New York Magazine

HOW TO RAISE A BOY

Twenty-five reflections on an impossible dilemma, now more impossible than ever: Parkland, the president, #MeToo.
Kilian, age 6, and Laurin, age 10.

WHEN You Don’t Know What to Think About What Your Dad Taught You

WILL LEITCH

SOMETIME AROUND 1987, my father tried to teach me how to shoot a gun. It was a Winchester Model 37, a 20-gauge that had been in the family for years but had been untouched until a fellow electrician, whose son was also about to enter high school, encouraged my father to unpack it. It was agreed upon by all that Bryan Leitch’s bookish son needed to learn to hunt.

I’d never seen my father hunt, he’d never talked about hunting, and he’d never handled a gun in front of me before. But one day I came back from school and Dad was home early, waiting for me with that gun. “Time for you to learn this,” he said.

I told him I did not want to, and he nodded and said he knew that but I had to fire anyway, into one of the endless cornfields that make up whole swaths of the country. I wanted to make him happy, or least not make him mad, so I held the gun out in front of me with dinosaur arms, put my finger on the trigger, and, biting my lip so hard that my braces started to ache, pulled it.

The kickback sent the weapon flying behind me, but what I most remember was the sound. The whole world screamed blinding white; I didn’t even hear my father scramble behind me to pick up the rifle. He was ashen—plainly terrified, even though nothing that bad had actually happened. I must have looked stricken, too, because he put his arm around me and, in one of the few times I can remember, apologized. “I know you didn’t want to, but I thought it was something that a man was supposed to do. It wasn’t.” He smiled. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to either.”

At least, I think this is what he said: My ears were still ringing. Neither one of us has ever fired a gun again.

HOW SHOULD YOU RAISE A BOY? For some time now, the urgency of the dilemma has seemed to ratchet up with every news cycle. Last month’s Parkland school shooting was just the most recent massacre committed by a young man filled with rage and resentment—and there have been more shootings since.

Thirty years after I fired a gun for the final time, I’m raising my two sons in the college-town oasis of Athens, Georgia. My personal dilemmas are decidedly white and well-to-do. But look across the country—as we’ve done here, in conversations with dozens of parents and sons—and the problem kaleidoscopes: sexual assault and suicide, opioids and unemployment, the gleeful brutality of Trump-era politics. On all these fronts, maleness festers.

For generations, boys have been raised in environments that seem designed to cultivate, then sublimate, aggression, sometimes right up to the border of sociopathy. (We recoil at Fight Club, but it basically depicts the secret life of boys ages 8 to 14. Men are Tyler Durden spliced with Beavis.) But those masculine scripts seem especially problematic today: Trained by superhero movies, inspired by planet-straddling athlete-gods and tech tycoons more powerful than entire governments, boys are reared to tame their aggressions, then asked to navigate a bleak, winner-take-all economic landscape. It’s hard not to see male entitlement and aggression as toxic forces degrading our culture. But it’s also hard not to notice that the world is now run by the aggressive and the bullying.

It is also hard not to notice that, in many ways, boys are falling behind. Girls do better in school and are more likely to graduate from college; women are moving, albeit slowly, into the boardroom, thanks in large part to the “quiet revolution” of the past few decades. That transformed landscape is part of what led the country to properly recognize, for the first time, the problems of sexual harassment and assault—and then led us to the revelation that many of the still-male powers-that-be are guilty of one, or the other, or both.

America was originally set up solely for the benefit of dudes like me. Now it is only mostly set up that way. For essentially all of human history, science-fiction writer John Scalzi observes, if you are born a straight white male, it’s as if you’re playing a computer game called The Real World with the difficulty set on the lowest level. We are told we belong everywhere. We are expected to see what we want and to grab it.

The thing is, we don’t live in a contextless world; this is a zero-sum game. The power that white American boys have been taught to seize comes from the already powerless, women, people of color, everyone who isn’t us.

Which is why, in a macro sense, the lessening power of men is an unquestioned societal good. When others rise, we must fall. It will be good in not just a moral sense but also a practical one. As a patriotic American who believes our country is a better place when all have something at least vaguely resembling an equal chance, and who believes it is time for the historical ledger to be balanced, this is what I want for the future.

The only thing is: There are two little future men who live in my house, and I love them very much.

Boys, ages 11 to 17, before and after their first boxing matches.

LIKE ANY PARENT, I would do anything for my children. And like any parent—especially my dad’s generation—I want my kids to have a better life than I did. My father taught me that if I worked hard and went to college—unlike him, or any of his seven siblings—I wouldn’t have to build houses and fix downed power lines for a living: I’d be able to “use your brain,” as he put it. He saw my life as a way to improve on his. This is the way we have always thought it would work. This was the way we were always

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