September 29, 2011

A Critical Piece of the Manhood Puzzle

Mark Moore was my hero. He was a regular old-school fireman, back before the spectacular heroism of 9-11. So it wasn't the fact of his profession that elevated him in my eyes. No, it was simply that he was the only man in my nine-year-old world who understood me. He was my next door neighbor. He lived close enough to hear my father's drunken rages and my mother's crying. He saw the car parked on grass in the front yard where my dad had left it the night before. He observed the sad lack of maintenance on our house, and he witnessed the many times I went running from the house in tears. Mark knew the horror of my world and still, for his own reasons, he picked me and gave me the only positive adult male attention I knew in those days.

Mark taught me to fish. I remember the awe I felt the first time he showed me his tackle box. It was the most mysterious collection of tools for getting the meat I had ever seen. The lures were colorful, each with a name and a special use. And dam that box was fragrant. I didn't learn until much later the otherworldly smell was a collection of thirty years' worth of mixed beer and dried fish guts.

Mark found the time to do things with me and sometimes a couple of my boy-pack buddies. We would visit him and the other men at the firehouse and got to slide down the brass pole from the second floor dorm. We'd build things together too. I can still smell the sawdust from the footstool we constructed in his garage workshop one hot summer. Then there was the time he took us all up to the top of the Highland Water Tower on the one day of the year it was open. The tower was the highest point in our town at the time and it offered an expansive vista. One at a time, he lifted each of us up to peer over the safety rail and then he pointed out the important places in our neighborhood. He said, “There’s your house, and there’s the movie theater. Over there is where you go to school, and way out there is the fairgrounds.” In a way, Mark was doing for me what men have done with boys for centuries, seeing their gifts, choosing to be engaged, and lifting them up and showing them the important parts of the masculine landscape. My dad wasn't really present for me, I had Superman on television back in those days, but Mark was my real superhero. I was a horribly lost little boy who became a lost teen, and it was Mark who saved my life.

The first of two sad truths about manhood today is too many young males are going lost, being imprisoned, and dying on their journey to manhood because good men like Mark are not showing up for them. All parents, but especially single moms and dads, struggle mightily to raise boys. The flood of testosterone in a teenaged male's body generates feelings of enormous physical power and potential. The young dudes then proceed to push and shove, be defiant, constantly test limits, and generally do foolish things because of the incomplete wiring of their young brains. It's not a matter of choice, adolescent males are simply compelled and propelled by their biology. Without the containment and direction a tribe of older males naturally provide, we have lost young males and Golding’s Lord of the Flies everywhere. It's why I believe we don't have a young male violence problem in the world today, but an epidemic of under-male-nourished young males.
I believe we don't have a young male violence problem in the world today,
but an epidemic of under-male-nourished young males.

The other sad truth about manhood is about lost men. Men and manhood have taken it in the chops from bad wars, feminism, and brutal economic times. Manhood is constantly under assault in today's media. A recent article in my hometown newspaper titled, Men Behaving Sadly, points out this coming season of TV shows feature, “. . . more than a half a dozen male characters questioning their masculinity and their place in a ‘woman’s world.’” Men's institutions have been invaded, and even men's natural tendencies have come under incitement. Collectively, these and other forces have had a devastating impact on male esteem. The result is lost and confused men, collectively and globally, looking for a vision of manhood that will help men feel good about themselves and reshape the important parts of the masculine landscape.

Thankfully, the discussion about lost men and an upside vision of manhood is well under way. This Man-Making Blog post is part of a special series this month on The End of Gender by bloggers from Role/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostSalonHyperVocalMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone, and The Next Great Generation.

While the pieces of the manhood puzzle will take some time to come together, I can clearly name one necessary and critical piece right now. It's the one ancient masculine competency hardwired into all men and what Mark Moore had in spades. Mark somehow found the willingness to step out from behind his fears and reach out to the next generation of boys. He offered his gloriously imperfect self as a guide to young boys on their journey toward manhood.

Making men out of adolescent males is men's work. It's necessary and life-saving for the boys, it supports families, and it reduces the chaos and violence in our communities. The big secret is until men put this piece in place, men are not whole. Conversely, when men claim that core piece of the manhood puzzle, the male hierarchy is restored, boys see an achievable path to manhood, there is peace in the village, and men inhabit their right place in the order of things.
"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Fredrick Douglass

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September 20, 2011

Beautiful (and Confusing) Teen Brains

In his recent article in the October 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, David Dobbs says, through brain imaging available today, we can now get a literal picture of how brains work. We can actually watch the gradual development of the human brain from 12 years old until the mid-twenties when adult functioning begins to emerge. He offers us a wonderful and mostly understandable description of how the human brain increases in complexity with age. How, in time, that evolution in brain wiring results in what we might call maturity and the ability to better sort, balance and prioritize all the competing agendas, internal drives, rules, peer pressure, and stimuli a teen is faced with every day, and make reasoned choices. These are exactly the kind of choices that seem to escape so many of today’s teens.

I love how Dobbs lays out what is at the heart of much adult frustration with teenagers. He says, “These studies help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday.” It also explains why teens persist in doing what adults consider foolish things!

The article gives a very detailed description of why teens are so drawn to experiences of risk, novelty, and excitement, and why they are so drawn to value the company of their peers above that of parents or other adults. It is also one of the few descriptions that offers upside explanations as to why natural selection hasn't resulted in the elimination of the foolishness of adolescents.

We know that teens love excitement. Young humans seek risk more aggressively as teens than at any other age. Most adult males I know have a catalog of stupid things they did as teens and sad tales of the consequences. There are always narrow escapes, bizarre escapades, and foolish adventures that seem funny in retrospect but many of which might have resulted in death. Among the most frightening is the statistic that one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol. This sad reality is clearly reflected in the automobile insurance rates charged for adolescent males wanting to drive. Testosterone, the love of a thrill and risk taking don’t mix well with easy access to alcohol and cars.
. . . virtually all the world's cultures recognize adolescence
as a distinct period in which adolescents
prefer novelty, excitement, and peers.
In so many ways, our teens, with their poorly wired brains, hunger for sensation, risk, novelty, and excitement, need our compassion, not our shaming expressions of frustration. They need our understanding, and then, most importantly, they need guidance, limits setting, role modeling . . . they need caring adults around to play the role of their underdeveloped frontal cortex. They need a caring adult in their lives to consistently set the limits they are not able to yet grasp or form for themselves. As David Dobbs puts it, “Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.”

At this link, you can hear a recent National Public Radio program on this topic. It included David Dobbs, and two brain researchers: BJ Casey, a Professor and Director of the Sackler Institute at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist, Dr. Jay Giedd.

In the video clip below, Dr. Giedd describes how current technologies, including social media, are impacting the brains of today’s teens. He calls teenagers today, digital natives, kids who have never know a time without technology. He believes that for all of the information available to them today, one of the most powerful ways to influence them is by solid and positive adult role modeling.

If the clip doesn't show up, use this link.

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September 13, 2011

The Lakes Area Guys Network - LAGN

The Lakes Area Guys Network (LAGN) was born in August of 2009 when I went to Brainerd, MN to discuss a group mentoring model for men and young males. I was part of a conversation with a gathering of community and social service agency representatives at the town library. Together they expressed concern for the problems many young males were creating in their town. It was the hope that a coordinated effort could be created to support these young men.

Their target population was middle school (grades 5-8) with an emphasis on those from single parent families. The idea was that boys would take part in activities with good men from the community and the fun and positive attention would be good for all the males involved. This experimental program would easily be populated with boys through referrals from schools, social service agencies and even law enforcement.

Some time prior to the community meeting, the Kinship Partners mentoring program in Brainerd had started an experiment of its own. A group of outdoorsman who came together through bible study at a local church decided they wanted to give back to their community. A couple of the men from the church were already mentors in the Kinship Partners program and a partnership was formed. With Kinship doing the background screening of volunteers, their program was launched. Soon the men of the church and boys from their faith community were going on monthly outdoor adventures. That initiative didn't last, however, and about the time it was winding down, my presentation at the library was held. Following that meeting, a new community venture was formed. LAGN's first activities were held in January of 2010.

Fishermen and Boys
Today, the LAGN has become an official group mentoring project of Kinship Partners. There is a core group of six men who are responsible for the logistics of the 2-3 activities a month for young males and men from the Brainerd Lakes area. Events are usually outdoors (all seasons) and involve fun and physical activities. Examples include kickball, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, broomball, snow tubing, disc golf, football, whiffleball, and fishing - their most popular offering in a land of lakes.

LAGN is still working on recruiting men to share their interests and skills, and is always looking for sponsors and financial contributors. But they are cooking along and making a difference in the lives of boys, men, and their community.

If you have an interest in a LAGN like program for your community, send me a message and let's talk about how to start it!

For information about LAGN, contact David Downing, the Executive Director of Kinship Partners at (218) 454-8013 or email him at:

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September 3, 2011

Heroes, Sheroes, and Gospel for Teens

This post is about what I call Heroes and Sheroes. People I hold in high esteem because of the work they do and the stand they have taken for kids. I hope their stories are inspirational and motivational for you.

The first is Mike Patrick, a man I'm so proud to call my friend and easily one of my biggest heroes. Exactly 40 years ago on September 3rd, as Mike says, he was sentenced to the electric chair. Not the kind you find in prison, but a motorized wheelchair. At a high school football game on that evening of September 3, 1971, Mike was tackled and in the process his neck was broken. In that instant, he became a sixteen year old quadriplegic, an athlete unable to walk, and a student unable to even turn the pages of a book.

Mike's very long recovery included surgeries, repeated hospitalizations, and a run in with depression. When he was able, Mike went back to school, got a teaching degree, and set out to change the lives of as many kids on the planet as possible. He rolled into a 26 year career as a professional speaker, teaching young people all across the US to really consider their true potential. His amazing Think About It program helps kids (and adults) overcome obstacles, invites them to creatively solve problems, and to always push through any barriers to being their best. As Mike likes to point out, "The problem is not the issue, the issue is how you deal with the problem." I encourage you to visit Mike's website, and learn more about this remarkable man. I guarantee it will be a day brightener.

It was Mike Patrick who pointed me to the work of  Vy Higgenson, a true Sheroe. Vy is lifting up the young people of Harlem, New York through her Gospel for Teens program. She is a solid example of how someone can take a personal passion and shape it into a force for changing the lives of countless young people.

Just below you'll find video clips of two segments from the TV Show, 60 Minutes, profiling Vy and her Gospel for Teens program. Watching, you'll quickly understand why Vy is one of my sheroes. Like Mike Patrick, her story is another eye-dampening, day brightener.

It's easy to be in awe of these people, but be careful not to put them on a pedestal. They both started with limited resources and a powerful passion for what they loved doing. As you watch, consider the fact that you, too, have this same capacity in you. What would Mike or Vy have to say to you about going for it?
Segment One:
If the video for segment ONE doesn't show up, use this link.

Segment Two:
If the video for segment TWO doesn't show up, use this link.

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