I love my son dearly and he dearly loves me right back. He’s bright, exceptionally well-coordinated and, if I do say so myself, he’s very good-looking. He’s also selfish, hyper-competitive, lazy, ill-mannered and a total slob. I have been working for years on all those traits and there has definitely been some improvement, but we’re not even halfway there. Thankfully, as he’s not yet teenager, I still have a while to work on him. I’m worried, though, that the traits I mentioned all tend to worsen, not improve, as young boys turn into young men. As a parent, I foresee I tough road ahead of me.
I often find myself saying to myself, “Boy, the military would be good for my son.” With a coercive power I can’t hope to equal, it would teach him discipline and neatness. Also, because of unit cohesion, it might take him out of his selfishness. Lastly, the military’s hierarchical nature would be good for such a hyper-competitive person, because there is clearly delineated room for upward movement, complete with external proof (ribbons, stripes, etc.) that the person is improving.
Even as I have this thought, though, the mother-voice in the back of my brain says, “What are you doing, woman?! Do you actually want to send your darling little boy to a tough, often cruel environment, one in which he stands a much better chance of being killed than if he stays safely at home with you?”
Well, right now, while he’s still a beardless little boy, and the questions are hypothetical, my higher brain answer to that mother-voice is “Yes, yes I do want him to go to the military.” (By the way, I’ve probably just qualified myself for a visit from Child Protective Services for admitting that I think the military would be good for my child.)
Here’s my thinking: People need meaning and purpose in their lives. Some people are internally driven. They define and seek out their own goals. Others, especially young men, drift. Nowadays, that drift is made worse by computer gaming. I know a man who was a top college student in the computer sciences, with computer companies frantically wooing him. He ended up getting a great starter job, and quickly rose through the management ranks. Then, something terrible happened to him: his mother inherited a lot of money. He knew, as of that moment, that he too would inherit a lot of money one day. He no longer needed to work.
All of us dream about insta-wealth and early retirement, of course. We imagine pursuing our passions, and believe that will give us complete pleasure. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know. All I know is that, at 28 years old, this man quit his job and started a new life playing computer games. That’s all he does: exercise and computer games. That’s all he’s done for twenty years. He doesn’t seem very happy to me. He’s playing his games, which is what he wants, but mostly he seems lost. When I look at him I see a stunted life and wasted potential. He’s never grown up. Given the opportunity, he opted to remain a 13 year old boy forever.
This man is the most extreme, but not the only example, I know of a young man who simply decided to stop living and growing. One of these young men, however, and I’ve written about him before, was moved by 9/11 to join the military. He’s served in Afghanistan and Iraq; he’s lived under horrific conditions; he’s been under fire — and he’s as happy as he’s ever been in his life. His life has meaning.
It seems to me, therefore, sitting with my smooth-faced little boy, that his life will be a happier one if he can find meaning in it. There is no meaning in life as a computer gamer and slacker. You fill your time, but you may as well be a cow chewing cud, or a pig rooting around in the mud. We humans are better than that.
In a way, women have it easier, because having babies forces them to grow up, to look outside of themselves, and to have responsibility. But in this day and age, young men don’t have responsibility thrust upon them through fatherhood. Assuming the mother doesn’t abort, she still makes limited demands on the guy. Certainly, few women nowadays demand marriage, and the notion of dad standing there with a shotgun is truly dead and gone. The military, however, does thrust responsibility on young men, and they seem to be the better for it — assuming, of course, that they survive the experience.
All of this is not quite as hypothetical as it seems. My son has always been military mad, and still talks about going to a military college one day. He’s too young to understand what that really means, but it’s definitely part of his mental make-up. While I won’t ever push him to the military — that’s a path I think a young person has to find by himself — my current thinking is that I won’t argue him out of it if that’s what he decides to do. Certainly, I think it would help him with a lot of the behaviors and personality traits that currently prevent him from (yes) being all that he can be.
I’d be very interested to hear from active duty military people, vets, and the parents of current and former military people. Am I blinded by the beauty of the uniform, or am I on to something here?
UPDATE: To all the students who have been leaving such thoughtful comments on this post: Thank you. I’m really quite impressed by what you’ve been saying and by your taking seriously the points I made. As you can see, it’s been a long time since I wrote this post. My son is quite a mature teenager now and, I’m happy to say, has outgrown a lot of the behaviors that mothers find so frustrating. I think he’s still too easy on himself, because he’s still not cultivating all his natural gives, but he has turned in a nice young man who has a very strong internal moral compass. I know — and this is the highest praise I can give him — that when he faces moral dilemmas in his life, he will make smart, moral decisions.