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Boyhood, the Masculine Spirit, and the Formative Power of Work

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The modern age has introduced many blessings when it comes to child-rearing and child development, offering kids ever more opportunities for education, play, personal development, and social interaction.

Yet as time, leisure, and wealth continue to increase, and as we move farther away from years of excessive and intensive child labor, we ought to be wary of falling into a different sort of lopsided lifestyle — one that over-elevates other goods (e.g. study, practice, play) to the detriment of good old-fashioned labor.

As I’ve written previously, the mundane and sometimes painful duties of day-to-day life have largely vanished from modern childhood, with parents continuing to insulate their children from any activity that might involve risk, pain, or (gasp!) boredom. Given our own newfound conveniences and pleasures, we adults suffer from this same insulation and pleasure-seeking, but especially when it comes to our kids, who are entering this peculiar world in a unique stage of development, we ought to be especially attentive of the formative fruits of productive labor.

When it comes to the cultivation of character and the human imagination, what do we lose in a world wherein work, service, and sacrifice have been largely replaced by superficial pleasures and one-dimensional modes of formation? What do we lose if our children learn only to play hard or study well, without also encountering a long day’s toil on a routine basis?

The question applies for all children, of course, but when it comes to work with the hands, boys in particular are especially dependent on the lessons therein. For boys, who tend to process the world externally (and especially so at a young age), any excessive lack in basic hands-on work experience and the value it brings is bound to have severe consequences on the formation of the soul and spirit.

In an interview with the CiRCE Institute, James Daniels, a teacher and school administrator, and Cindy Rollins, a homeschooling mom, offer a host of  insights along these lines (HT). As Daniels points out in the very beginning, the heart of a man can be best explained by “thumos” — a “masculine spirit that focuses on a ‘drive to power.’” Today, this drive drive gets warped and distorted, as boys are increasingly bombarded by and pushed toward artificial expressions of power, whether through pornography, video games, or otherwise.

In its original or ideal form, however, Daniels notes that such a drive has less to do with aggression and assertion and more to do with basic initiation. The challenge, then, is to define the “drive” or the “passion” behind and before the initiative, which involves properly channeling that spirit — neither suppressing it (“the wimp”) nor overusing it (“the barbarian”).

Rather than leaving boys to their own devices or, conversely, smothering them with excessive coddling and concern, we ought to allow them to initiate, while providing healthy mentorship, guidance, and discipline along the way. This is the art of properly parenting boys.

There are plenty of ways such cultivation takes place, and Daniels and Rollins outline quite a few. But when prodded on how this looks in application, Daniels avoids instructions for chest-bumping and expedition planning and instead points to that very same area where we began: basic, mundane work:

For the most part, I see folks that are involved in discussing and crafting plans for mentoring boys that focus on big events, adrenaline-laden adventures, and ceremony. While I won’t downplay some of the value of such events, I think that sometimes it gives boys the wrong impression. You see, there is already such a disconnect in the minds of young men between the vision for masculinity and the mundane. I find that boys that aspire to be men generally have big dreams of conquering and protecting…slaying the dragon and saving the “damsel in distress”. But the fact is, this may be where masculinity is embodied but it is not where it is developed.

The masculine spirit, the thumos, is developed by habituation in the routine…the small things…everyday chores…work. You can’t effectively swing a sword if you haven’t been swinging the sickle. We would never put a man on the battlefield that hasn’t endured a routine of discipline first. We should be connecting the dots for young men between their lofty views of manhood and the small things they encounter everyday: chores, lawn mowing, homework, picking up trash at school when they see it…not romantic in the least but highly effective in building masculine habits of the soul. The boys must understand that if you are not building these habits in the small things, they won’t be there in the big events.

As for what might blur or compete with those connections, Daniels offers the following:

We must be about the work of connecting the dots for young men – showing them how taking initiative in the mundane fits into the higher pursuits and calling of being a man. With that in mind, anything that would blur those connections, or present an obstacle to their seeing that connection, would be detrimental to that process. Those types of threats usually come in the form of not allowing them to experience real consequences for their actions. Allowing them to live in an artificial world, trying to “save” them or protect them from reality, and not giving them an opportunity to be challenged or be adventurous. This is one of the main reasons I am so strongly against the idea of allowing boys to spend too much time playing video games. I am not opposed to the idea of playing violent games because it promotes violence . . . rather, I am far more bothered by the fact that they use them as a substitution for reality. This is also why pornography is destroying the souls of our young men. It gives them the illusion of power without real consequences. I highly recommend parents encourage their boys to do yard work, landscaping, gardening, farming, etc. It is hard work, which it very good for our boys, but it also grants direct and tangible results of the young man’s labor, which is very satisfying to the masculine soul.

As Daniels points out, this will not sound romantic to most. For alas, romantic it is not. It’s why hard and painful work is the first thing we adults flee from when prosperity and modernity provide an easier path. But again, for all that we have gained and will continue to achieve through these advances, what do we lose if we forget or neglect the tangible and transcendent value of hard work?

As I’ve noted previously, the implications for this stretch far and wide, from the household to the classroom to the policymaker’s latest wage-fixing platter, but as parents, we can begin by simply reorienting our imaginations and taking note and concern for those basic duties and obligations that the latest wave of “progress” is likely to miss.

More often than we think, the boring and mundane features of basic work and toil will help shape our children’s spirits, souls, and minds more powerfully than the fifth sporting activity of the year or that expensive language camp we’re so eager to squeeze in next summer.

As we grab hold of our newfound opportunities and teach our boys the glory of a sword well placed, let us always remember to remind them that learning to swing the sickle always comes first.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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