Who Drew Your Map
im Young, a guest on a recent podcast interview shared a story of how, as a 9-year-old boy, he was told that he was “now the man of the house.”
Ever spend time with a 9-year-old boy?
Ever been a 9-year-old boy?
Let’s establish a couple of things up-front:
Thing 1: A 9-year-old child is not the “man” of anything.
Thing 2: Jim’s experience is not terribly unusual.
While Thing 1 is somewhat obvious, Thing 2 is somewhat tragic.
Just because there are many ways to rob a kid of their childhood does not mean parents are required to do so.
In the same vein, the inconveniences that come with the territory of having, raising, educating or otherwise caring for children do not excuse attempts to turn them into miniature adults prior to their age-appropriate ripening dates.
Even if you were force-fed grow-up quick concentrate…
Especially if you were force-fed grow-up quick concentrate…
What my guest Jim described was his version of one of many overdone hard-boiled messages young boys, teens and young adult men continue to have thrown at them.
The essence of the message, intentional or not, is that it’s time to pick up the (often unnamed) slack, to be “responsible” for things a child cannot possibly be held to account for, to notice things that a child lacks the sophistication and discernment to catch, and to execute tasks at a level well-beyond a kid’s level of skill.
Already so much less than a formula for success, when it’s issued in a circumstance devoid of a healthy, mature masculine presence, it becomes an invitation to confusion, self-denial, self-delusion and worse.
Uttered to a 9-year-old, “you are now the man of the house” gets a parking space right next to “man up”, “big boys don’t cry” and countless other “real man” platitudes.
As if that were not enough, boys who receive such messages often go on the hunt for examples of manhood to model themselves after and maps to guide them there.
Occasionally it goes well.
Occasionally it goes elsewhere.
Back to Thing 2: Impressionable young ones will latch on to images from family, school, their neighborhood and popular culture in all sorts of ways. Some of those images stick and some fall away.
Let’s play with a scenario.
If a 9-year-old boy becomes convinced that real men become attorneys – and that it’s vitally important to be a real man – he’s likely to begin drawing a map that points toward a career in law.
Of course, there’s a chance he’ll change course at some point…
There’s also a chance that, in the unsophisticated way children can chase approval and “atta boy’s”, he’ll begin to unquestioningly follow that map, his life’s trajectory determined by a child’s choice.
Sure, his life could tell a wild success story.
It could also go down a darker road. One where, decades later, our attorney friend realizes his 9-year-old self made a choice based on a series of “shoulds”, none of which were ever a good fit.
On that road, he spent the better part of his life contorting his mind, body, emotions and spirit in order to play at being a “real man” pursuing the path of a high-powered lawyer…
When the more authentic parts of himself, those that found expression and creative freedom in the kitchen, wanted nothing more than to become a chef.
Here’s the thing: I see patterns similar to the latter all the time.
Just as often, clients bring a hybrid of the “wild success” and “I really wanted to be an XYZ” in which they find themselves chained, usually by a fat paycheck, to an unfulfilling career.
Let’s face it, reinvention can be a big-ass, snarling bear.
On the other hand, the slow-burn of following a map that was never yours to follow, that was drafted by the simplistic notions of a child – or by and for someone else entirely – cannot help but lead to, as Thoreau put it, a life “of quiet desperation.”
That might seem a far cry from what one imagines when they think of telling a young kid that they are now the man of the house…
But to the Jim Youngs of the world (and millions of other men) who were the recipients of prefab platitudes that, at an impressionable young age, they thought they were duty-bound to take on?
Their experiences and stories speak volumes.
Jim, thank goodness, found his way out. (You can hear his story on my podcast.)
But let’s face it, it’s time to stop telling little boys to fill big shoes.