the West.

Keywords: boys, boyhood, men, fathering, sonhood, mentoring, intergenerational relationships


We men must love our boys. I want to say a little about each of these six words and suggest how we can be men who are allies with our boys in a world where fathers are not honored as they once were and the importance of men mentoring boys has been compromised or forgotten. Let me take the words one by one.

I. We ...

I am addressing everyone here today--men and women--but I will stress the importance of men--we men--in the lives of boys.

Only a female (so far) can grow a male fetus in her (or another female's) uterus, but it takes a male (that is, his sperm) to ignite the process. We might affirm that a male then has a certain responsibility for the son (or daughter) he engenders, that now, more than ever, it cannot be a matter of hit and run--unless we are in the world of sperm donation. Yet, as I speak, many a tiny male is being born who will not know who his father is and may never meet him. This has consequences. A woman can care for and nurture an infant male--and she does it better it seems than any man can--but it takes a man to create a son. Recall the famous passage from Homer's Iliad: "and raising his son [Hector, the boy's father] kissed him, lifting a prayer to Zeus" [VI, 474-475]. The gesture symbolizes bringing a son into the world by acknowledging the boy as his own. The little creature is now no longer only an infant male--a boy--but also a son.

Can another male do this--someone other than the procreative father? Yes. In some cultures it is standard practice. And this is crucial to what I have to say today. Increasingly, we men have to be prepared to stand in for the natural father, for example, when there is divorce and the father is not permitted to be with his offspring, or when he is ill or in prison, or when he is away at war--or does not return home from war. We men--grandfathers, uncles, brothers, elders, priests, male teachers, male mentors--we are obligated to be prepared to do what only a father can do if a boy needs us.

It is important to add at this point my observation that it is in his relationship with his father that a boy's outlook on and way of loving others is established. Let me explain briefly. A male infant learns from his mother that he is lovable. It is thought that male (or female) infants return mother-love with love, when what they express, in fact, is gratitude--not love. On the other hand, a boy first learns how to initiate love with someone in his relationship with his father. He also now learns what it means to be loved in return, of requited love in this relationship. He is now loved, not unconditionally, as was the case with his mother, but conditionally--conditional on his act of loving in a relationship in which he has first initiated the love.

His first opportunity to do this occurs in boyhood and for the purposes of identifying with the father, the person he wants to be like. Much depends on whether he has been made into a son and much that follows depends on this. Freud--who had a very troubled relationship with own father--left this out of his theory. He could see only the rivalry that occurs between father and son.

Without hesitation and without thinking about it, a father will love his son in return-unless the situation is chaotic and he is not there emotionally, or he has gone away. The father's response is critical. If he does not love his son in return, the boy's bridge from boyhood to manhood cannot be built. Since for a boy, his father is the model of all men, his attitude toward other men will depend on what his father does in this situation. I would add here my belief that a man's feelings of love for a woman are modeled on this way of relating. Perhaps all active initiation of affection for others by a male is modeled on his way of loving his father. None of this, I maintain, has changed in an era of fractured families, the promotion of single-parent "families," the promotion of same-sex "parents." These social changes have highlighted deep-lying prototypes of experience that are still very much in play in our bodies and psyches. We cannot controvert thousands of years of collective, embodied experience with a few decades of socio-political innovation.

II. The second word is 'men.'

Having become a son, a young male has the prospect of becoming a man. As you see, I make a distinction between being a son and being a boy. Sonhood, which only a father can confer (as in Hector's gesture), seems to be the bridge from boyhood to manhood. Boyhood raises the question of a male's provenance. Sonhood is about his destiny. When fathers disappear, mentors become necessary as substitute providers of the bridge of we call sonhood.

There are two problems here. There is the question of whether a young male can become a son in the absence of his "paternal father," the male who procreated him. Luiji Zoja thinks it is not possible. We have, then, a society of male orphans. I am more optimistic and concern myself with the problem of how boys who are no one's sons can become men.

At this point, I wish I could say that the words 'men' and 'mentor' had a common origin--that the root of the word 'mentor' was 'men'--but it isn't. Even so, it sounds as though it should be.

The first mentor, you will recall, was a man called Mentor, a figure in Homer's Odyssey. There are wonderful contemporary examples of men mentoring boys and they are here in this audience and in this city. I am thinking of a program called "The Rite Way," which is the work of Andrew Lines and Graham Gallasch, two teachers who are based at schools near Adelaide, and the "Boys to Fine Men Program" of the Family Action Centre managed by Richard Fletcher, Deborah Hartman and Judi Gegge here at the University of Newcastle. Many men will be called on to mentor boys in the years ahead.

We men--we mentors--will be increasingly important--even crucial--at a time when single-parent households are becoming more common and will usually be headed by the boy's mother.

III. The third word in my title is 'must', the first of three four-letter words--powerful words--in the title of my talk.

This word suggests there is something imperative about all this--that we men must do something for boys. During the last few decades valuable insights and gains have been credited to women and men working on behalf of girls. Girls still have problems to be attended to--there's no doubt about that--and there are many good people working on the behalf of girls. At the same time, new unexpected problems have arisen for girls related to those very gains. During this period, boys were thought to be safe and in a good position, as (we thought) they had been for as along as anyone could remember. They did not require our attention. Things were status quo for them. Recently, however--roughly during the past decade and a half--in Australia, the UK, Canada, Europe, and the US--the public has heard reports based on quantitative studies which include shocking statistics, and qualitative studies--accounts of boys' lives as reported in the news media, as portrayed in mainstream television and cinema, and as "spoken" of by boys in their actions. As we now know, far from keeping pace with earlier generations of boys and with girls, our boys have lost ground.

You are all familiar with the statistics and trends. They are readily available. They have to do with boys failing at school, suddenly becoming aggressive in shocking and grisly ways (the infamous shooting sprees in US public schools, for example), or turning away from social life in general and retracting inward. In Japan, there is the phenomenon known as hikikimori, which is seen almost exclusively in boys. About one out of five boys there have withdrawn from all social contacts. They stay at home for months on end, never leaving their bedroom. Here I am reminded of boys in the US who sit in their rooms alone, absorbed by their computers and video games which they play at for hours on end as daytime and nighttime blur.

Then there are the many boys diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Annually, millions of doses of stimulant drugs are given to these boys, even though not one study has been published that supports the efficacy of treating this "disorder" with drugs and no causes for the "disorder" have been established by medical doctors or psychologists. None.

In the US, overall the numbers of boys and girls entering college are increasing because a college degree (with or without an education) is required for more and more entry-level jobs, but the disproportion of boys to girls who matriculate has been widening since about 1981. In the US, the national average is now 39 percent boys attending a college or university. At the small, private liberal arts college where I teach, we now officially enroll 35 percent boys. And even if they enter higher education, boys leave before graduating at higher rates than girls do. That means fewer can go on to enter and complete graduate school to become qualified to open a practice in one of the learned professions or sit for a licensing examination to work in a field such as teaching.

The number of men now teaching in elementary schools is very small and is expected to decrease. In some schools in Canada and the US, a boy will not have a male teacher until he enters high school. As fewer men earn the PhD, in a few decades there will be few male university professors. I won't be here in more ways than one.

The urgency of "we men must ..." follows from what these trends indicate. We cannot expect the trends to change on their own. Both men and women will have to act on behalf of our boys, but it is especially important that we men take the lead here.

We men have a responsibility to improve our boys' lives--the lives of our sons, the boys our daughters will date and might marry. It is an imperative, a must, especially for those of us men who have been educated to care about our boys--men like you who gather as this group does every other year.

IV. The fourth word is 'love'. Love is also a four-letter word.

It is the most important word among the six. When I spoke on boyhood in Montreal in 2009, I asked the group who attended my session a series of questions. I conducted an impromptu survey: "How many of you like boys?" Tentatively, hands went up. It was at the start of the session and that is fairly standard behavior for people who do not know each other or why a survey is being taken. So I added: "By 'like' I mean appreciate and enjoy boys--how they act, what they do--keeping in mind that some boys are athletic, others are bookish and quiet, some are well-behaved and smell good, others mangle small animals and sweat a lot and will not comb their hair." Some in the audience were probably thinking: "Well, I may love my son, but I'm not sure that I like him--or most of his same-age male friends." I moved on. "A second question: How many of you love boys?" This was addressed to everyone--some young, some older, some women, some men, some parents, some not parents. One man shouted out, seemingly surprised by the question: "Of course! I love my son!"

I might repeat that exercise here or I might get a grant to canvass a cross-section of a population, American or Australian--identified by age, sex, income, and race. I would predict that the answer to my first question ("Do you like boys?") would for the most part be--"No, not really." Boys generally have a bad reputation. For me, this would be disheartening, since I like boys. For 35 years, I have taught and treated hundreds of them from age 10 to 25., and more recently advocated on their behalf. They fascinate me. I like their kineticism, their liveliness, their fascination with trying new things, their unpredictability. I see these characteristics as components of curiosity, the desire to explore, and creativity. But, oddly enough, many Western men (and women) are highly ambivalent about boys--much more so than about girls. Boys are said to be scary--they can cause damage when they do rather than speak.

In any case, the second question is the one that haunts this session today. If my pollster asked, "Do you love boys?" a "Yes" answer would be acceptable if it came from a parent or grandparent. If it came from someone else, however, red flags very likely would appear from the back pockets of our social referees--legislators, law enforcement agencies, some figures in politics and organized religion, psychiatrists and, above all, parents themselves. If the respondent was a woman (but not the boy's mother), her professing love of boys would be associated with her capacity to be a mother. And all mothers love their children, boys and girls, right? Well, of course, we know that is not the case. There is a great deal of infanticide. Some mothers neglect their children because they are poor and need to be away from them most of the day to work, especially if they are heads of single-parent households. Others are downright mean to them and, as studies show, more so to their sons than to their daughters. The same holds for fathers, even those who create a son by acknowledging him (as Hector did). Overall, fathers who are aggressive toward their children are harsher with their sons than with their daughters and mete out much more physical violence to them.

A different set of doubts appears in the public imagination when the answer to my second question is "Yes" and the person is a man. Here is the specter of pedophilia. A male teacher or counselor may want to work with the boys who attend his class or come to his consulting room. A coach may want to train the soccer or football player he is expected to turn into a winning team player, or a champion wrestler, gymnast or diver. He may value boys and have their best interests in mind. But love them? This seems to go too far, especially since in the background of such "love" seems to be an implied series: love means intimacy and intimacy means physical intimacy and physical intimacy means sexual contact (understood as sexual from the point of view of the adult). Here we are in the horrific world of films such as Mysterious Skin or The Boys of Saint Vincent or Sleepers, where boys are harmed by coaches, priests and juvenile detention officers. But such monsters are, thank the gods, a minority.

Intimacy between males was not unusual until less than a century ago in the West, and from what I know of anthropology, it is ubiquitous in most non-Western cultures. It would come as a surprise to most men in most cultures--throughout history and currently outside of much of the Western world--to think that intimacy with another male, especially one who is younger should be suspect. By intimacy I mean emotional closeness and commitment--and nurturance. Nurturance is not limited to females. We must think differently about this word 'love' in connection with men and boys--sons and fathers, boys and male teachers or counselors or coaches or mentors.

Many boys are wary of being touched physically, especially by other males, and especially around and just after puberty. Up to that time, however, boys are very tactile. They touch everything. They snuggle with their parents and siblings, stuffed toys and dogs--and later with their chums. Throughout life, boys enjoy touch that is meant to confirm them, give them support, indicate that they are not toxic. (This is especially for boys who self-identify as gay.) We have forgotten this. We must not be afraid to touch our boys. Here the principle is simple: A boy who is not afraid sometimes will want to be physically close. Welcome it. The rule is: Let the boy show you how much physical closeness he needs. Some boys need it more than others, but all boys need some-especially from their fathers, as I have said, but also from other men as they get older. The more they need it, the more difficult they will find it to be intimate with another male (and, later on, sexually and emotionally close with females or in some cases other males). As they move through the teen years sons will need less physical contact with their fathers. This is part of reworking their identification with the father, becoming independent of him, and becoming a man. But--to repeat--this does not mean they have no need of physical contact with other males--age-mates and older men--teachers, coaches, mentors. Each boy will make it clear to us--if we are attentive to him--just how much of the intimacy we are prepared to offer him should be physical: a handshake, a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the shoulder, even a hug. And recall that a close look--eye-to-eye--between human beings has tactile quality. It is a form of touch. Perhaps we are never as physically intimate with another person as when we look them in the eye--openly, honestly, and without fear. This is especially important for males at all ages.

When a man first sees a boy, he sees what he once was, and only if his own boyhood was harsh and unpleasant, especially one in which he was not elevated to sonhood by his father, only then will this man not feel close to what he sees. Only if he hates or fears himself, will he fear and hate boys.

As Lloyd de Mause and others pointed out, in 1974, in The History of Childhood, for most of time past, boys' lives have typically been especially hard. Think of boys working on farms fourteen hours a day, or going down at age nine into coal or iron mines with their dads to work alongside them. Think of boys in their mid-teens in nearly all cultures being conscripted to provide military service, usually not knowing what they were getting into. Slaves are slaves, no matter what their sex or age. But here is my point. Did these deplorable conditions of exploitation mean that there was no love between these men and their boys--sons and fathers, boys and other males? Given the conditions they endured together, perhaps there was more intimacy then between boys and men than we find today.

The result of we men loving our boys will not be, as some fear, the production of weak boys and weak men, of feminine or "girly" boys. That worry, we know, comes from a certain dislike and fear of the feminine--even among the most female-loving men, men who relish sexual and emotional closeness with women. A boy who is loved by other men--beginning with his father--is one who will feel good about himself, who will believe there is a great deal about him that is worth liking and loving. He will, in turn, form close friendships with other males: first, in his pre-teen years, with a "chum" or "pal" (so eloquently described by Harry Stack Sullivan), and then, in his teen and adulthood years, with his mates.

We are at the heart of my presentation. The key word in my title is 'love'. As I have said earlier, no boy fails to try to love his father, just as no boy refuses the love of his mother--unless there is something very seriously amiss and the situation makes it nearly impossible for him to do so. But boys are resourceful, and that is why the willingness of other men to stand in for the missing father is essential. One psychologist, James Herzog, has written of "father hunger." If the dad is not there, a boy will look for a replacement. Failing finding one of any kind, he is in a certain limbo. Today, for some boys, only irreal (that is, hypothetically real) figures from sports or television or even video games are available to him as father substitutes. But their physical separation from him makes the return of love, which is essential, and therefore real intimacy impossible. He may try to use his mother as a father substitute, but from the boy's perspective, she is no position psychologically to play the father's role. It asks too much of her. This way leads to confusion.

The obvious conclusion for me is that as families fragment and fail, as boys are separated from their fathers more and more--we (other) men increasingly must love our boys as representatives of the boy each of us once was. In my experience, this is no burden. It keeps me in touch with the boy in me, I am gratified to see a boy's possibilities emerge for him, and I feel that I am meeting a moral obligation to stand in for a boy's father when he is not there for the lad.

V. The next word is 'our'.

Boys are all men's sons. This comes as no surprise to men in non-Western, non-"postmodern" cultures, in which elders see boys as their collective responsibility and delight. As new social institutions are forming that will supplement--for now--and perhaps replace the form of the family that has evolved in the West--the nuclear family-men will see boys looking to them for support--for ways of negotiating the passage to manhood. The son-father relation is sacred--as the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Hector and his son Scamandrius and countless mythologies attest. But now the world is different. We are not a nomadic tribe. We are not a small city-state. We live in a technological automaton. In it, fathers are now often marginalized in many important social and legal negotiations. The father is disappearing. We men must be prepared to stand in loco parentis patris--in the place of the father--when a boy needs us to be there.

A footnote is in order. I do not mean to suggest that boys are our possessions--things to be grabbed on to or held. Mentoring occurs in freely chosen partnerships where our boys take the lead, we sense what they are asking of us, and we respond spontaneously and openly. This is true, of course, for all children, who are after all not their parents' possessions--although in many cultures they have been thought of in this way.

A long time ago--in 1923--the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in his book, The Prophet, some words about children in general that apply, I think, to what I have said about how we must think of mentoring and loving our boys. He wrote:

VI. This last word--the third four-letter word in my title--is the most difficult: boys I have used it throughout my discussion today. But what is a boy? When I launched the journal Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies not long before attending the 2007 Australian Men's Gathering, in Adelaide, I thought I knew what we would be publishing about. To my surprise, boyhood studies has turned out to be, first and foremost, about determining what boyhood is--what it is coming to mean--and what boyhood studies can hope to accomplish. The field has also opened the question about the relation between being a boy and being a son.

In conclusion, I will offer some tentative ideas and a number of questions about boyhood. We are trying to understood who we must love and mentor.

First: Little males have been around forever, but the concept of a boy seems to be something quite new. For a long time, even though we designated males of certain chronological ages with certain terms (for example, boy, adolescent, adult), in everyday life we knew only of men and little men. This is related to the observation that fully-grown males have been around since our species differentiated itself from our primate ancestors, but manhood seems to be fairly new, an invention of life in community. Perhaps, as David Gilmore has suggested, the two emerged together. I have suggested that we must understand the man in terms of the boy, not the other way round.

Next: Boyhood is different from childhood, which seems to have been more closely associated with girlhood. What is unique about boyhood sets it apart from childhood, a concept that was itself invented in Europe only a few hundred years ago.

Next: Is boyhood something like a type--an archetype as Carl Jung called those blueprints for perceiving things we all seem to know something about? Here we would find the boy along with other archetypes such as the father. If the boy is an archetype, he must have been there all along but is making a dramatic reappearance in our time. Why is this happening?

Next: If, as I believe and have written about, the boy is a metaphor for pure possibility, then perhaps boyhood is a reminder that there is a way out of the seemingly impossible situation the world is in and that some are now terming the post-human world. In a world where gender is said to primarily define who we are (and I believe this misses what really matters) perhaps the boy is a model for the human, since he is pregendered, neither feminine nor masculine nor a mix of the two (androgynous). Perhaps the archetype has reappeared to show us what we can be.

Next: If we must deal in numbers, when does boyhood end in our 21st-century global culture? My male students (who are mostly 18-21 years old) tell me (and the females in my classes confirm it) that they are not yet "men," but are still "boys". Adolescence, like the family, is disappearing with the father. "When shall I call you 'men'?" I ask my students. "Oh--when we're 30." As schools keep the young from full participation in the adult world longer and longer--infantilizing them--I would say their perceptions match the reality. So: boyhood--age 4-24?

Finally: What becomes of the boy when a young male's body changes, the growth spurt has been completed, and he is sexually competent? Does the boy disappear with puberty and his entry into the world of the adult sexually competent male, whether that is at age 12 (now the standard age of puberty for most boys in the West) or 16 (the age of puberty for most boys until the 20th century), or when he is 18 or 21 (legal milestones)--or 30, when Plato says men are ready to begin philosophizing? There is a certain continuity in the female's life, moving from girlhood to womanhood, which is not there is a male's life course. At the same time, the difference between girlhood and womanhood is clearly marked by a female's first menstrual period, and the seriousness of possible pregnancy that it entails. But is anything comparable in a male's early life? What is man-arche? Does semenarche--the first ejaculation while awake--mark the moment of existential change from boyhood to manhood? It seems more like a performance than something to which the boy must yield. It does seem to be forced on him by nature--when the phallus comes to have a life of its own--and it feels great, but if semenarche and the phallus are no longer confirmed or celebrated by culture, what has the event come to mean?

It seems to me that the idea of there being a chasm, an abyss, a huge gap between boyhood and manhood is true, but that even though boyhood is supposed to be left behind and replaced by manhood--and here is the reason for the dramatic, often painful and frightening initiation practices boys face in many cultures--in fact, I believe, the boy is never done away with and lives on in the man. Yes, the man may work day in and day out at showing himself and the world that he is a man--that presumably he has achieved "the big impossible"--but behind the armor, the mask of manhood, the boy still very much alive.

The boy who remains in the man--in each man here today--is that part of him who meets the boy who would become a man. It is a meeting over-brimming with urgency for both.


De Mause, L. (1976). The history, of childhood. New York: Souvenir Press.

Gibran, K. (1995). The prophet. New York: Knopf. (Work first published 1923)

Gilmore, D. (2001). Manhood in the making. Cultural concepts of masculinity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hall, G.S. (2005). Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, sociology, anthropology, sex, crime, religion and education. New York: Hesperides Press. (Work first published 1904)

Herzog, J. (2001). Father hunger: Explorations with adults and children. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, H.S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.

Zoja, L. (2001). The father. Historical, psychological and cultural perspectives. New York: Routledge.

(1) Address delivered October 8, 2009, at the 8th Australian Men's Gathering, University of Newcastle. New South Wales, Australia. The text has been revised for publication here, but I have tried to retain the feel of spontaneity of my plenary presentation.

MILES GROTH, Department of Psychology, Wagner College.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Miles Groth, Department of Psychology, Wagner College, One Campus Road, Staten Island, New York 10301. Email: mgroth@wagner.edu

DOI: 10.3149/jmh.1001.97
Your children are not your children.
   They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
   They come through you but not from you,
   And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
   You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
   For they have their own thoughts.
   You may house their bodies but not their souls,
   For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
   which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
   You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.