This weekend my son shot and killed his first deer. Straight through the neck and heart, it was a skilled shot. Later I snacked on a Snickers bar while he fumbled through field dressing the little doe and then my dad smeared fresh blood on his cheeks. I was proud of him, and more importantly he was proud of himself.
It might seem a little gruesome, but I'm pretty certain it was a life-defining moment for him, a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.
Our western culture is remarkably lacking in initiatory rites. There are no clearly defined moments when children are inducted into the ranks of adulthood. There may be tiny flashes where one gains some ground on maturity...getting a driver's license, graduating from high school, working your first real job...but acknowledged acceptance into the league of adulthood is not clearly defined. Childhood is often endorsed beyond biological childhood as proven how often adult "children" are found living with Mommy and Daddy well after they've graduated from college (which seems like it should be the last mile marker for adulthood).
Call me sexist, but I think it's even harder for boys. Boys grow into a world where men are often ashamed to be men.
It's difficult to get through a television program without being subjected to at least one commercial that paints men as stupid. Need some examples? Check out this one....or this one....or this one....then there's this one. Had enough yet? Notice that in all of these commercials the women are the intelligent responsible ones, while the men are painted as just plain simple and clueless. Our boys are subjected to hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of this kind of programming. Is it any wonder they "mature" so much more slowly than girls when they are conditioned to believe that they are stupid?
Perhaps it's easier for a society that is afraid of manliness to deal with it if we just paint it as idiotic and foolish. We want to tame men, and so society pushes them to be sensitive and gentle and mild. In essence, we want them to be women.
Consider how we treat our young boys. By nature boys are rough and rowdy and full of raw energy. They want to wrestle and shout and get their hands dirty. Yet in school, they are constantly ordered to "Sit still!" and "Be quiet!" and "Behave!" We try to force little boys to act like girls...and if they don't comply, the pharmaceutical industry is willing to step in and drug them into acquiescence.
In the workplace, men often must undergo sensitivity training in order to be more empathetic toward their coworkers. While sensitivity and empathy are healthy, perhaps desirable, traits, they are generally considered to be more characteristically feminine. So while we are encouraging women in the workforce to be more bold and aggressive (typically masculine characteristics), we seem to be encouraging the opposite of their male coworkers, as if achieving some brand of gender neutrality might solve all of the ills of society.
Men and women are different...in more ways than anatomy. More and more studies are proving that men and women are wired differently both hormonally and psychologically. We can't continue to expect our little boys to behave more like little girls.
And we need to allow our men to be men. Energy, force, and aggression aren't four letter words. These typically male traits get things done. They push our men forward toward goals. With fewer and fewer males graduating from college each year, perhaps encouragement of positive forms of aggression (the vigorous and competitive effort to succeed as opposed to punching random people at dinner parties) could help propel our sons toward successful happier lives.
We can't continue to teach our men and boys to avoid conflict and confrontation. This world does not need a profusion of "nice guys" overly in touch with their feminine sides who avoid confrontation and aggression even when confrontation and aggression are warranted. Aggression doesn't always equal violence, but sometimes it does. Aggression in the form of defense of one's family, property, or ideals is justifiable.
So let's let our boys be boys and our men be men. And let's encourage our boys to grow up to be the kind of manly men that aren't afraid or ashamed to do manly things.
Which brings us back to my son and his first kill. While it may seem to some an archaic ritual of the most gruesome and cruel sort, there may be nothing more manly than hunting, killing, and butchering an animal to feed your own family. And there may be no other act which requires more decisiveness and action or brings into clearer focus the frailty and sanctity of life or the finality of death. Big lessons for a young boy....and that is why he's now a man.