A Father's Day promise to sons


THE THREE white men in their early 20s accused of demonically dragging a black hitchhiker to death in Texas have been described by acquaintances as "mannerly" and "good boys." They were not evil, say family and friends, who concede the men may have picked up some bad habits in prison.

The youths charged with killing classmates and teachers in a schoolyard in Jonesboro, Ark., last spring were subsequently described as "very polite."

"He was always so well-mannered. He seemed like such a neat young man," recalled a pastor's wife of the 13-year-old who allegedly stole guns from a friend's grandfather before the shooting spree.

Kip Kinkel, the Oregon teen charged with killing his parents and two peers, reportedly talked crazily of shooting people so regularly that classmates voted him "Most Likely to Start World War III." Yet the school superintendent in Springfield dismissed the killing talk as "the typical response of kids today."

Is there a pattern of delusion here?

On this Father's Day, men should promise to themselves to begin paying more attention to their boys.

That's not to say that fathers should neglect their daughters or that girls don't need adult support and understanding while wrestling with bouts of self-doubt, especially in teenhood.

It has been boys, though, from elementary schoolers to young adults, who have dominated the most grisly headlines this year.

As the father of two sons, I believe the biggest problem with the development of boys is not bloody video games or rude cartoons or even the proliferation of water guns that pack enough force to put out a rowhouse fire -- although none of those things help.

The main problem is that toughness is admired, encouraged, even exalted in boys as young as toddlers. Sensitivity and compassion are not. Parents may recognize if their kid is being antagonized in school, but why do parents so rarely recognize if their child becomes a bully?

You can see it on any playground, even among the preschool set: Grown-ups unattuned to their child's aggression against another.

Some reasons for this?

One, paying attention to what your kid is doing takes a lot of energy and many parents are unable or unwilling to expend it.

Two, if your kid whacks another, you might not sense you have a problem since the other child is the one crying.

Third, adults who may recall being tormented during their youth VTC may get secret satisfaction that their pugilistic offspring isn't suffering a similar fate. (Some of the kids charged with schoolhouse shootings seemed to be the longtime targets of bullying themselves, who lacked the sense or support to keep from lashing out violently.)

Sports bears blame, also. Although athletics can teach worthy lessons, overzealous parents and coaches too often reinforce the notion that the more combative a player is, the better.

I've coached second-graders who seem to be enjoying their first year on an organized team, but whose parents seem almost shamed to discover their son "isn't aggressive enough."

Girls can be mean and feisty, too, but they aren't encouraged to be fighters. As they grow, they may struggle with other unforgiving societal ideals, but being tougher than Susie next door isn't typically one of them.

The problem for boys is vexing enough that Newsweek gave it cover treatment last month with the headline, "How to Build a Better Boy."

Among the article's sensible suggestions: Don't groom 4-year-olds to be pint-sized Clint Eastwoods, don't fret too much about toy guns in and of themselves and always let your son know you're there for him.

Be attuned to "crisis points" of aggressive behavior during ages 4 to 6 and 14 to 16.

Pete Rose, the former baseball great who was barred from induction to the Hall of Fame because of gambling, was profiled in a national magazine during his playing days by a reporter who spent time with the player's family.

Renowned for his grit on the field, Mr. Rose greeted his daughter with a hug and a kiss.

However, when his young son approached -- Pete Jr., who would grow to play in the Orioles' farm system -- the star dad thrust out his thick hand.

"Fathers kiss their daughters," he explained to his boy. "They shake hands with their sons."

Perhaps more fathers need to kiss their sons.

Andrew Ratner is director of suburban editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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