Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Competing Purposes
What Is the Purpose of Boys?
We Who Care for Boys and Men
PART I - Understanding the Purpose of Boys
Chapter 1 - The Loss of Purpose in American Boyhood
Why Parents Want to Provide Purpose for Boys
Moving Forward with New Vision
Chapter 2 - How Little Boys Develop Their Sense of Purpose
The Empathy of Boys
Brain Differences Between Boys and Girls
How Boys and Girls Need Purpose Differently
Your Little Boy’s Need to Save the World
Asking the Deep Questions of Boys
Chapter 3 - How Adolescent Boys Seek Their Purpose in Life
The Young Seeker Among the Primitive and the Civilized
How Adolescent Boys and Girls Seek and Develop Purpose Differently
What Motivates Different Boys
Helping Our Sons Seek Respect in Adolescence
Moving Forward with a Map in Hand
Chapter 4 - Son, You Are My Hero
The Heroic Son
The Story of Joseph
The Story Ends, for Now
PART 2 - Helping Our Sons Find Their Purpose in Life
Chapter 5 - Creating Families of Purpose for Boys
Creating a Three-Family System: The Parent-Led Team
The Development of a Boy’s Sense of Destiny in the Family System
The Ten Values Tool
The Value of Teaching Sexual Purpose
Helping Our Sons Find Purposeful Work
Helping Boys Find Purpose in Their Media Use
A Boy’s Search for Freedom
Chapter 6 - Creating Communities of Purpose for Boys
The Loss of Communities of Purpose for Boys
What the Community Can Do for Our Sons
Forming Purposeful Communities for African American Boys
Changing Helping Professions to Focus on Boys’ Needs
Enjoying Communities of Purpose with Boys
Chapter 7 - Changing Schools Toward Relevance and Purpose for Boys
How Boys Are Struggling for Purpose in School
Fixing the Mismatch Between Schools and the Purpose of Boys
Investing in Schools of Purpose
Chapter 8 - Creating and Providing Rites of Passage for Your Son
Guiding a Son Through Male Adolescence
Developing Your Own Rite-of-Passage Programs
The “Here I Am” Rite-of-Passage Program
The Power of Purposeful Men

Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child’s
Unique Core Personality
The Wonder of Children
(previously published as The Soul of the Child)
The Wonder of Girls
The Wonder of Boys
A Fine Young Man
The Good Son
What Stories Does My Son Need?
(with Terry Trueman)
What Could He Be Thinking?
Love’s Journey
Mothers, Sons and Lovers
The Prince and the King
The Minds of Boys (with Kathy Stevens)
Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents
(with Patricia Henley and Terry Trueman)
The Boys and Girls Learn Differently Action Guide for Teachers
(with Arlette C. Ballew)
Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls—Elementary Level:
A Workbook for Educators
Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls—Secondary Level: A Workbook for Educators Successful Single Sex Classrooms: A Practical Guide for Teaching Boys and Girls Differently (with Kathy Stevens and Peggy Daniels)
Leadership and the Sexes: Using Gender Science to Create Success in Business
(with Barbara Annis)
The Leading Partners Workbook (with Katherine Coles and Kathy Stevens)
Understanding Guys
From Boys to Men
The Miracle
An American Mystic
The Odyssey of Telemachus
As the Swans Gather
It’s a Baby Boy! (with Adrian Goldberg and Stacie Bering)
It’s a Baby Girl! (with Adrian Goldberg and Stacie Bering)


Gail, Gabrielle, and Davita,
my first family
Kathy Stevens, Alan Rinzler,
and everyone in my second family
All the boys, parents, teachers, and others who make up
an ever-expanding third family for all the sons of our world

This book grows from the inspiration and work of many people, both professional and personal. Alan Rinzler, my editor, has joined me for almost two decades in writing efforts that seek to help families and our culture understand our children. He is an editor and also a friend, and I thank him for his devotion to this work.
At Jossey-Bass and John Wiley, Alan is surrounded by a wonderful group of publishers and staff. Many thanks to Debra Hunter, Paul Foster, Jennifer Wenzel, Carol Hartland, Nana K. Twumasi, Andrea Flint, Donna Cohn, and all of you who care so much about families and the cultural changes we are all involved in.
A big thank-you also to Candice Fuhrman, my advocate and agent, who has shepherded this and so many other worthy projects through the publishing process.
Many thanks also to Kathy Stevens, Kelley King, Don Stevens, Daniel Amen, MD, Fran Spielhagen, PhD, Judith Kleinfeld, PhD, Tom Mortenson, PhD, the board of the Boys Project, Lori Ames, Robert Haley, the 100 Black Men Organization of Atlanta, and so many other professionals who care about the purpose of boys.
My deep thanks to the moms, dads, grandparents, and other family members who have shared their wisdom and stories, both through my family therapy practice and through public dialogues.
My thanks also to my brother Phil, whose Web and research talents provide magic from the Internet. He can locate things I couldn’t even dream of finding!
My thanks to the Gurian Institute’s certified trainers and associates, who have shared their stories with me so that I could share them with you. Our training institute (www.gurianinstitute.com) has had the honor of working in thousands of schools and communities in the United States and abroad because individuals, professionals, and caring institutions have helped us to do so.
This book is the result of twenty-five years of research, both scholarly and wisdom-of-practice, and of listening to what others are doing and thinking about boys. Our sons’ lives today represent one of the largest cultural shifts in human history. My thanks to all of you who, through your generous actions, care for the purpose of boys.

Purpose: aim, intention, determination; by design; to put before oneself something to be done or accomplished

What do you want me to be? I want to be somebody! I just want to be somebody!
MY FATHER-IN-LAW, DEAN REID, NOW GRAY-HAIRED, thin, eighty-five, and a man of few words, was twenty-two, blond-haired, and full of vigor when he flew B-12 bombers over an embattled Europe in 1943. Shot down in Germany, he ejected from his pilot seat, saw that his crew was dead, and limped north toward Norway. Captured by Nazi infantry before he could make it back to freedom, he lived out the rest of World War II in Nazi POW camps near Marburg and Nuremburg.
After his liberation in 1945, he returned to Nebraska, and to his sweetheart, Margaret. During their five decades of marriage, he didn’t speak more than a few words to her about his wartime experiences. When I met my wife, Gail, the third child of Margaret and Dean Reid, she told me her father had been shot down in World War II, but “He just doesn’t discuss it.” Indeed, during the first decade of our marriage, he did not.
But in 1997, when Dean was seventy-four, his mind and heart opened. The film Saving Private Ryan affected him deeply, and he decided to show his family, including his wife, children, and grandchildren, journals and notes from his time in the war. He recalled how it felt to be the pilot so young, so powerless to save his comrades. He also recalled how committed he felt, when he was liberated from the POW camp and came home, to “being a man.”
“A guy had to figure out pretty quick how to become a man, or he wouldn’t survive,” Dean said. “When I got home, I didn’t think too much: I just got to work and raised a family. It’s what everyone had fought and died for.”
What was it in Saving Private Ryan that triggered Dean to look back at his war experiences and share his wisdom? It was many things, he told me, especially what happens at the end of the film, when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who has been a mentor to young private Ryan (Matt Damon), dies after a battle on a bridge. His right hand trembling, his eyes closing, Miller whispers to Ryan his last words of wisdom: “Earn this.” Ryan hears the whisper amid the storms of noises around him, watches Miller die, then stands up.
The camera watches his young face for a moment, then his face transforms into the face of an elderly man, Private Ryan in his mid-seventies, standing at Captain Miller’s grave among the rows of white crosses at Arlington Cemetery. This elder Ryan’s children and grandchildren are behind him as he turns to his wife, tears in his eyes, and murmurs, “Did I do it? Am I a good man?” His wife is surprised by the question, perhaps because her husband, like Dean, has not spoken of his struggles or the “earn this” during the war, but she responds tenderly, “You did. You are.”
If you have not watched this movie and you are raising or educating sons, I hope you will. For Dean Reid and for so many of us, a great deal of what males are striving for in the world, both as boys and men, is glimpsed in the film’s final moments. Captain Miller’s final words to Private Ryan instruct him to do the very thing that my father-in-law had to do. By saying, “Earn this,” the mentor, Miller, is in effect saying to Ryan, “Everyone in this war has died so that you, young man, can live—what will you do with your life? Will you become a good man? Will you live out an important purpose in your life? Manhood is a sacred trust bestowed on you by everyone who has come before and sacrificed all so that you could get your chance to be free. Don’t waste it.”

Competing Purposes

I was born in 1958, and like so many boys my age, grew up enamored of World War II male heroism. At the same time, as a baby boomer, I came of age in a generation where the male role began one of its most significant shifts in human history. The boys and men of the baby boomer generation experienced a profound change in their self-concept of what is a man, what is an appropriate male role, and how we can, as men, relate to women.
My parents, Jack and Julia Gurian, were five years younger than Gail’s parents, Dean and Margaret. My parents helped define my vision of boyhood and manhood by taking my brother, sister, and me on peace marches. My father had served as an instructor in the Air Force between the Second World War and the Korean War, before I was born. But now that they had children, both of my parents (as university professors and later cultural officers in the American Foreign Service), spent their youthful energy fighting against the Vietnam War. Unlike Dean’s coming of age fighting the evil of Nazi fascism in aerial battles (and internment), my parents came of age protesting a war they considered immoral, and volunteering through state social service agencies to help returning troops utilize the GI Bill and resettle into American life. My parents’ heroes were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, not John Wayne or the Green Berets. My father fulfilled his role and purpose as a man by turning away from violence and, alongside my mother, teaching the bravery of nonviolence.
Needless to say, I grew through boyhood and toward manhood with competing internal trajectories. I loved John Wayne movies, and with my brother, played GI Joe in the backyard when my parents weren’t looking. When I came indoors or went on a peace march with my parents, however, I did so as a follower of Gandhi’s philosophy.
One evening in 1968, I remember the two sides of my budding male self coming together. I was ten, standing with my family outside a jail entrance as my father and a number of other protestors against the war in Vietnam—mainly professors and students—were released following their arrest at a nonviolent peace march. Shouts of support rang out around us, but also, just a few feet away were shouts of opposition from protestors who supported the war—many of them dressed in camouflage uniforms. Some of them, Vietnam, Korean, and World War II vets, stood at attention, proud and ready for anything. I respected my father, my mother, and the other adults in our community for their brave purpose; I also envied the soldiers their uniforms and powerful role in beating away the forces of evil. I was a young adolescent boy who wondered which course would bring the most glory and respect, the most passion, the biggest thrill, and the most meaning and success.
I see myself now as somewhat emblematic of the confusion of the males of my generation. The traditional masculine role was being deconstructed, yet we boys yearned to hold on to its clarities of male purpose. A new role for boys and men was trying to germinate and grow, yet it was murky, and caught up in familial and social tensions not sufficiently resolved to help boys become men of clarity. So, for me, in 1968, and well into the seventies and eighties, my clear purpose in life didn’t emerge as early as that of Dean, Margaret, Jack, or Julia. My situation back then, common to many men of my generation, is becoming even more confusing and potentially dangerous today for the boys, women, and culture of the X, Y, and Millennial generations.

What Is the Purpose of Boys?

As an advocate for children, I see a world in which boys are asking us every day, and mainly through their actions, “What is the purpose of boys?” And for the most part, our culture is answering, “We don’t know.” This is not an ideal situation, neither for male development nor human development, and so this book is about finding a better answer.

How This Book Proposes to Answer the Question

Those of you who care about boys today are poised to answer the question, “What is the purpose of boys?” in all that you do every day. This book is an eight-chapter tool kit for helping you. It is a map you can use to help your son wrestle with everyday life events and growth. It is a way to help your son seek a successful future, while still a boy, adolescent, and young man.
In Chapter One, “The Loss of Purpose in American Boyhood,” I’ll present research regarding what can happen to boys who are not helped toward a rigorous and joyful purpose during the first two decades of their development. I will show that if boys are not directed toward joyful roles and positive purpose, they can be manipulated toward a socially isolating or dangerous purpose later on—they may remain aimless and unmotivated, even lost, as adult males who grow male bodies but do not become fully loving, wise, and successful men.
In Chapters Two through Four, we’ll look carefully at fascinating science-based information about what is happening inside your sons as they grow up, from birth through early adulthood, seeking motivation, self-confidence, purpose, and meaning, in both their biology and culture. I’ll present new models for understanding boys’ development and each chapter will include tips and tools for communicating with your son as he grows. These will help you develop, in concert with him, a deep and fruitful answer to the question of purpose in his life.
Part Two of the book includes four chapters of insight, practical strategies, and social and emotional tools with which you can develop and lead a team of family members to care for your son. We’ll specifically explore the roles of:
• The nuclear and extended family
• Communities and neighborhoods
• The best schools for boys
• Specific rite-of-passage experiences
We’ll look at tools that you and everyone around you can use as an organized “team” to ensure boys’ success and happiness. In all these chapters, I’ll feature practical strategies that have been proven—not just in the United States but around the world—to help mold successful sons.

Tools We Need to Develop Purpose in Boys

The models and insights in The Purpose of Boys are presented in such a way that you can apply them immediately. Their usefulness and wisdom grows from:
1. Research in new biological sciences, which are teaching us amazing things about boy biology and its “hardwiring” toward the development of purpose. As a researcher in brain biology since 1983, and a therapist who specializes in how males and females develop differently, also as author of The Wonder of Boys and The Minds of Boys, I have been studying the biology of boyhood for a quarter century. The models and insights in this book are based on human biology seen through a nonstereotyping, science-based lens.
2. Insights from social anthropology, which can help us understand the importance of building purpose into boys’ lives from a historical and cultural perspective. Positive attention is being paid in our culture recently to the issue of purpose. The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren, has focused readers on life purpose from a Christian perspective. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose has approached the topic in a more new age way. To Kindle a Soul, by Lawrence Kelemen, has explored a child’s development of purpose from a Jewish perspective. Stanford University’s William Damon has looked at youth and purpose development in more secular terms in his recent The Path to Purpose. The Purpose of Boys takes the growing social dialogue into a practical parenting vision specifically for boys’ development.
3. Crucial sociological research regarding how many of our sons are receiving too little help from social institutions in developing a sense of purpose—purpose is too little understood in the male context—and therefore failing to thrive, whether in school, work, or marriage and parenting.
4. Anecdotes from parents, teachers, and mentors like you, who have shared their success stories about raising sons with our Gurian Institute team, providing tried-and-true practical advice. Throughout this book, you’ll find stories, anecdotes, and insights from parents and caregivers who have been guiding the male development of purpose with success and a beautiful, joyful sense of mission. You’ll visit schools that have improved boys’ lives by making curricula relevant and purposeful in male development. You will meet whole communities of people whose lives have been changed by their understanding of the development of a boy toward purpose.
5. Words of wisdom from ancient and modern sources regarding purpose development in boys, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Hughes, William Blake, and many others, whose teachings appear throughout the book.
6. Insight about how to activate “a developmental journey to meaning” in both boys and men, including models gained from my own family therapy practice, and from other professionals who focus on the development of purpose and well-being in boys and men. Over the last twenty years, I have developed the CORE model (Compassion, Honor, Responsibility, Enterprise), the Ten Integrities Teaching Tool, the Three Families Paradigm, and, with my training partner Kathy Stevens, the Boys and Girls Learn Differently! curriculum. These tools have been utilized and tested by tens of thousands of parents and teachers in more than two thousand schools and communities.

Specific Questions to Be Answered

Our children’s grandparents and great-grandparents answered the question, “What is the purpose of boys?” in ways dictated by necessity. Our generation and the generations to come are not as limited by that necessity, but without such compelling necessity, we’ve come to a time in history when parents and children aren’t sure what the purpose of our sons should be. We often do not answer the questions our sons are tacitly, and in their inner worlds, asking us.
When we were in our mid-twenties, Gail and I taught in Ankara, Turkey, and completed research in male and female development in village and city culture. In Ankara we met a lawyer who had been raised in a village near Diyarbakir, in southern Turkey. “In our villages,” he said, “everyone works very hard together to craft our boys into men. We become afraid of them, if we don’t. The last thing we want is for men to carry empty souls in their big bodies.”
As we spoke, I understood what he meant by “craft our boys into men.” He meant, first, helping them discover their own natural gifts, and second, helping them bring those gifts to a state of worthiness in the community. “Purpose,” we agreed, meant “reason for being here,” and “purpose of boys” meant “reason for being here as a man, at this time, on this earth.”
As this lawyer knew, boys are asking questions about who they are every day. Parents and other caregivers are asking questions which, though they might not realize it, provide their sons with wonderful answers. The Purpose of Boys is written to help you answer hidden questions. Here are some that will be answered specifically in this book:
• How can I help my late-maturing son?
• How do I raise an emotionally intelligent son?
• What does it mean to raise “a man of character”?
• What discussion starters can I use to reach my son, especially when he seems to be putting up walls against me?
• What does a purposeful family and community look like?
• How do I teach boys as much empathy as I do toughness?
• What kind of discipline destroys a boy’s spirit, and what kind enlivens his inner drive to succeed?
• What practical things can schools do to make the classroom more helpful for boys?
• What specific rites of passage can we develop so every son can have a safe and powerful journey throughout adolescence to manhood?
• What is the role of video games, the Internet, and other technologies in a modern boy’s search for meaning and purpose—and what limits are crucial for sons of different ages?
• What are the distinct gifts of mothers, fathers, and others in providing boys a path to purpose and meaning?
• How can we help boys integrate their sexual urges into a sense of purpose in love and intimacy?
• How can we raise sons to be good husbands and fathers?

We Who Care for Boys and Men

We who care today about the lives of boys and men have an immediate and profound mission, inherent in our position as mothers and fathers, teachers, mentors, citizens, and friends. That mission is nothing less than to help each boy develop into a creative spirit, trustworthy friend, moral leader, and meaningful man. Our mission is nothing less than to protect and nurture the future of humanity.
I believe every boy wants to find his purpose in life. Every boy is trying to overcome bumps on the road while he is a boy. We cannot walk the road for him every step of the way, but we must at least bring him to it and help point him in the right direction. This book is devoted to that adventure—for ultimately, I believe, we are each called to the practical task of helping one boy at a time awaken, direct, and animate his inborn and natural call to be fully human.
As you read this book, I hope that your sons, like your daughters, will make you most proud when they surpass you. I hope they will awaken one day during adulthood and realize, “I am on a path of service to my family, friends, and community, I am doing what I was born to do, and I could not have gotten here without the help I got along the way.”

Understanding the Purpose of Boys
Boys are so filled with yearning and adventure, I don’t want to lose a single one. I want to help all of them channel their energy creatively and wisely, like the heroes they read about in books.

The Loss of Purpose in American Boyhood
How are our boys needed in the world? They need to be needed, but these days they aren’t sure how to be needed. That’s not only sad—it’s potentially dangerous.
AS YOU READ THIS BOOK, I hope you’ll find it joyful and filled with hope about the future. Yet it can’t be an honest book—nor can we be fully honest parents and caregivers of our sons—if we don’t take a moment to look at what is happening to boys, men, and male development in our culture.
A mother of three children recently put it this way:
I have a son, fifteen, and two daughters, thirteen and nineteen. All of us try to help my son focus, but he just doesn’t seem to care about anything. He’s a great kid, there’s nothing wrong with him morally or personally, but he just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. He’s getting Cs and Ds in school (his sisters do much better), and he skips a lot of classes. He does like Lacrosse, but mainly because he’s good at it, and he likes his friends. Other than that, he plays video games, chats online, and listens to his iPod. He isn’t disrespectful to me or any of us in his family, except when we try to prod him to go out and DO something. That just makes him mad. After a talk I gave recently, a father told me,
I think boys and girls are very different. My daughter will do whatever is right in front of her, and try to do it well. A birth defect keeps her from being athletic, but that doesn’t stop her—she works hard in school, and she started working in a Baskin-Robbins when she was sixteen. So it’s not like life is easy for my daughter, but for my son, it’s like he thinks life should be easy. He thinks stuff should come to him, and if it doesn’t come easy, to heck with it. And he’s really pie-in-the-sky. He thinks way ahead—I’m gonna be Bill Gates, he says—but he can’t see right now. I think maybe I was like that too, at his age, but my work ethic was stronger.
Both of these parents are sensing a similar undercurrent in boys’ cultural lives today by observing their own sons.
Another parent’s email began,
I am the mother of three sons. They are twenty-one, nineteen, and seventeen. My youngest has struggled with school since the sixth grade. He went into the special education process in seventh grade. He gave up on school in his junior year of high school, and we got him in the alternative school. He dropped out of that and left home and now works at the beach. He has no plans to come back home or go back to school. Our whole family has been in and out of counseling with him for years, but still we can’t figure out what to do. He just doesn’t seem to find himself.
I have received thousands of messages like this over the last decade, and I have talked with thousands of parents of boys and girls. In 2005, after publishing an article in the Washington Post called “Disappearing Act” (which asked the public to wonder why so many boys in culture-rich America were “disappearing” from positive, motivated, and directed life paths), I received more than a thousand emails in one week. Parents, teachers, and policymakers wrote to express their love of boys and young men, as well as their fear of losing them; their desire to help them, as well as their lack of clarity on how to do so; and their sense that school and life were feeling irrelevant and purposeless to many of their own sons. The writers all expressed their feeling that easy fixes are not available.

Why Parents Want to Provide Purpose for Boys

In nearly every email of this kind that I’ve received, I hear a hidden song, one of great hunger that I’ve been listening to for decades, and one that I believe a whole culture is beginning to sing loudly: Parents realize that boys and young men need a purpose in life, and that far too many don’t have one. Parents sense that a boy’s lack of purpose—his lack of a drive toward a reason for being, important role, and sense of being needed—and society’s gradual diminishing of its focus on providing what males need are the foundation of so many other issues that we face with boys and young men.
The following are some of the core issues of male purposelessness as noted by parents:
• Schools filled with caring teachers and staff, but schools not set up to care for and motivate boys in the ways many of them need
• Media imagery and social dialogues that attack males as defective and dangerous (and, quite often, just plain stupid) without also providing a variety of strong role models
• Single moms hungry to raise adolescent sons, but lacking a full range of resources to help them, especially when the boys are going through puberty
• Families in which men may be available, but where the men don’t fully understand their crucial and specific role in bringing purpose to their sons’ lives
• Grandparents and other mentors who care deeply, but are not fully embraced in their role as carriers of purpose, lineage, and high expectations for boys
• A culture that does not understand what an important role the whole community and neighborhood play in caring for a son
• Workplaces helping young women secure employment, but assuming young men will do just fine at landing a job, even though millions are not finding useful work
• The society as a whole pursuing child development issues without understanding how important are the naturally different issues that boys and girls face

The Impact That a Lack of Purpose Can Have on Boys

Ultimately, the parental message and voices I’ve encountered over the past ten years reveal an awakening across the country to the fact that boys are indeed struggling. Dr. Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute, a founding member of the Boys Project and an expert in the changing state of males, has collected findings regarding boys’ mental, emotional, physical, and economic health in a number of reports, including The State of American Manhood. (References for the Project and this very important report are provided for you in the Notes and References to this book.) Following are some of Dr. Mortenson’s stunning statistics:
• For every 100 girls suspended from public elementary and secondary schools, 250 boys are suspended. For every 100 girls expelled, 335 boys are expelled.
• For every 100 girls diagnosed with a learning disability, 276 boys are so diagnosed.
• For every 100 girls diagnosed with emotional disturbance, 324 boys are so diagnosed.
• For every 100 girls ages 15-19 who commit suicide, 549 boys in the same range kill themselves.
• For every 100 women ages 20-24 who commit suicide, 624 men of the same age kill themselves.
• For every 100 girls ages 15-17 in correctional facilities, there are 837 boys behind bars.
• For every 100 women ages 18-21 in correctional facilities, there are 1,430 men behind bars.
• For every 100 women enrolled in college, there are 77 men enrolled.
• For every 100 American women who earn an associate’s degree, 67 American men earn the same degree.
• For every 100 American women who earn a bachelor’s degree, 73 American men earn the same degree.
• For every 100 American women who earn a master’s degree, 62 American men earn the same degree.

The Dark Side of Males Without Purpose

It is crucial to remember that the statistics don’t just grow from issues in one socioeconomic group. As Judith Kleinfeld, director of the Boys Project, has pointed out, “Even white males of high earning college educated parents are increasingly falling behind equivalent females.” She is joined by Jacqueline King of the American Council on Education, whose research showed that just in the last ten years, even this group of privileged boys and young men are “checking out” of school—either not going or not finishing—at rates much higher than girls. And Boys Project researcher Melana Zyla Vickers points out, “White boys are the only demographic group whose high school dropout rate has risen since 2000.” Literacy researcher Richard Whitmire has collected findings on boys and education in his work at USA Today. He points out, “There are ten million women in college this year versus 7.4 million men.”
Our sons are not only losing a sense of educational purpose in school and college. They are also losing a sense of social purpose in their behavior—filling our juvenile justice system and prisons. They are losing a sense of purpose in their hearts and souls—committing suicide and harming others at alarming rates. In each of these areas, they are increasingly falling behind or failing at life.
According to a new Justice Department study, seven million Americans are now in the criminal justice system. This is a fivefold increase over the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of American inmates are males. Among African American males, the loss of purpose is stunning. Between 40 and 50 percent of African American boys and young men will enter the criminal justice system sometime in their lives. Violent crime and violent death rates for this population of young males is now epidemic.
It Is Not Far, It Is Within Reach
Dear son, not I, not anyone else can travel the road for you,
You must travel it for yourself,
But it is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
O sit a while dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat, here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you renew yourself in sweet clothes,
Wash the gum from your eyes,
Habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, shout and laughingly dash with your hair!
—Walt Whitman, adapted from Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself

The Breakdown of Male Purpose Development

In the past, young men learned strategies for success through concentrated efforts of parents, grandparents and other extended family, schools, faith communities, and role development (by “role” I mean “a sense of being needed, a reason for being, a purpose in life”) in their culture. All of these formerly positive influences are in flux or breaking down. And though it has been important to overcome the limiting and oppressive male and female roles of the past, it is also crucial to note that each role change has ramifications for men, women, children, and society. We have looked carefully at the female side of the role changes of the last forty years. The following are a few of the crucial male issues in the breakdown of roles:
• The relationship between boys and their fathers is deteriorating. According to the Center for Media and the Family in Minneapolis, boys now relate directly to their fathers, on average, one-half hour per week, but spend over forty hours a week in front of screens (video games, TV, movies, Internet). As families break down and boys spend less and less time with either or both parents, their development of conversations and a sense of role modeling and purpose can be profoundly affected.
Decades and centuries ago, boys often had absent fathers—this is not a new phenomenon—but when the father was away in another city to work, or to fight a war, or was dead, boys had grandfathers and other men to teach them how to be men, including what ideals a man should sacrifice himself for, and how a man remains motivated to succeed and set goals.
• Schoolboys, mismatched in school systems that are not set up for male energy, are being medicated for behavioral issues at alarming rates. Eighty-five percent of the world’s Ritalin is used on boys in the United States. The use of antipsychotic drugs on children in general, and boys in particular, has gone up 500 percent since 1993. For some boys, medication is crucial for well-balanced living. But for many, it’s a device to stifle their natural behavior, smother and prevent them from fully comprehending and utilizing their own natural assets, many of which are simply no longer understood in our culture.
• A century ago, the schooling of boys would have involved more debates, more competition, more outdoor learning, more hands-on apprenticeship, more coaching in purpose and meaning. Now, many boys cannot find relevance or the male learning style in their schooling.
• Boys are increasingly unsure of their roles as men, to the extent that they mature into adulthood one to two decades later than they did just one hundred years ago. The number of young men in their twenties living at home and unemployed increases every year in Western cultures—not only in the United States, but throughout Europe, Australia, and the industrialized world. Even in countries where you wouldn’t expect this to be an issue, it is. In Jordan, for instance, which is modernizing quickly, many boys are growing up lacking college or life skills and without clear social roles. A new study shows that Jordanian women are “marrying down,” that is, having to become both the major money earner and child-care provider in the new marriages.
The Impact That Boys’ Lack of Purpose Has on Women
On the surface, the fact that males mature late, go to college at lower rates than women, and don’t develop a clear sense of an educational or social role would seem to be empowering to women. But the difficulty with this view becomes clear when a woman wants to marry and have a family (and most women do). Now the children’s mother no longer has broad options for mothering her infants and toddlers. In our changing economy, her husband often cannot earn enough money to support the family (just a college education alone increases one’s earning power by over one-third). The man is also a less mature prospect for long-term marriage. Because over 95 percent of early child care worldwide is provided by mothers and women, the lack of male maturity, sense of purpose, and earning power become significant issues for women.
• Boys are increasingly eating and drinking without purpose. According to the American Medical Association, 40 percent of boys are now overweight or obese. Their food intake, and their lack of exercise and time in nature show a disconnection in their growing minds between the reality of their body’s needs and a natural sense of purpose for that body’s development and action.
Simultaneously, boys are increasingly binge drinking. And though boys have, of course, always engaged in drinking and binge drinking, the rate at which they escape life through binge drinking continues to increase, despite educational and public service programs that aim to help boys stop this dangerous behavior. These boys are often lost, self-medicating through food and drink.
• Increasingly, boys are randomly raging against, beating, and killing people. Across the United States, teenagers are finding baseball bats, golf clubs, paintball guns, knives, bricks, and other weapons and trolling the streets for homeless individuals to beat up. In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, three young males beat up a homeless man while he slept, murdering him.
• This kind of purposeless violence—different in character from the kind of violence that young men like Grandpa Dean were conscripted into or volunteered for during wartime—is just one example of the new lack of male role and social purpose in male violence. For the young male perpetrators of today, thrill-seeking, dominance behavior, and initiation into gangs are not occurring in search of a life purpose that cares for family and society’s survival, but quite often, and quite simply, to destroy society while gaining a temporary group success for which there is a high mortality rate. Ultimately, the gang becomes the role modeling agency, creating its own special kind of defensive self-protective “family” for boys tossed out by the larger society and culture; it also becomes the place in which the boys will die young.
The Wisdom of Purpose
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the ultimate splendid triumph. . . . In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and task. The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare, endure and labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him.
—Theodore Roosevelt, No Man Is Happy If He Does Not Work
There is a perfect storm brewing in the culture of boyhood. It is really three storms in one:
1. Males not knowing what their social roles should be
2. Families deteriorating around boys
3. Communities and schools not understanding boys’ natural needs
We’ll keep exploring these things as this book continues, and in each discussion we’ll move immediately toward practical questions, answers, issues, and solutions.

Moving Forward with New Vision

The rest of this book will show how to help your son develop purpose—the “how to” begins in understanding how boys develop purpose and roles differently from girls, the subject of Chapter Two. Boys share many qualities with girls, but they also need us to recognize their differences in a fresh and exciting way.
Questions of Purpose
Son, Do You Know That You Are Important?
I hope you’ll consider asking your son the following questions not once, but over a period of weeks or months. Ask one or two at a time while you and your son are doing something together, such as a household chore or a trip to the store, or enjoying a family vacation. Some boys enjoy keeping a journal, even if on a computer or iPhone, in which to express themselves, and ponder these questions.
• What is the most important thing you did today?
• What will be the most important things you do when you are a man?
• What kind of work do you want to do when you grow up?
• What is the role of a man in today’s world?
• When does a boy become a man?
• What are the ways a man loves his family?
• Who are your heroes? Why?
• Is your school a good place for you as a growing boy? In what ways? In what ways is it hard for you?
• What do TV shows tell you about what defines a good man?
• What do your friends say a good man is? Can you ask them?
Discuss one or more of these issues by engaging your son in dialogue about grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Ask your son what he knows about what the men did with their lives “back in the old country.” In every family, there are male and female role models equivalent to Grandpa Dean and Margaret in my wife’s family, or my own parents in mine.
A mother who is also a social worker brought up a crucial point about this dialogue in a parent workshop: “I get how important it is to talk about role and role models when you talk about boys, but as a feminist, I want you to know I’m wary of the word ‘role.’ If you are saying something new about the purpose of boys, that’s fine with me—but I’d hate to see us end up in a place where men get to have a role that depends on women being weak. That would be just more of the same stuff that has been killing boys and girls, and oppressing women, for thousands of years.”
This is an important point of view. Indeed, you’ll notice in this book and in my work I use the word “purpose” much more than role, because the word “role” is laden with the kind of negative connotation that this mother was pointing out.
The Purpose of Boys presents a synthesis of two previous views of boys and men in what I hope is an uplifting, progressive vision. The traditionalist religious and biblical approach was the cultural “thesis” for the lives of boys and men. The feminist movement provided the “antithesis.” For the sake of boys, it is time to absorb the best of the past in a synthesis, a combination and compromise that takes the best from both of these points of view.
In presenting a science-based vision of boys and men, this book combines the wisdom of the past, including our religious and ancestral lore, and the feminist deconstruction of conventional stereotypes of male entitlements, into a new vision of boys and purpose through both a scientific and common-sense lens.
I hope that, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you will find theory and practical insight in the next seven chapters that resonate with your own experience of the boys around you. The vision of this book is based on my desire to help everyone gain a common language and find universal tools for caring for boys by understanding who they are and who we need them to be: men who know how to love, men who know how to “earn it,” men whose role it is to be motivated by a deep commitment to service, success, empathy, and the common good.

How Little Boys Develop Their Sense of Purpose
Sam Witwicky, you hold the key to earth’s survival.
IN HER WONDERFUL LITTLE COLLECTION of vignettes called Up to No Good: The Rascally Things Boys Do, editor Kitty Harmon asked men she dubbed “perfectly decent grown men” to reminisce about the rascally things they did as boys. One of those men, Charlie, recalls this vignette:
Every summer I got together with my cousins who lived on a big farm in Iowa. I spent most of my time with “the twins,” who were about my age, and for two weeks we were inseparable—playing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on a small crick, rodeo men trying to ride the backs of pigs, and so on.
A favorite pastime was to torment another cousin, Mick, who was two years younger and visiting from California. One trick was to go out into the middle of the cow pasture and then sprint back to the barn. Since we were older, we could always get about twenty or thirty yards ahead of Mick, at which point we’d yell back: “Hurry up, Mick, the bull is running after you! He’s about to gore you!” Mick would be running and sobbing. Poor guy.

The Empathy of Boys

When I tell this story at conferences of parents and educators, there is a sigh of empathy in all of us as we picture Mick sobbing. Men in the audience who were like Mick—younger, sensitive, naive, unsure of themselves (I was also one of these)—feel a special sympathy for him, as do just about all mothers of any son. There are such comments as, “How can boys be so cruel?”
Then, as our discussion about the boys in the story goes on, something interesting happens. Most of the men who were once like Mick also remember that sometime later in life they became more like the older boys. Many of the mothers admit that their own sensitive sons often became quite insensitive to other boys as they grew older.
Once, during a discussion, a mother asked the men in the room: “What do you guys get out of stuff like this? What are you after?” A mother of sons five and seven years old, she had seen this kind of behavior in her family and community many times, and it troubled her. “My husband treats my little boys this way,” she said. “He’s got no empathy, he thinks the boys are made of stone and can take anything he dishes out.”