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Raising Healthy Boys—and Helping At Risk Men—After Newtown

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
—Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth”

Is the U.S. population so psychically numb that news of another “school shooting” barely registers? The day before the first anniversary of the gut-wrenching Newtown massacre, an 18 year-old male shot another student and then killed himself as a sheriff’s deputy closed in on him, foiling his plans to use a backpack full of weapons and ammunition on students and staff at a Colorado high school.

I was already on edge about last year’s Connecticut tragedy when the Friday the 13th shooting happened. I found myself teetering back and forth between sadness and anger. Sadness that 20 six and seven year-olds were murdered last December 14, along with a half-dozen Sandy Hook Elementary School educators, and anger that public officials and most of the media still largely ignore the missing link in this tragedy—the gender of the shooter. As if to underscore that truth, along came Karl Pierson, the assailant at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. If ever there was a time to reframe the narrative from “school shootings” and guns to troubled men and young men it is now.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s urgent we implement gun control legislation and increase mental health services. Indeed, it’s no accident that earlier this year in the wake of Newtown and the Aurora murders in July of 2012 that Colorado and Connecticut passed new gun laws, doing an end run around the National Rifle Association and their minions in Congress. Kudos, too, to Vice president Biden for shepherding $100 million in additional money for mental wellness programs. Still, like a two-legged stool, those efforts can’t stand up to this type of chronic violence if we don’t acknowledge a third leg: male socialization—how we raise boys and how we think about men. Last week Karl Pierson made the case again.

Single child at Sandy Hook vigil.

A child prays at a vigil for Sandy Hook victims killed Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. 

The old notion that “boys will be boys” cannot explain away the common mass violence we witness across the country. In the year since Newtown think about what else has happened—the Boston Marathon bombing; the shootings at the Washington Navy Shipyard; a murderous rampage in New York’s Mohawk Valley; the killings at Los Angeles International Airport, to name just a few.  It’s been 15 years since two male students murdered 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School (eight miles from Centennial)—initiating a decade and half bloody shooting spree across the nation. There’s no end in sight. Of the approximately one hundred mass shootings that have taken place since 1998, all but one killer was male.

The men and boys who commit suicide after murdering innocents are suffering from more than personal pain; they are the harbingers of all that is out of alignment with traditional masculinity. If we want to reduce mass murders, we need to reexamine on all levels how we are raising our boys and how we are relating to at risk men. We need to offer the men and boys in our lives the kind of love, guidance and help so many are crying out for. But we need to do more than act on the individual level.

There is an irrefutable relationship between men and guns, men and power, and men’s mental health. Now is the time for gun control advocates and mental health professionals to join with men modeling nonviolent manhood to form a new coalition to create not just a shift in thinking and awareness, but action that will save lives. It’s that attention to men and boys that’s been missing from the national conversation about mass shooting violence.

Beginning in the 1970s, a growing legion of men around the world were inspired by the courageous efforts of women who created the fields of domestic and sexual violence prevention. Following their example, we created men’s antiviolence organizations around the country and today have decades of experience working with women in programs designed to prevent domestic violence and rape; to coach fathers, and to assist sons on the journey to healthy manhood. Our movement is committed to redefining traditional ideas about manhood, especially those that equate violence with power.

As a society, we need to nurtures boys’ emotional lives and intelligence. President Obama should announce during his State of the Union address that he is directing the Department of Education to create public school curriculum that cultivates boys’ emotional wellbeing. Similarly, he could call on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch an annual “Men and Mental Health” campaign rooted within communities, schools and families.

In the days since Sandy Hook, gun control and mental health experts have had their say in Congressional hearing rooms, the opinion pages, and on the airwaves. Now it’s time to hear from the men and women articulating and promoting a new, healthier masculinity in America.


Rob Okun’s new bookVoice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement will be published in January. Versions of this commentary appeared in newspapers in Arkansas, Massachusetts Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin, as well as in a number of online publications.

Friday, December 13th, 2013 Editor's Blog, Front Page

4 Comments to Raising Healthy Boys—and Helping At Risk Men—After Newtown

December 15, 2013

I agree totally on how we can better raise young men, be better examples for them etc. However you are never going to be rid of illness, disease, disorder, mental health problems. These come with being human. If a young man is ill and not getting the care he needs, or is psychopathic, there is little we can do to affect behavior. There will always be this kind of random violence. So what might help is an elimination of the weapons of choice. Or legislation making it difficult to obtain a weapon. And yes, health care, sensitivity to their needs, and eliminating poverty would also be high on my list.

Dave Bates
January 4, 2014

For as well-meaning as this article may be, nothing will change in our society until we stop demonizing men for all that is wrong and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It has become PC to blame men for society’s ills. If we do finally seek help for problems, we lose our jobs, our families, our homes and our freedom. Let’s face it, given the budgetary problems in America today, no agency is going to be willing to allocate scarce resources to aid men, especially if they may face federal sanctions and funding cuts if they do.
Most of us are simply trying to do our best in a challenging world. We go to work, pay our bills, love and nurture our families and what is our reward? We are the lowest form of life that exists in Hillary Clinton’s America and until we are truly treated as more than criminals who have yet to be convicted, nothing will change.

January 4, 2014

Thanks, Dave, for writing. I believe most men are trying to do the right thing. We have all been socialized to be men in such a way that we have trouble articulating the challenges we face. Also, because of that socialization we tend not to talk about what is happening, keeping our feelings bottled up. We have much to appreciate in being male just as we have a tremendous opportunity to closely examine what isn’t working and to be part of efforts to change it.

Hugh R. Hays
June 7, 2014

Thank you, I am stunned. Forty-four years ago I participated in a black-white awareness workshop and was given the opportunity to work as a resource person, one of 8 that then carried out black-white consciousness raising work shops for a major consumer products company. A major learning from that experience is that the world will be a much better place when I learn to listen to minorities and women and be positively influenced by what they are saying and doing.

For 40 years I have lived the Alaskan dream, slowly becoming more aware of the tragedies resulting from male and masculine attitudes.
For the last 15 years I have been looking for evidence to prove the
truth in my conclusion. I love to read magazines and books and I try
to stay aware of news indicating that we are progressing toward a nicer-gentler world. I also write letters supporting pluralistic, diverse,
peaceful and just ideas.

Thus when I read Professors Klein and Sanbonmatsu’s article, “To stop
violence against women, save boys,” in todays Anchorage Daily News
I was very pleasantly surprised(June 7th) on two accounts. First they
propose a course of action that I believe is both very important and sure to lead to a better world for men, women and children of all races. I recommend reading their article and considering ways to make
a better world for all.

Second, they totally shocked me when they mentioned NOMAS and Voice Male in their article and I googled to find NOMAS was founded
39 years ago and Voice Male about 30 years ago. My immediate reaction was “Where have you all been in the last 30-40 years that
I haven’t heard about you before now?” On reflection I suspect that I have been further out into space than I realized. I must say I am glad
for your existence and the work you are doing. Thank you.

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