A friend sent me an email with the header: Why Boys Need Parents. The email consisted of several pictures of boys about to do something really stupid and reckless. Picture in your mind:
- A young boy standing on a skate board at the top of a steep hill in San Francisco, about 6 blocks long, ending at a pier jutting into the ocean
- A young boy sticking a knife into an electrical outlet
- A boy with a huge frog stuck partially in his mouth
- A boy standing on the roof of his house, dumping a bucket of water on his unsuspecting grandpa sitting below
- A boy with “feminine pads” stuck all over his naked body and wrapped conveniently around his penis
Why do boys do that?
- On the weekend before Halloween we told the kids they could wear their costumes to church. During the Saturday evening service I invited the kids up front to introduce themselves and who they were dressed up to be. One of the small boys was dressed up as the Hulk. He was quite shy and hesitant to say his name. Just as I was about to send the kids back to their parents, a small Spiderman came running up. I asked him if he thought his Spidey web was strong enough to hold the Hulk. He immediately jumped in front of the kids and pretended to spray his Spidey web at the Hulk. The Hulk instantly responded by putting on his mask. He then jumped off of the small platform and began duking it out with Spiderman. Without warning they both spontaneously ran out of the worship center, continuing their epic battle! It was nothing short of awesome!
Why do boys do that?
The Action Hormone
In a word: Testosterone. Boys are made up of more than testosterone just as girls are made up of more than estrogen. But for boys, testosterone is a defining hormone. It’s essentially what makes a boy a boy in the womb. Testosterone shapes a boy and the way he behaves. It’s an energy hormone. Testosterone serves as a powerful metaphor for understanding boys and how we can call them into noble manhood.
Michael Gurian, in his book, The Wonder of Boys, outlines some of the boy-shaping qualities of testosterone2:
- Testosterone is the defining agent of whether a fetus will be male or female. We all start out as females in the womb. Testosterone makes the male male.
- Testosterone is an aggression and physical risk-taking hormone. Aggression, action, and risk-taking are hard wired into boys. As Michael notes, aggression does not equal violence. Violence is taught. Aggression is hard-wired and can be forged into a powerful, positive tool in the life of boys. Testosterone is the God-given energy that enables boys to save the world.
- Testosterone expresses itself in the need to move and do things. Ever notice how hard it is for boys to sit still? They squirm. They fidget. They tap things. They distract easily. When you understand how testosterone works, you understand why boys move all the time. And you understand why boys are best discipled and taught through action, doing, and movement. Follow me…Jesus says. Move with me…Act with me…Do what I do…You also understand why boys bond with others better through doing than through talking. Jesus almost always uses action language in bonding with his disciples.
- Because of testosterone boys on average will:
- Turn toys into guns and swords more often than girls
- Hit more
- Try to “one up” more
- Tend to be less in tune to the pain of others
- Generally be more competitive
- Seek rough and tumble play
- Testosterone-driven boys tend to seek independence earlier than girls. But they still need to feel safe in dad’s and mom’s love.
- As he moves into puberty, he will have 5-7 surges of this action-oriented hormone each day. And we want him to sit still and listen to a Sunday school lesson for an hour!?! No wonder he’s bouncing off the walls!
- He will be quicker to act physically to external stimulation
- He will tend to move to problem-solving even in the face of emotionally complex experiences. Wives and girlfriends recognize this one. Almost always, when verbalizing a challenge they are dealing with, their husband or boyfriend immediately steps in to try to fix it!
- He will often look for activities that will help him release the build up of testosterone, like playing sports or focusing energy on a specific task. A boy-driven approach to discipleship will find ways to utilize this build up of energy to lead the boy into following Jesus.
- The “Bias” Against Testosterone
One afternoon I was at my granddaughter’s house. She was watching a cartoon designed for young preschool children. In each show, the cartoon teaches a lesson about getting along with others or about diversity. The main character is a girl and she has three male animal friends.
In this particular episode one of the boys was acting like a boy. He was a bit rambunctious. He wanted to move…to play…to make noise. The other two boys were having nothing to do with it. Each time he splashed them or ran a circle around them, they would whine and say, “He’s being rough!”
The girl character taught them a new song: Don’t be rough…be gentle. Each time the boy got rough (and he was never really rough, just a boy moving and playing) the other boys would whine, berate the “rough boy,” and sing the song, Don’t be rough…be gentle.
The longer I watched, the more my testosterone began to boil! On so many levels this cartoon was teaching the wrong lesson. Rather than helping that boy harness his energy in appropriate ways, the lesson essentially said that boy behavior is always wrong. Never be rough. Always be gentle. Never once were the whining boys encouraged to stop their whining. Instead, their whining led to the rough boy being told to stop acting like a boy!
That same bias against testosterone is practiced over and over again in subtle and not so subtle ways. Every time boys are made to sit quietly for extended periods of time and then reprimanded for moving they are being told that boy behavior is bad. After all, who is usually rewarded for the “good behavior of sitting still and listening?” Girls.
Education and discipleship that favors sitting, listening, talking, relating, and emoting over action, building things, and moving subtly tells boys that there is something wrong with them.
Jesus understood the power of testosterone to get things done. He was constantly on the move. He constantly taught his disciples on the fly. He would do something (heal the sick, fight a storm, cast out a demon, feed the hungry). Then he would ask the disciples to do it, too. Yes, there were times of teaching. And yes, testosterone-charged boys can sit and listen. But the primary way to engage them is through action-oriented learning—the kind Jesus used. (And remember, Jesus often taught his disciples as they were out walking.)
The call to discipleship for boys is the call to harness the power of testosterone for the cause of Jesus. To forge and shape that testosterone energy for good, noble, grace-based purposes. To invite boys to utilize their “power” to join Jesus in building the Kingdom of God: a kingdom of grace, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and love. That happens when we call boys to follow Jesus; when we call them to an action-oriented form of discipleship.