At-risk boys need male role models

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass

Billions of dollars are spent annually incarcerating and treating boys for criminal and negative behaviors. The Department of Justice reports that 95 percent of state and federal prisoners under the age of 25 are male. And at-risk boys become at-risk men.

Society is slowly waking up to the fact that we must change the way we raise our boys. We must address the vital connection that is missing between boys and men.

An alarming number of boys are growing up today without a good man in their life. High rates of divorce (50 percent) and out-of-wedlock births (35 percent) combined with a loss of community are creating generations of boys that lack fathers, mentors and positive male role models.

Boys need men in their lives. It is said that to be a man you must see a man. That speaks to the power of role models but more important is the mentoring that good men can provide to boys.

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One of the most reliable predictors of whether a boy will succeed or fail in high school rests on a single question: Does he have a man in his life to look up to? Too often, the answer is no.

Teenage boys need good men to help them become good men. They are being propelled by their biology toward manhood. These years are a critical time when young men are faced with choices that may affect them for the rest of their life. They need a community of men, fathers, elders and role models to teach, bless and support them through this critical passage.

Here is the deal if you are a boy in this country right now: You’re twice as likely as a girl to be diagnosed with an attention-deficit or learning disorder. You’re more likely to score worse on standardized reading and writing tests. You’re more likely to be held back in school. You’re more likely to drop out of school.

If you do graduate, you’re less likely to go to college. If you do go to college, you will get lower grades and, once again, you will be less likely to graduate. You’ll be twice as likely to abuse alcohol, and until you are 24, you are five times as likely to kill yourself. You are more than 16 times as likely to go to prison.

With each generation, boys are moving away from their connection to mature masculinity, family and community. The sad fact is too many young men are left to puzzle out manhood alone. Growing up without a father, mentor or positive role model can have a devastating impact on a boy.

Overcrowded prisons, escalating gang membership and the dramatic increase in the number of absent fathers are the visible tip of the iceberg. If you pay attention you will see the hidden impact of boys growing up without fathers or living with disconnected or dysfunctional fathers.

We’ve ignored all the evidence of male achievement and ambition deficits and stood aside as our sons have notched a growing record of failure and disengagement. It’s time we did something about it.

Boys don’t need more rules, more discipline or shaming; they need to be listened to, admired, accepted and blessed for who they are.

Boys need role models and direction to stay on the straight and narrow, a push to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, help to pursue a healthy lifestyle, recognition that they must be accountable for their actions, and reinforcement of good performance.

Boys grow when a man pays attention to them. Go talk to boys. You just have to listen to them. Ask them who they are. The answers they give may not always make sense, but talk to enough of them and you will surely realize that boys themselves are not the problem. The problem is men.

We have to embrace mentoring and we have to be conscious role models. And young men undoubtedly need that more than any other group in America. Indeed, if we can get them through the years during which they’re particularly vulnerable, they often will flourish.

Young men, men without children, and men with grown children must take a stake and volunteer to coach, to counsel, to reach out to boys. We need to build communities of men mentoring boys. This can’t be done as effectively by women although we ought to recognize and honor the valiant efforts single mothers make to raise their boys.

The problem is the men who are absent. The question is really one of commitment and caring enough about the well-being of our communities to step up and mentor at-risk boys so they can become capable, compassionate men of character.

As men we must step into our leadership and stop waiting for someone else to address this issue. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Frank Manfre is executive director of Boys to Men Mentoring of Georgia Inc., a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains men to mentor at-risk 12- to 17-year-old boys.

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