Swagger Excerpt: The Urgency of Fighting for Our Boys’ Brains

At this very moment, through no fault of their own, our boys are caught in the vortex of four powerful, insidious, often invisible forces that conspire to rob them of their future.

First, our heartbreakingly subpar schools. To say that twenty-first-century America doesn’t value education is like saying Donald Trump doesn’t prioritize humility. Class sizes grow, as kids sit on the floor or are crammed into “temporary” classrooms in hallways or bathrooms. School buildings crumble, leak, and emit toxic fumes. Junk-food school lunches make our kids sick and fat (while bloating the profits of giant food processing companies), dropping their test scores. Teachers are reduced to begging on charity websites for books for first graders. At even the best schools our kids graduate without knowing the basics of US history or the rudiments of science. Our kids already enjoy some of the shortest school days and school years in the developed world. And now we are witnessing a new sickening trend: in over one hundred counties in America, state budget cuts have pared the school week down to only four days. Hooray! An extra day every week to watch Fear Factor and play Xbox!

The minds of our children matter so little that we barely notice how many of them are now checking out of school. Only one in three Baltimore kids graduates from high school. For those who stay in, the news isn’t much better: one in five American high school seniors graduates illiterate. And every miserable bit of education news skews worse for boys. Boys underperform compared to girls in every grade and subject. They’re medicated, disciplined, suspended, and expelled far more often than girls are. In what should be in screaming, fist-sized headlines daily, nationwide the majority of our African American and Hispanic boys drop out of high school. Some of our schools are little more than holding pens, releasing antsy, angry, unskilled young men into our communities.

There, young men are pounded by the second force: the harshest economy facing graduates and dropouts since the Great Depression. Economists may debate whether or not we are officially in a recession, but there’s no doubt that our economy falters, as thirteen million are unemployed, nine million are underemployed, and millions more “discouraged” workers have given up on looking for a job altogether. For young men the numbers are even worse than the painful national averages. For them, the jobless rate hovers at 18 percent—four million young American men who want to contribute and earn an income and support themselves and their families, but who just can’t find a job. Like the rest of America’s jobless, they’ll likely resort to relying on public assistance. An astonishing forty-six million Americans today need food stamps (now issued on debit cards), a huge jump in the last two years. So many people run out of food at the end of the month that Walmart now opens many stores at 12:01 a.m. on the days the cards are loaded, to allow for the midnight rush of hungry Americans.

One hundred million Americans are now poor or near poor.

Traditionally “male” jobs? They are mostly gone, and they are not coming back. Most of the jobs lost since the Great Recession commenced in 2008 disappeared from the predominately male sectors such as construction and manufacturing. In 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot warned of the giant sucking sound we’d hear if the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, sending American jobs to Mexico, but even Perot could not have imagined the gargantuan vacuum created when millions of American manufacturing jobs were siphoned off to China, India, and elsewhere. Those jobs are now extinct in America. The giant sucking sound turned out to be a muted, steady bleed-out of the blue-collar male work force.

As they are negotiating their way through our miserable schools and jobless economy, our popular culture—the third soul-leeching, invisible force—seduces our boys with flashy, loud messages that manhood equals macho bravado, emotional numbness, ignorance, and thugdom. “Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it,” raps NBA star Allan Iverson. “I’m a leader, not a reader,” said a once-leading presidential candidate in 2011, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  As our sons turn away from books and school and knowledge and critical thinking, the alarming new idea that “reading is girly” has caught on among them. Glamorization of drug use has increased six-fold in rap and hip-hop music, a genre that once warned “don’t do it!”; now a full 69 percent of songs in these genres contain positive references to illegal drugs. “I got mushrooms, I got acid, I got tabs,” raps Eminem, idol to many boys, “I’m your brother when you need some new weed . . . I’m your friend.”

There is one road for boys who don’t overcome their failing schools, who aren’t exceptional enough to find a job where there is none, who absorb the message that real men express anger via gun violence or who use or sell drugs to escape or to make a few bucks, and that road has one dead-end terminus: our ever-expanding, bursting-to-the-seams prisons. Our prison population has skyrocketed to its highest level in US history, more than any other country on earth now or in human history, more than anyone could have imagined a generation ago, more than we have ever had by any measure—raw numbers, percentage of our population, you name it. Largely casualties of our misguided War on Drugs, which has caused the number of incarcerated Americans to quadruple since 1980: over two million of our people are locked up, 93 percent of them men and boys, with another nearly five million under an increasingly restrictive system of correctional control in lieu of or after incarceration. This fourth potent force, mass incarceration, deprives its subjects of a future by literally locking them in cages. Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often unable to vote, get a job, secure housing, or support a family.

In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We may be the last country on the planet to lock up juveniles—overwhelmingly boys—for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors.

New prisons are under construction as you read this, waiting to house the next generation of American boys.

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Born into this user-unfriendly world, one not of their choosing and entirely beyond their control, our sons need us now more than ever. Ensnared by these four powerful forces—failing schools, an unwelcoming economy, thug culture, and a harshly punitive justice system—more boys and young men than ever are on the sidelines, cut out of a middle-class life, scratching their heads as to how that happened. Although women and girls suffer under these conditions too, there’s no question that, on the whole, these forces disproportionately hammer our boys.

To help them, we need to understand deeply the waters in which our boys swim. Parents, family members, teachers—all of us who care about boys—need to know. Closing our eyes and hoping for the best won’t cut it, not when our boys live in the real world. And so the first half of this book is an unvarnished, clear-eyed look at what our sons are facing, day in and day out, right now, as they navigate through boyhood and emerge as young men, yearning for a decent life.

Knowing matters. Without an awareness of each of these conditions and how they whipsaw our boys, we as parents may apply obsolete attitudes that unintentionally harm them. For example, we may think that although we didn’t finish school, we’ve still done all right, and although we’d all like our sons to graduate, if they don’t, they’ll probably get by. Wrong. The job market for young men has changed dramatically in the last decade, as I will explain. Or we may think that the older generation has always objected to kids’ music, and we’d sound like fuddy-duddies if we complained. Wrong. We’re not talking about a little racy innuendo; some of the biggest artists today advocate joining the Crips, punching your girlfriend, or murdering gay men. You need to know. You need to stare down the reality and critically discuss media messages with your boy. In these and so many other areas, knowledge is power when raising your son to manhood.

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These are challenging times not only for boys but also for parents and nearly everyone in the bottom 99 percent of American families. Layoffs and foreclosures slam us directly or, if we still have jobs and homes, threaten us like dark clouds overhead that never seem to dissipate. Discouraged but soldiering on, we adapt and endure. Resigned, many adults grudgingly accept less for ourselves: a harder life than we expected, a less fulfilling job, living in a depressed neighborhood. We muddle through. We postpone our dreams. We adjust.

But when we become parents, something stirs. Mothers and fathers look at their sleeping babies, and they awaken. Although we’ll put up with doors closing in our own lives, we will not accept bleak futures for our children. Not a single one of us. It is deeply encoded in our parenting DNA to want—to clamor for—more for them, to sacrifice our time and effort and dollars to give them that better life. Immigrant parents leap across rivers and oceans and borders like Superman to give their children opportunities they never had. A party girl brings a life into being and suddenly she’s Wonder Woman, casting off her old ways, assuming the mantle of protector, insisting on the best for her son. A one-time slacker-dad internalizes Spiderman’s credo: with great power comes great responsibility. We rise to the occasion.

Singlehandedly, we may not be able to turn around our failing schools, our dumbed-down and punitive culture, or our stagnant economy. (Though we can and should push back at every opportunity.) But there is a great deal we as parents can do at little or no cost to give our boys the advantages they need right now to jack up their odds of finishing high school, going to college, and leading a decent, free life in which they can not only support a family but also contribute to their communities. Because parenting can’t wait. Our boys are growing up now, in conditions they did not create, and they deserve more than an adulthood defined by illiteracy, poverty, and reporting to a parole officer.

This book will show you how.  There is much good news in the form of research-proven, parent-tested, teacher-approved solutions. These steps are mostly free or cheap, can be done anywhere by nearly any caring adult, and will significantly boost your boy’s chances of surviving and thriving notwithstanding all the hurdles our culture throws in his path. Powerful forces may be aligned against him, but his number-one role model has always been and always will be you: Mom, Dad, or the grown-up who has the guts to step up to the plate for him.

Give your boy a hug, don your superhero cape, and let’s begin.

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