“We are daring boys,” they recited in unison, “We are curious and courageous, independent and cooperative, skillful and thoughtful. In the spirit of adventure and friendship, we dare to try new things that help us develop new abilities and improve upon our best qualities.” It wasn’t even an official Daring Boys’ Club gathering, but when several of the young members got together at a birthday party earlier this year, they couldn’t help but launch into our club’s code, even without the poster hanging in front of them with the words on it. Collectively, they didn’t need it; they had memorized the code over the past year. I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed with pride; my boys, I thought to myself.
A decade ago, I would have never predicted this scene. Although I had looked forward to motherhood long before I ever had children, I (quite irrationally) had never contemplated the possibility of boys. I didn’t have much experience with that Y chromosome, and so for years it was two imaginary little girls with the accompanying ribbons, dresses, and strong feminist sensibilities that played a part in my vision of the future.
But life doesn’t often unfold quite like we imagine, and now as the mother of three high-energy boys, I’ve learned a bit over the past few years about what boys are made of and what they need to thrive. Along the way, I’ve altered some of my original beliefs about the purely socialized notion of gender and have come to believe that sometimes our boys need the space to "be boys," in the most positive sense, with all the potential energy, enthusiasm, and imagination that entails. For example, as a teacher myself, I am well aware that even the best classrooms cater more to the stereotypically "female" learning style. Furthermore, while I applaud the contemporary emphasis on non-violence in our schools and on our playgrounds, I also believe we are possibly shunning boys’ natural and healthy imaginary worlds when they have to be knights without swords or Jedi masters without light sabers. We all know that girls and women still have advances to be made (women still earn 77 cents on the dollar, right?), but there’s also growing evidence that our boys are at risk in a lot of gender specific ways too.
So even though with three sons of my own, daily life already feels a bit like being in a boys’ club, I found myself moved by these and other factors to help create to a structured experience for my sons that specifically celebrated boyhood. I wanted something that would challenge them in areas they might not explore on their own and encourage them to be strong, daring, creative, and courageous in the broadest sense of those terms. I grow weary of narrow gender definitions that persist and shape the modern experience of boyhood. Sports, Legos, superheroes, and cars may be great, but there's so much more out there. Many boys are indeed interested in more or might be with a little opportunity. We need to provide a setting for boys that encourages them both to be proud of being boys and also allows them to define what that means as broadly as possible, by “daring” them to learn more about themselves, others, and the world around them as they try new things and embark on new adventures with their peers. These beliefs and observations contributed to the creation of the Daring Boys’ Club.
There were other motivating factors as well though. I found myself admiring the fabulous Girl Scouts group at my son’s elementary school and wishing there was something like that (but not the Boys Scouts) for him. (No offense to the Boys Scouts, which I know have plenty of admirable qualities, but despite being both straight and religious, I just can’t let my sons participate in an organization that prohibits agnostics, atheists, and homosexuals.) I searched online for alternative groups for boys but didn’t find anything appropriate for our family or available in our area. Perhaps we could create one, I thought.
My son is fortunate to go to a school that offers many extracurricular activities, which helps in some way to offset the disadvantage our local kids face from a perpetually foreshortened academic calendar due to ongoing extreme budget crises. (They simply don't have enough time in school, per day or per year.) Kids get to choose from chess, science, choir, publishing, art and other classes after school. There’s even a fabulous Coyote Kids program run by the Whole Earth Nature School here in Eugene, Oregon. My son, Noah, was eager to be a part of it. However, like most families, there’s a limit to our financial ability to participate in all these endeavors, and I found myself wanting my son to experience a variety of activities, rather than spend more money for him to experience just one more specific type of class or have him overscheduled with too many classes. I wished we could have a group that would offer a sampling of experiences that would encourage skill development in many different areas.
The next nudge came when Noah received The Dangerous Book for Boys as a present. We were both excited by it, but weeks and months went by, and we hadn’t done anything with it. I kept thinking how fun it would be to do activities together with other boys and how a group approach might be a good motivator for actually getting around to doing these things.
I shared the idea of a boys’ club with my son, and his constant pestering provided the needed motivation to actually doing something with the idea. When I proposed the idea of a parent-facilitated club to other families with boys my son’s age at his school, folks responded enthusiastically. We now have an active Daring Boys’ Club designed to allow our boys to engage with each other, the outdoors, science, geography, games, crafts, community, and more.
The boys meet bi-weekly during the school year and have already experimented with a huge array of activities including (but not limited to): rock and tree climbing, metal stamping, wrapping presents, basic carpentry (making stilts), geocaching, map-making, silk-screening, circuitry, rug weaving, senior interviews, and bike riding.
Some may wonder why this needs to be a Daring Boys’ Club and not just a Daring Kids’ Club. Surely girls would enjoy all these things too. Absolutely, and in fact, our neighborhood Girl Scouts have enjoyed many of the same activities this year. However, by being all boys, they are freed from the need to identify certain activities as girlish or boyish. Research on single-gender schools has shown that when girls and boys are separated, rather than being limited by narrow gender stereotypes, their range of play and academic interests expands to fill what would otherwise be seen as girlish or boyish. We have seen as much in our club. We have a wide variety of boys in our group, but they are by and large, typical boys; they like obnoxious jokes and being active. Many of them play on the same soccer, basketball, and baseball teams throughout the year. However, when I let a few of them use a little potholder loom at a gathering earlier in the year, they all wanted a turn. Their response encouraged me to do a rug-weaving activity with them, which they were very enthusiastic about. Likewise, they loved metal stamping and the other crafty things we’ve done. I believe that if this was a co-ed group with multiple options for activities, many of them would have left these experiences to the girls and would have missed out on gaining some new skills.
When I first proposed the club, I was just focused on the skills the boys could develop. Now, having been with these boys every other week for a year, I believe that one of the most valuable outcomes of this effort is the support network we are creating for them. Though most of our boys have the benefit of traditional two-parent families, most of them are also living far from extended relatives. Peggy Drexler recently wrote about the importance of friend networks in addition to (or in lieu of) extended family in our far-flung culture. I believe that our Daring Boys’ Club can help create that web for our boys. Earlier this year on a rock climbing adventure, I spent the afternoon holding the rope for the boys as they belayed down a wall. As I stood there watching them carefully, I realized the importance of offering them safe venues for exploration and creating for them a safety net of trustworthy adults. Read more of my reflections on that experience here.
The boys love their club, and they have me committed. Who would have thought I’d have not only three of my own, but 10 other lads I think of as my Daring Boys. We have enough interested boys now to run two groups next school year, and I hope it will expand from there; I would love to see other communities inspired to form groups as well. The boys and I have some big plans for the future including summer adventures, fundraising, and clothes with our logo on them. How about you? Got boys? Join us! Visit our website for more details on our activities and how you can get involved.