As I mentioned yesterday, we had a terrific time with the All Saints kids during our fasting fund-raiser on Friday and Saturday. Another night for Hugo in his sleeping bag on the floor, surrounded by snoring and wheezing boys. (Here’s my dilemma: I find it much easier to sleep on retreats when I have both ear plugs and one of those little night shades to cover my eyes; I have a nice pair from a British Airways amenity kit. But is it safe, given what teens get up to, for the youth leaders to be unable to hear a darned thing? Should I always sleep with one ear open, as it were? I go back and forth on the matter.)
Our confirmation class this year has a very skewed sex ratio. We have 16 girls and 3 boys, which is the most lopsided it has been in my seven years of serving as an instructor and mentor for the confirmation program. On Saturday, I was chatting with a parent as we were finishing things up, and this parent (whose child was in a previous confirmation class) lamented “We really need more boys. I’m so worried that all the young men are missing.”
I’ve heard a lot of this public anxiety about “missing boys” this year. I’ve heard it nationally, as the mainstream media frets that bright and talented young women are somehow driving young men off of college campuses. And I’ve heard it at All Saints, where for any number of reasons, we have a very small number of boys in our 2007 “Seekers” confirmation class. (I am happy to say that in terms of overall numbers, the trend in the raw number of confirmands is going up in our parish.) In the past, we’ve always had a few more girls than boys, say with a 10-8 split in favor of the females. But never as stark as the 16-3 ratio we’ve got at the moment, a ratio that is particularly obvious when we divide the teens for overnight sleeping arrangements.
Let me be clear that I’d like to see more boys involved in our youth program. But I’m growing a bit frustrated with the hand-wringing over their absence. The three boys we do have this year are bright, sweet, fun lads; the girls we’ve got are equally wonderful. As always, once I get to know them well, I find myself starting to fall in love with the whole danged pack of them. (In this paranoid age, let me be clear that this is a pure and uncomplicated passion!) And I’m worried that it is all too easy to become so concerned about the “missing boys” that we ignore the equally important needs of the girls who are seeking out confirmation and committing to our eight-month program. We are in danger of focusing too much on who isn’t with us, and why they aren’t, and too little on the precious, magnificent young people who are right in front of us.
As a male professor and youth leader, I take my job as a role model very seriously. I know that I have a role to play in the lives of both young men and young women. The fact that I am male doesn’t mean that the boys are any more or less important to me than are their sisters. But to some extent, adult males are particularly important for boys because they can model an alternative vision of what it means to be masculine. Teenage boys want very much to know how to live as adult men, and it is considerably easier for a grown man to show that in his actions as well as his words. This doesn’t mean that adult women can’t mentor boys, and adult men can’t mentor girls; it just means that we often learn differently from same and other-sexed role models. So I get that I have a special task when it comes to the boys.
The reasons why our confirmation classes have such a skewed gender ratio are hardly unique to All Saints. Like many liberal churches, relatively few of our prospective confirmands have been forced by their parents to be in the program; if it were compulsory, we would expect a more even number of boys and girls. And all things being equal, more girls than boys seem interested in exploring their faith and spending time in service. I’ve heard a variety of suggestions floated to make the program more attractive to boys (less talking, more outdoor activities), but most of those ideas, if implemented, would gut the program as it exists. It would also mean ignoring the generally positive responses of the few boys whom we do have in the program. And it would mean we were showing more concern for men than for women, more concern for those absent than for those present.
The current obsession in education is a hyper-anxiety about the well-being of boys, and an almost misogynistic fear that our current pedagogical structures favor girls. After all, if more girls than boys are showing up and being successful, this must be attributed to an anti-male bias rather than to a greater interest and effort on the part of the girls themselves! Too many girls and well-behaved boys have been ignored for too long by teachers and youth leaders who devote too much attention to coping with the few “problem boys” (chronic troublemakers, overly medicated hyperactives, etcetera).
Am I upset that we’ve got 16 girls and 3 boys? Heck no. Would I be upset if we had 16 boys and 3 girls? Nope. Jesus calls us to feed His lambs, and we feed the lambs who come for food. What point is there in searching endlessly after those who aren’t showing up, if the end result is that those who have come to be fed are ignored?