Winters in Corpus Christi, Texas were never very wintery. But on New Years Eve of 1975, it was a bitterly cold night. I remember that night because it was the night that the house across the street from us burned to the ground. I can recall my mother making trays of hot chocolate to take to the frozen fire fighters who were trying to contain the blaze.
Our house was crowded that night with a group of friends from our church who had come for an all-night party. Sometime after midnight, someone noticed flames rising from the roof of the house across the street. My friend Mike promptly jogged across the street and broke through the front door, running around the smoke-filled house with a cloth over his mouth making sure no one was home. (Mike was a blue chip Texas high school linebacker in those days and running through solid objects was something he had worked up into a kind of expertise.)
I thought about that night again recently after my son, Ben, pointed me to this interesting article commenting on the evolution of the Boy Scout manual from 1911 to the present. The section on "Firemanship" caught my eye (emphasis mine):
What’s interesting here is that, as reflected in the change in the badge’s name, the 1911 badge is geared towards preparing the Scout to actually fight the fire and rescue people (as if encouraging boys to rush into a burning building was the most natural thing in the world), while the modern badge focuses on how to prevent and escape fires. It also includes that crucial skill: how to safely light a candle!
While it's no doubt comforting to know that The Boy Scouts can lead the way in candle lighting, such pursuits are of a different sort than was encouraged in days gone by.
It's a truism to be sure, but one worth stating, that little boys are not like little girls. The brothers who co-wrote The Dangerous Book For Boys hinted at some of the differences in an interview:
[Boys] need to fall off things occasionally or . . . they'll take worse risks on their own. If we do away with challenging playgrounds and cancel school trips for fear of being sued, we don't end up with safer boys--we end up with them walking on train tracks.
Another clue to the inclinations of little boys can be found in a recent exchange between my 3 year old grandson, Abe, and his father Ben:
Ben: Abe, what are you doing?
Abe: I'm killing ALL the bugs with my shovel.
Ben: Ya know, sometimes it's okay to be nice to the bugs.
Abe: It's not your turn.
No one who has raised little boys will be at all surprised by this exchange. (When I was a little boy, we used magnifying glasses to focus the sun's rays, transforming red ant colonies into smoking wastelands. Abe's shovel will do, however, until he's old enough for his own magnifying glass.)
Boys, bless their hearts, are little men of action. And their motivations and aspirations have, for the most part, little to do with placid conversation or droning on about their feelings.
Which brings me to modern cartoons.
As a grandfather, I spend a certain amount of time each week wallowing around on the floor with my grandkids, making jokes calculated to provoke an eye-rolling response, and sometimes piling together with the kids on the couch to watch cartoons. So being a grandfather brings me into close contact with the state of modern cartoonery in all of its glory.
I find that modern cartoons are very often informational, and they routinely hector the kids about relationships and the environment, but they are almost never aspirational. There isn't much on offer that aspires to courage or derring-do. There is much time spent on dancing and singing and talking about feelings and being a good neighbor. But it's seldom, if at all, that the kids in the cartoons are presented with opportunities to take daring action in an important cause. I think this state of affairs shortchanges and underestimates the lion-hearted little boys who watch TV.
When I was a little boy, I remember watching Jonny Quest and being caught up in the weekly adventure of how this boy, who was within reach of my own age, could take action and think clearly and show courage. Even the gang on Scooby Doo, with Shaggy's less than enthusiastic participation, still was willing to take action to bring down the bad guys.
In many of the cartoons today, there aren't really good guys and bad guys. There are mostly just neighbors, friends, and "different" people. The characters spend a lot of time talking and sitting around and thinking about themselves. There isn't much requirement or opportunity for courage beyond the self-congratulatory "courage" involved in being nice to some new kid. (This is not to denigrate the virtue of being nice to the new kid, just that I'm not at all sure it isn't a blatant case of grade inflation to call it "courage".)
Of course, it's not just cartoons that have become this kind of watery milk of entertainment. We've already seen how the Boy Scouts have blunted the sharp end of expectations over the years. But I think even some Christians can be uncomfortable with the boyishness of boys.
I first noticed this when my own boys started attending Sunday school at our then local church. When I was a child, I grew up hearing and reading about David and Goliath and Gideon, Joshua and Caleb, and many other men of action. These stories were aspirational for me in that they appealed to some inner heroic sensibility, common I believe in little boys, that I wanted to act boldly in some great cause.
When my own boys started going to church, I kept waiting to hear them talking about these stories but it seemed that, every Sunday, all they ever learned about was one more item on a never ending parade of things that God had created. Now, I'm all in favor of learning about the things God created. But God also created more than a few men of action who acted boldly and at great personal risk in his cause. I soon discovered that if my own boys were going to find out about these kinds of stories, it wasn't going to be at church. (Not all churches are this way and, truth be told, there were many things I loved about that church. I just wasn't a fan of the Sunday school curriculum.)
I took to calling this watered down, adventure-less approach to Sunday school the "God Made the Frogs" curriculum. On a related but ironic note, while God certainly made the frogs, He also made the little boys who have a special aptitude for killing them. They don't say "fun for the boys but death for the frogs" for nothing. But I digress.
There is an element of truth to Aristotle's observation that "courage is the first virtue because it makes all others possible". Children know and sense the importance of courage and are anxious to be inspired. I think they understand more than we give them credit for.