These days in the Western world, we have lost touch with our primitive selves. This is good in some ways, not so good in others. One failure that is apparent in our culture is our inability to bring children fully into adulthood. We fought back against the evils of the Industrial Revolution with its exploitation of child labor by making sure we raised children who have no idea how to work and no clear picture of themselves as grown-ups. They continue to waver and hold onto unresolved issues of responsibility and dominance well into their twenties, a time when earlier generations of Americans and Europeans were raising their own children and supporting them. Is this because we do not have a clear demarcation between childhood and adulthood? The author of this book, Bret Stephenson, believes so.
Modern children in their early teens begin creating their own initiation rites since we do not supply them. Girls have babies, often at an age when only by the most technical biological definition are they mature enough to nurture them. Boys and girls mutilate and abuse themselves with tattoos, drug use and body piercings, activities that their counterparts in Africa, South America and the Polynesian islands would certainly recognize.
Stephenson counsels at-risk and high-risk teens and is executive director of Labyrinth Center, a place of refuge for abused and violent adolescent boys. He knows whereof he speaks when he says, "As we become less and less clear with each generation on what healthy masculinity is, it becomes hard to agree on what is expected of boys as they mature." Stephenson cites Masai culture, a culture this reviewer lived in for a year in Kenya. There the young men of a certain age are ritually circumcised in large groups, heralding their entrance into the world of the warrior. After they serve their time as warriors, living apart from the rest of their tribe, hunting wild game and warning settled Masai of predators and other perceived enemies, they are able to return to the tribe, welcomed as men. They can then marry one or more of the many young girls who have been following them, indulging in flirtations with them and making beautiful jewelry for them while they lived in the wild. This creates a true teen Eden. And because it begins with bloodletting, it is deadly serious.
Lacking such possibilities, our urbanized teens simply make war, tribalizing instinctively and hunting one another, fighting with their rivals, impregnating and exploiting their female companions. Stephenson suggests countering and co-opting this natural need to separate from childhood and rebel against adulthood that so obviously defines adolescence by restoring rituals. He asks boys to go on a grand adventure, to hear their inner voice, to seek their innate strengths through such methods as vision quests, labyrinths and magic. Returning to a young man his sense of himself as a hero instead of an enraged potential criminal is no simple feat, and Stephenson is not asking us to believe that it's an overnight process or that all incorrigible teens will be saved by his techniques. But he does offer practical solutions and sage advice based on conversations, interactions and counseling sessions with thousands of boy-men, hardened children who are sure no one can tell them anything.
One of the author's propositions is that these recalcitrant youths are natural risk-takers: "The problem is, we have removed the testing grounds. We penalize them for taking risks, a behavior that is ingrained in their psyches deep enough to keep driving them toward test after test, usually unconsciously." If this natural propensity to find challenges to overcome can be harnessed in a positive way, perhaps a bad boy can recreate himself as a good man. That is the hope.
This book should be read by all parents of male children in the affluent world.