Teaching boy how to be boys again

Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 07:04 am
Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails are what readers of a surprise bestseller are made of.
The Dangerous Book for Boys by the British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden is a practical manual that returns boys to the wonder and almost lost world of tree houses and pirate flags. It celebrates the art of teaching an old mutt new tricks and accepts skinned knees as an acceptable risk for running through fields with the same dog yapping along.
As of July 3, The Dangerous Book is the number one seller on Amazon UK and it is holding steady at about 7,000 on Amazon in the U.S., where it was published on June 5. The Australian News reports that the book "has made it to the top five of…Amazon [Australia], after just a week."
Those results make publishers take notice. But social commentators are also reacting with both applause and condemnation.
Condemnation arises because The Dangerous Book breaks the dominant and politically correct stereotype for children's books. It presents boys as being deeply different than girls in terms of their interests and pursuits. Although it is highly probable that bookstores will sell the book to girls who then will go on to practice skimming stones, nevertheless the genders are separated within the book's pages.
The authors clearly believe that the majority of children interested in learning to build a catapult are boys. Girls are included only through a final chapter in which boys are admonished to treat them with respect.
In celebrating old-fashioned boyhood and providing a blueprint on how to reclaim it, The Dangerous Book is revolutionary. It discards decades of social engineering that approaches children as being psychologically gender neutral. The book implicitly rebukes school texts that strip out gender references. Instead, it says 'boys will be boys'; they always have been, they always will be, and that's a good thing.
Thus The Dangerous Book achieves social revolution without preaching or politics; it does so in the name of fun.
The sort of fun promoted has also raised eyebrows. In a society that is preoccupied with safety, The Dangerous Book promotes activities in which boys are likely to get scuffed. This is a book for tree-climbers who occasionally pause to decipher enemy code or erupt into wood-wielding pirate fights.
Why would the Iggulden brothers imperil children?
Clearly they do not think the rough-and-tumble of boyhood constitutes a health hazard. Perhaps they agree with parents who view over-protectiveness to be a greater danger, who wish to stir the imagination and muscles of their children instead.
But the brothers wish to achieve more than this. In a world where children are isolated behind computer screens and iPods, they wish to establish a niche for old-fashioned childhood.
The brothers state, "In this age of video games and mobile phones, there must still be a place for knots, tree-houses and stories of incredible courage." They advise children to "play sport of some kind. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it replaces the corpse-like pallor of the computer programmer with a ruddy glow."
Their vision is not utopian or even impractical. For example, a tree house requires only a blueprint, some scrap lumber and a willing parent. The latter requirement turns The Dangerous Book into something more than a work for boys. It is also a guide for parents, especially for fathers who wish to establish an old-fashioned connection with their children.
Indeed, since parents purchase most children's books, it is reasonable to assume that the run-away success of The Dangerous Book is partly due to their longing for a better connection.
One father describes his experience with the book, "I gave it to my 11-year-old son Charles and his friend…Then I stood well back." Raised on The Lord of the Rings, "they immediately turned to the section of the book that showed them how to create their own Legolas-style archery kit, using bits of old branch no longer needed by the Ents. When they began stripping the bark off with a big, shiny, sharp-bladed Swiss Army knife, I had to dig down deep in order to ignore the parental risk-ometer readings that were going off the scale, accompanied by vivid flash-forwards of the inevitable long, bloodstained-bandaged hours ahead in casualty."
Happily, the only injury was to evildoers who lurked in the garden shrubbery.
These days, the news about boys is not happy and often contains the word 'crisis.' The Education Sector, a non-profit think tank, offers a typical description of the perceived 'crisis' within education.
"After decades spent worrying about how schools 'shortchange girls,' the eyes of the nation's education commentariat are now fixed on how they shortchange boys. In 2006 alone, a Newsweek cover story, a major New Republic article, a long article in Esquire, a 'Today' show segment, and numerous op-eds have informed the public that boys are falling behind girls in elementary and secondary school and are increasingly outnumbered on college campuses."
Society is awakening to the possibility that boys have been disadvantaged. In past decades, what it means to be a boy has been redefined, deconstructed, reconstructed, politically analyzed and mathematically modeled. In the process, the meaning of being a boy's father has become jumbled as well.
In the midst of the confusion, The Dangerous Book brings non-political truths into focus. For example, most boys like rough-and-tumble. They are riveted by tales of heroism on blood-soaked battlefields. They will learn history eagerly if it is presented in a chapter on Artillery.
Like Peter Pan, the Iggulden brothers have rediscovered the Lost Boys and are beckoning for them to come out to play. "Oh…and bring along your father too," they add with a dangerous wink and a smile.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.


This is more what it was like to be a boy when I was grownig up. I plan on getting this book for my sons and reading it myself. In fact if some of the plans are good then we will enbark on a few projects. Why we can't let boys be boys again is beyond me. It all starts with this PC crap and it will end.

EDIT (Moderator): Moved to Parenting & Childcare from Politics
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Lord Ellpus
Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 07:20 am
I've met Conn on several occasions...he was a very popular teacher at my wife's previous school.

If you like that book, then you'll love these....

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Lord Ellpus
Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 07:21 am
I think he's wriiten a fourth in the above linked series, so it's no longer a trilogy.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 07:22 am
This sounds like really good stuff...I remember countless hours playing war when growing up (probably influenced my career choice -- Army officer, now Army support contractor). Couple of best toys I had were a home-made rubber band rifle (shot strips of inner-tube) and a bow and arrow (constructed of a stick with a string, knotted on one end; arrows sliced from wood shingles and notched; fired by placing the knot in the notch and flinging the arrow sky-ward).

Video games are deplored for bringing the same competiveness and agressiveness out, and there may be something to be said about that. But there's something lost between the creativeness and imagination loosed in these older, simpler toys and activities, vice simply sitting in front of TV pushing a button. Something elemental...something dangerous..but good.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 08:50 am
dig down deep in order to ignore the parental risk-ometer readings that were going off the scale

"He's all boy" is the comment that I hear about Mo most often and my parental risk-ometer is always off the charts.

It is hard to keep him safe and let him explore the world by taking risks.

Really though I don't think it has as much to do with being PC as it does with the perception people have seeing a kid bumped up and bruised which rough playing often leads to.

I had to take Mo to the doctor yesterday because his completely icky, losing his nail, bruised and bleeding thumb had become infected. The doctor was very nice but noted not only the story behind the awful thumb but for every other bump and scratch on his body. I was able to sit quietly while Mo recounted his feats of derring-do with pride but I worried that the doctor thought I was some lunatic, negligent parent who allowed her kid to be reckless.

That stuff matters.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 09:00 am
Yeah, it does.

I don't think this is just a boy thing. I took ridiculous risks when I was a girl -- there was an infrastructure that allowed it that is now gone.

Lots of aspects to it. Boomer refers to one. Sozlet's an active kid and always has a collection of bruises on her knees and legs from one thing or another, and we've actually gotten not-so-friendly comments about that. I don't CARE if she gets bruises while having fun, but I have to be resolute to brush that off.

Then there is the problem of how kids manage to do all this outdoor adventures. I've gone into this a zillion times but it's a huge problem -- the daytime neighborhood has largely disappeared. When I was a kid I'd wander the neighborhood freely, and there would be people at home at regular intervals who understood that they had a responsibility towards the kids. Older kids watched out for younger kids. And there were KIDS. Out. Playing. Not being driven hither and yon to scheduled activities.

That just doesn't happen anymore, and it's hard to do this stuff in a vaccuum, unless perhaps you have a big family with lots of kids (I don't).

I do think that a lot of the "boys will be boys" stuff in the article is bunk -- I did all of that when I was a kid, and loved it.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 09:03 am
To be more precise:

I'm all for the risk-taking and building tree houses with parents and being outside and active and unsupervised that the article talks about... I just don't think that those benefits need to be or should be limited to boys.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 09:06 am
I completely agree that only boys benefit from such adventure is bunk.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 09:13 am
Some " heathy neglect" is wonderful for boys and girls.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 09:30 am
We have to teach boys to be boys. Really??? Why? And who determines what are the correct gender traits of boys and what are they? This is complete bullshit. If a girl likes to build treehouses and play war, should we force her to play with dolls?
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 11:08 am
Thanks for bring this to our attention. My Army-brat grandson is one of those whose whole world seems to exist only inside an electronic box. He's a great kid, well I am his doting grandpa. He and his sister are under far greater pressure to perform at the top of their scholastic studies than I ever was. These kids are up before dawn studying, and when they get home they study almost continuously until bedtime. They do get some hours off on holiday and weekends, if their grades are good. What little free time these kids get, is tightly scheduled and supervised. They study martial arts, music, and play organized football. For fun, they get to perform in school plays and concerts.

A several years ago the grandchildren visited my sister in Pine, Arizona. My sisters house is located in the midst of a large forest of pine trees. No views to speak of, but it is quiet and close to nature. Just the ticket for my sister and her husband who are active Rescue Team members. The children had been put to bed so the adults could play dominos. We played only a few minutes, when the boy came rushing in to proclaim, "Auntie, there are bugs here; when are you moving away?" The children are decidedly uncomfortable outside the urban setting. They've traveled a lot and seen many of our nation's great tourist attractions, but would rather watch a video. It took them only about 5 minutes to become bored with the Grand Canyon, and begin asking when something was going to happen to entertain them. Oh, how different a childhood these kids have from what I lived in the early 1950's.

I'll find the book and send it to the children once we have a mailing address at their new assignment in Japan. Thanks again for really useful information.
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 11:15 am
Lord Ellpus wrote:
I think he's wriiten a fourth in the above linked series, so it's no longer a trilogy.

    - The Gates of Rome (2003) - The Death of Kings (2004) - The Field of Swords (2004) - The Gods of War (2005)

His next series of books is based on the life of Mongolian warlords Genghis and Kublai Khan. The first book is due for release in early 2007.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 11:23 am
Here's a link to the Esquire article: http://www.esquire.com/features/articles/2006/060611_mfe_July_06_Boys_1.html
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Walter Hinteler
Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 11:25 am
I've been trained by Outward Bond (and got a univeristy diploma in adventure pedagogics) ... in a former life (20 years ago).

The concept per se isn't that new (Rousseau and later Hahn taught such ages back), but obviously today's society needs this form of education ... again.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 07:09 pm
"The daytime neighborhood has largely disappeared," and the twilight neighborhood is missing almost entirely. Forget the dark neighborhood! If we want kids (both boys and girls) to enjoy some physical challenge and adventure and hands-on problem solving--all of which can be significantly instructive as well as fun--we adults have to provide them with some space to skin their knees that is not already off the charts in terms of risk. Although I hate to think about it, I don't think neighborhood or park ball games are likely to be coming back for little kids. There are, maybe, not any more strange adults out there than there than when I was seven, but they sure as hell have dropped their inhibitions about doing harm to the innocent. The loss of safe public play space is one of the greatest tragedies our culture has suffered in the last 30 years. Some parks are not even safe for the parents who accompany their children. Besides, children probably have some of their best learning experiences when they are out of their parent's sight and hearing. How can a kid learn independence and a spirit of adventure in a neighborhood that has, in many areas, shrunk to the dimensions of his yard or his house or his apartment?

I wonder how many well-meaning adults are taken in by the fallacy "Hey, it's dangerous out there. Since they have to stay inside most of the time, the poor kids might as well have fun playing video games." This reasoning is terrible. With a bit of effort, adults can help kids have real adventures indoors. For warmups, there are all kinds of active sports in which nerf balls can be used with vigor and still not break too many lamps. And, for tots, playing sardines or other active parlor games will help them break a sweat and think some strategy. Sure, archery is a tough call indoors (maybe possible in a garage), but the children can at least carve out the bows and arrows and feather the shafts. They can also play detective; they can have hunts; they can pitch tents--all indoors. BUT many of them need to be jump-started, maybe by a book, but, maybe better, by an adult willing to spend time joining them in being imaginative. These active home activities grow more and more important as schools cut back on gym time. Between the losses in school-time exercise and art--two deeply crazy cutbacks--kids increasingly need to sweat, draw, paint, and imagine at home. The parents who post on A2K seem to get this picture very well--and do their best to meet their kids' needs--but, alas, there aren't enough of them to re-create safe neighborhoods for all ages of children. Inevitably, unless a family has the great good fortune to live in an old-fashioned rural area, another vanishing environment, the opportunities for adventure are going to need to be provided at home.

It makes me angry that so many safe neighborhoods are gone, but that anger is not going to help any kid experience self-discovery and the joy of discovering reasonable risk. What I try to do is channel that emotion into energy for taking my granddaughter places where she and her friends can explore--even if it takes a while to get there. And while she's at our house, I show her ACTIVE games. To me, the bigghest problem with TV and video games is that they are not really age-appropriate for ANY size kid; they are largely passive entertainments, which, at the very best, may teach some hand-eye co-ordination through repetitive skills. They feed the imagination very little, and they don't put a kid's whole body in motion, and that's what kids need--every day.

This mantra about boys needing to be boys is hokey but basically true. However, why not phrase it "Kids need to be kids"--and to be fulfilled as kids, they need to move and be physically and intellectually challenged.
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Reply Thu 6 Jul, 2006 08:43 pm
Great to see you, Miklos. I wholeheartedly agree.

One thing I've wondered about is if things even are that much less safe? I think there may be other factors at work, such as higher awareness (two-edged sword, good in a lot of ways). As in, even if bad stranger-danger stuff happened to say 1% of the population 50 years ago and 1% now, I think people have the perception that it happens much much more if only because of how the rare incidents are treated in the media. (I don't know the actual statistical figures, I know it's complex because it also has to take into account how much was reported then vs. now, etc.)

And of course the other problem with the "keep them safe!!" stuff is that all of the stranger-danger safeguards don't address the fact that so much of what we're trying to avoid actually originates from people we trust.
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