It is actually only in the past forty years that we have begun to truly examine and redefine our preconceived notions of boyhood. With the rise of psychology as an empirical science, many of our misconceptions about manhood and adolescence have been challenged, while others have actually been reinforced. Even now, sociologists explore the study of boyhood, deepening our understanding of this often misunderstood gender.
What does it mean to be a boy? In that vein, what does it mean to be a man? Our modern era has redefined our understanding of boyhood, and challenged our perceptions of masculinity. Boyhood isn’t simply a stepping stone on the path to manhood, it is a crucial time of development for a young man, one that cements his perceptions of the world around him, as well as his own role in society. Despite ideas of boyhood varying from culture to culture, this concept remains universally constant.
I find that people are defined by their life experiences, by the roads and paths they take, on the journey of existence. I mean this both literally, and figuratively, for boyhood can be a journey in and of itself. In my research on this subject, I have had the opportunity to meet many boys and men, who have been shaped by the places that are a part of their experience, their travels. In honor of the journey we must all take, I wanted to spend a few moments discussing boys, and their travels.
The Rich Kid:
I have several friends who attended boarding school during their more formative years, and have shared their experiences with me. I particularly enjoy listening to the tales of two brothers who attended boarding school outside London. Their father was a property magnate in the 1980’s, who pooled big in Turkey when the broadened their liberalization policies. Therefore, for about seven months out of the year, the boys would stay in stuffed shirts along with all the other future Cambridge and Oxford scholars, but for the remaining three months, their breaks were taken in Antalya. Many of their boyhood days were spent in the confinement of lessons, dreaming for the rare times they found themselves swept up in the mysterious old-world city.
Their time in London was one of quiet rebellion, sneaking out with girls and bikes and cigarettes, whilst their time in Antalya was a time of freedom. The women were exotic, the air was full of spices and hookah smoke, and there were bazaars full of mystery to explore, and concerts to stay out all night. I’m sure part of it was the romance of being released from the restrictions of boarding school for a few weeks out of the year, but it was also the joy of young men learning about and interacting with the world around them, discovering it in a way that cannot be taught in schoolbooks, or trained by a boss.
The Military Brat:
This is for every young man who knew the life of service, who had a father perform his duty for his country. This involves travelling in a different sense, one that is as fluid as it is solid. I’ve spoken with both men and children who have grown up with, or within the military, who have traveled all over the place, from shore to shore, and from Japan to Germany. Boys who have grown up with this lifestyle have an unquestioning acceptance about them. You go where you are told, and you make the most out of your situation, until you are told to go again. These young boys in my experience are adaptable, require little, and are usually disconnected with the other people in their lives, children and adults alike, despite fostering strong bonds.
That is because they have grown up in a constantly shifting environment. So much of their lives involves moving, and yet oddly, this instills a powerful sense of family and obligation, and you see military families often support each other throughout the years, regurgitating that sense of brotherhood that has a profound effect on boys, especially in their developmental stages of growth and understanding. Boys who grow up in a military family often continue the military lifestyle as adults and as a career path, because it provides them with a source of stability, no matter where they are.
This a story from the other end of the spectrum, from those whose boyhoods were constricted to life within the confines of their own home. These are young boys who were homeschooled, either in large part, or for the entirety of their childhood/adolescence. Many enter adulthood lacking the necessary social skills for normative interactions, but can be very driven and singularly tasked. This boyhood is one of living vicariously, often causing young men to seek out danger and thrills, with little thought to the real-world consequences. If not properly guided and motivated, these young men can become easily distracted by new places and experiences, and in extreme situations, can become a danger to themselves, and others.
This is the danger behind homeschooling, and cutting off social interaction with young boys amongst each other at an early age. Despite the rising concerns for adequate public safety in our schools and our lives, parents risk much more when they deny their boys the experience of travelling. Part of the essentiality of boyhood is the necessity of travel, of gaining perspective of the world around you, learning to make your own inferences, and drawing our own conclusions.
Young boys today have a completely different experience of boyhood than was the case when I was young. The average boy nowadays experiences things that didn’t even exist when I was young.
However the things that I did when I was young are experiences that many young boys nowadays are missing out on completely. And in my view one of the most important experiences in the life of a boy is getting out into nature.
When I was young my family took me camping. We went fishing, we went hunting, we paddled kayaks down rivers, we caught fish in the rivers and spent, over the course of my boyhood, many months communing with nature doing all of these things.
And I think experiences like that are essential in the life of a young boy. No amount of time spent on Facebook can take the place of sitting with your dad butchering a deer with a hunting knife. A deer that you’ve tracked, hunted and shot yourself.
And nothing can alter the experience of sitting around a campfire eating venison from that same deer that you’ve learned to cook yourself on a campfire.
Experiences like hunting have been an integral part of growing up for young men for generations. In fact it’s probably more like for all of history, other than the last decade or two. Young boys were taken by their fathers to hunt deer, or bison or buffalo or whatever it was at the time. They had experiences that are really only available in situations like these and learned things that they could learn no other way.
Simple things like how to butcher a deer. How to sharpen your hunting knife. How to shoot straight. How to put up a tent at night. How to start a campfire in the rain. How to keep animals from eating your provisions at night.
I think it’s a sad indictment on today’s society that young boys are missing out on all of these essential experiences. There is nothing in a computer game that can make up for sitting around a campfire with your dad, eating the venison that you shot that day, shooting the breeze and watching the stars pass overhead.
Spending hours on Facebook can’t make up for getting out in the forest with a bunch of friends watching the wildlife, catching a fish or watching the birds.
No amount of time spent on a mobile phone can make up for the experience of choosing your own campsite, setting up your own tent and rolling out your own bedding.
The modern boyhood of Facebook, Internet games and computing is a boyhood like none that has ever come before. It is an experiment in growing up. It is the first time that young boys have been brought up without access to the experiences of generations of boys before them.
Nobody has any idea how this experiment will turn out. Maybe our boys will grow up to be well adjusted and intelligent young men. Maybe they will turn out even better than we did, though I doubt it.
However I know from fact that very few of today’s boys will grow up knowing how to track, hunt, shoot and butcher a deer, like I did with my dad.