Male Role Models and Recent School Shootings

When we blame recent school shootings on “evil,” we ignore the developmental challenges, harmful social expectations and lack of positive father figures young men face.

Illustration of a young boy with an invisible face wearing a backpack.

In her book, “The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons,” former Newsweek staffer Peg Tyre reports “that from the moment they step into the classroom, boys begin to struggle.”

Illustration By Stefan Zsaitsits

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We marry the words senseless and killing for good reason. Multiply by 28—including 20 first graders, one mom and six valiant teachers—and the reach for instant explanation or obvious blame can get the better of anyone.

We have seen these pictures and felt this bewilderment and outrage before: Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998). Red Lake, Minnesota (2006). Columbine, Colorado (1999). Blacksburg, Virginia (2007). And once more, only somehow even worse, Newtown, Connecticut.

As a man and a father, I’ve stopped waiting for sound reporting or the killer’s own social media trail to lead me to insight or understanding. Each specific incident, instead, leaves me with a more general inquiry: Why do so many of America’s young males reach a point of no return? And what about those young men otherwise in distress or danger, albeit of a different kind?

Recent School Shootings: Profile of a Young Killer

In 2002, the U.S. Secret service completed the “Safe School Initiative,” a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks. The study examined school shootings in the United States as far back as 1974, through the end of the school year in 2000, analyzing a total of 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers.

The study involved extensive review of police records, school records, court documents and other source materials, and included interviews with 10 school shooters. The Secret Service focused on the pre-attack behaviors and communications of these young killers, with the goal of offering some preventative intelligence. Among its findings, the study concluded that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. The young killers plan. They acquire weapons. They tell others what they are planning. These young men take a long, considered, public path toward violence.

The final report says that peers, in many instances, knew something, if not the actual details of the shooting—but chose to not alert an adult. The young men who carried out the attacks differed from one another in numerous ways. However, almost every attacker had engaged in behavior before the shooting that seriously concerned at least one adult—and for many had concerned three or more different adults.

Princeton University professor Katherine S. Newman, author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, points out that, far from being “loners,” the killers are more likely to be aspiring “joiners” whose attempts at belonging fail. Many of the shooters told Secret Service investigators that feelings of alienation or persecution drove them to violence. As details trickle in about the latest young male gunman, Adam Lanza, we see familiar threads: developmental challenges, social isolation, divorce.

Prevent School Shootings

Many will respond to this tragedy with renewed calls for curtailing handguns and assault weapons—a discussion that deserves revisiting. My interests lie elsewhere—in the questions of how boys and young men are faring generally, and what role adult males play in tempering, and consciously initiating boys into men.

At 50, I recognize the march of time and applaud the progress from my father’s generation—where clichéd stoicism ruled—to an era where something like The Good Men Project could emerge. The father tribe, undoubtedly, keeps evolving, rewriting stale rules and expanding the boundaries of what a fully engaged man brings to the work of child raising.

In my work and social circles, I witness a new generation of American fathers, more apt, willing and able to account for the inner lives of their children—sons and daughters—within the larger measure of their own success. But like most cultures in America, markers such as gender and fathering are anything but constant or uniform. Events such as the massacre in Newtown bring pause, compelling us all to ask how well America’s boys and young men are coping as a whole.

In her book, The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, former Newsweek staffer Peg Tyre reports “that from the moment they step into the classroom, boys begin to struggle.”

Boys get expelled from preschool nearly five times more often than girls.

In elementary school, boys are diagnosed with learning disorders four times as often.

By eighth grade huge numbers of boys read below basic level.

By high school, boys are heavily outnumbered in AP classes and, save for the realm of athletics, show indifference to most extra­-curricular activities.

Males graduate high school at lower rates, attend college right out of high school at lower rates, and complete college if they do go at lower rates than females.

More disturbing still is the threefold increase in suicide among young males (1950 to 1990), and the persistent fact that young men are three times more likely to kill themselves than young women.

We have been conditioned by now to label shooters like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Cho Seung-Hui, and Adam Lanza as “evil,” and to give these tragedies a transitory kind of attention. Gradually, we will turn away from more persistent issues concerning what it means to be young and male in this culture, possibly until the next unspeakable tragedy.

We will ignore the developmental binds facing too many young males asked to ignore and deny his inner life, especially the need to grieve, from an early age. We will bring misguided, unexamined expectations and our own unlived lives to youth sports in particular and to an American obsession with winning in general.

We will shrug our shoulders at the regrettable lack of positive male father figures in our schools, churches, and other institutions. We will leave unchallenged clichéd depictions of bumbling, unresponsive television fathers. We will concede the healthy sexual growth of our young men to profit-driven magazines, the pornography and music industries, and other junk culture influences. We will ignore the cry of young men who seek meaningful, conscious initiation into adulthood.

Writer Michael Meade captured the essential role men play in transferring core masculinity from one generation to the next in his book Men and the Water of Life. Meade, at one point, uses the simple analogy of sword making. Apply too much heat and the blade gets brittle and prone to shattering. Apply too little heat, and the blade never finds its edge.

Rites of Passage and Friendship

For generations of young men growing up in my native environment, the working class culture of Western Pennsylvania, that tempering and initiation came via the seasonal deer hunt. Author Mike Sanja captured this ritual exchange across generations artfully in his book Buck Fever.

If we truly wish to honor the dead in Newtown, and make a difference for young males across America, we men can claim our biological and moral responsibility, and get involved in some young man’s life in a meaningful way. The horrors witnessed at Newtown prompt many calls for parents to “go home and hug your children tighter.” Men can take it another step, and look around.

Somewhere in your world, there is a young man looking to you to model real, emotional resiliency. To show him that male-to-male friendship can extend beyond work, golf, or some other idolatry and withstand life’s most difficult blows. To provide entry into a more eternal, honorable, and inclusive definition of what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s into the lingering shadows of America male narcissism and passivity—the unquestioned belief that there is nothing relational for us to do as men—that a simmering and destructive rage finds a home.

R. Todd Erkel is a writer and a father living in Swissvale, Pennsylvania. Excerpted from The Good Men Project (December 17, 2012), an online magazine that strives to foster a national discussion centered around modern manhood and the question, “What does it mean to be a good man?”