Boys today are suffering.
Allow me to be frank. They lack a sense of themselves, and of their place in life. You can see it in their eyes, and in how they dress, walk, and talk. And work; or don’t. Often they struggle with academics; somehow studying—at least the studying they’re doing—doesn’t connect with anything in their life. They simply don’t know what to do with the energy, the power, they feel within themselves. Wired for action, they prowl around looking for something, often they know not what. Or they think they know what—certain desires are obvious and insistent—but fulfilling those desires does not fulfill the person; it accentuates the void. Confusion gives way to the numbing paralysis of self-doubt, even loathing.
It’s hard to be a boy.
It’s also hard to be the father of a boy. Boys often make bad choices, for which they are responsible. But it is reasonable to consider how they got where they are, and what might help them get out of it. Fathers (and grandfathers, and uncles, and friends) need to step in. Not tentatively, but with both feet. Raising, mentoring a boy today will require more than we seem to realize. Perhaps much more.
What might gardening have to do with this?
The reasons are legion for just about everyone to engage in the ancient art of raising food from the earth. I will focus on three reasons that pertain in a special way to boys, given the current challenges they face.
1. Learning to be a husband.
The term husband is traditionally used of one who cares for earth and animals, as well as of the man in a family. The connection is not accidental. Similar dispositions should characterize both.
A husband is one who diligently takes care of what is entrusted to him. The Latin root of the word diligence is diligere—to love. We take special care when our affections are engaged. A husband is always a lover, and for him it is a gift that something or someone has been entrusted to his care, a gift he honors by the diligence of his caring.
Many different things can engage a boy’s affections. Gardening is well-suited to evoke and unite two: family and earth. The earth is what is directly cultivated; the family is who is served. Gardening is inspired by, and cultivates, both loves. Few moments can parallel the experience a boy has walking into the kitchen with a gorgeous—or not so gorgeous—tomato, the fruit of his own labor, to be bestowed on the woman he loves most.
Work has meaning for him in this context: these tasks have a specific relation to the flourishing of these people. And in the case of gardening, the tasks are usually uniquely pleasing, even if somewhat strenuous, and have a clearly discernable relation to the needs and happiness of people.
At the same time this work teaches the fundamental lessons of patience and perseverance. Just as the most important things in life are not achieved by the push of a button, the earth yields its fruit in due time, in proportion to the work put into it.
It is no accident that many of the most sage principles are expressed in terms that can most directly be learned in the garden. Indeed, boys will reap precisely according as they have sown.
2. Gaining confidence through competence.
It is an alarming fact that most boys today know how to do almost nothing, of either enduring worth, or reasonable practical significance. (The book learning of school—which certainly can have its place—often inculcates neither practical competence nor much interest in speculative matters.) But the most alarming thing about this fact is that deep down inside they feel it. As they look at the world around them they wonder, even if vaguely or subconsciously: what do I have to offer?