The title is as brazenly simple and cunning as the author: “My Three Sons: How A Bad Dad Raised Good Kids.” Why and how it came about is actually something of true interest to all of us who are Dads.
First off, and believe it or not, I certainly wasn’t destined to inform American fathers of my keenness of mind. Oh no. Rather, in my stolid and regimented fashion of existence, the idea came to me during a conversation with a fellow Dad at work, who was tiredly giving me the litany on his own son: “Not working hard enough at school…doesn’t listen to us…gives a lazy effort on the field…plays too many video games…always staring at his damn phone.”
In fact, I have heard a decade’s worth of these lamentations – in thousands of informal yet often compelling conversations with Dads; and, from innumerable interactions with adolescent boys - my sons and their peers. These exchanges have taken place in every situation known to the suburban Dad and his son: At workplaces, on middle school, high school and college campuses, at social and community events, watching television in basements and on athletic fields throughout the country.
The single and persistent refrain I’ve taken away from these thousands of encounters is frustration: Dads are confused and disheartened by the progress of their sons through adolescence. These are fathers – good, decent men – who struggle with a corrosive, electronics-saturated, trophy-for-participation culture that encourages conformity, erodes self-control and devalues masculinity.
Unfortunately, these Dads simply don’t know how to develop and sustain a sense of resolve and purpose in their boys.
Well, I do.
Moreover, I also know these aren’t simply random anecdotes. The facts are there. This cohort of kids and its corresponding older cohort are floundering; a less gentle description is failing. Today, approximately one-third of men ages 22 to 34 are still living at home with their parents; 35 percent of men between the ages of 16 and 25 are unemployed; and, one-fifth of all men ages 18 to 34 are living in poverty. My personal fave is that the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ashtoln Carter, notes that that only 31 percent of the 10.5 million American males age 17 to 21 are eligible to join the military, with half unable to pass the entry examination and the rest ineligible because they are unable to meet the physical fitness or character standards.
Collectively, these numbers illustrate a staggering pathological drift. And it goes beyond numbers.
Today’s popular culture has damn near made an icon of the “slacker” male – the sullen, unshaven, flannel shirt-wearing cool “dude” clutching his IPhone and video game console. This chump is nearly ubiquitous in today’s broadcast and print media advertising. Indeed, regardless of your political views, it’s telling that the signature figure for the Obama Administration’s health care pitch to youth was a bespectacled, 20-something male wearing red plaid pajamas. If that was my son, I’d disown him.
Of course, child psychologists are very helpful in this arena, bless their credentialed hearts. They’ve penned a lot of serious, thoughtful books about adolescents featuring disturbingly colorful anecdotes. Indeed, the sincerity of these therapists and tenured faculty professors - some of whom are even parents - cannot be doubted. Neither can the case studies of “synergistically unpacking” the “personal space” of well, “let’s call him Sebastian,” and his desperate need for “holistic empowerment.”
My modest work starkly diverges from this gibberish. First, I’m a Dad, not a psychologist. I am around fathers and their sons all day in every venue under the sun – and none of these encounters is an office visit.
Second, I tend to see kids in a straightforward, unflinching common sensical way. I know firsthand the language - and landscapes - of Dads and their sons. It’s about all I really know. I believe in old-school candor and judgment, and I know what it takes to guide sons toward basic values and behaviors, the acquisition of which leads to solid, accomplished young men.
But Nellie, you ask, what’s in your book?! If you want to know, tune into the next Nellie Blawg…