Many American boys will be getting a dangerous book for Christmas this year—so dangerous that it is frankly labeled "A Dangerous Book for Boys." Published in the USA back in May 2007, it immediately hit the number two spot on Amazon.com, and a quick check shows that it still hovering close to the top of the chart. By some, the book has been hailed as the cure for our kids' sedentary addiction to video games. By others, it has been criticized as being...well, too dangerous for our boys. The book teaches them, for example, how to build a go-cart from scratch, and then it encourages them to use the go-cart to descend rapidly down steep inclines at a precipitous pace, risking both life and limb in the process. Fun, of course; but not as safe as sitting in front of the boob tube.
The book's popularity tells us quite a lot about the current state of our culture. At one point in the American past, we did not need best-sellers to tell our boys how to endanger their lives; they had a spontaneous gift for discovering all sorts of perils, both the obvious and the unsuspected.
Consider the following observation made by the English writer, Harriet Martineau, during her travels in America at the beginning of the Age of Jackson, circa 1830. "It is amusing to observe what the ability for self-preservation is among children in a country where nursemaids are rare. It frightened me at first to see mere babies playing on broken wooden bridges, where the rushing water below might be seen through large holes; and little boys climbing trees which slanted over a rocky precipice; or getting into a canoe tossing on a rough river. But I find that accidents to children are rarely or never heard of. The obvious results of such training are a dexterity, fearlessness, and presence of mind, and aptitude for bodily exercises, which are of eminent use in mature life." (Society in America, III, 174)
Things were not all that much different when I grew up in the nineteen fifties. Like almost all boys of that period, I was permitted an extraordinary amount of personal liberty and I was exposed, by our contemporary standards, to an appalling number of risks. For example, when I rode my bicycle, I didn't wear a helmet—because no one did, and no one would have dreamed of wearing one. True, I once fell off my bicycle in fifth grade and ended up with a serious concussion, but I lived to tell the tale.
Today it is illegal in many states for children to ride a bicycle without helmet—and no doubt this law has saved many lives. But how far should we push this desire to save the lives of our children? For example, if making it illegal to ride a bicycle without a helmet saves lives, think how many lives could be saved if children were forbidden to ride bicycles at all. Is bicycle riding really so important that it is worth risking the life of a single child? Outlaw it entirely—and along with it, all other forms of occupation that could, under certain circumstances, lead to the death or injury of a child, such as swimming or crossing the street or (gasp!) riding a go cart the kid has built for himself.
But what kind of boy are you producing if you insist on raising him in a world in which he can take no risks and make no mistakes? Will these overly sheltered boys grow up to possess "the dexterity, fearlessness, and presence of mind" that Harriet Martineau so much admired both in American children raised without nurse maids, and in the adult males that the overwhelming majority of them eventually survived to become?
Harriet Martineau was one of the very few nineteenth century European intellectuals of stature who genuinely loved America and believed in the future of its democratic ethos. As a woman, she was alert to the intimate connection between the way a society raises its boys, and the kind of men it turns out, which is why she immediately saw that America could only preserve its egalitarian ethos by giving boys a high degree of autonomy in controlling their daily affairs—an autonomy that could not exist without danger and risk-taking. A boy who is used to having his daily affairs controlled by the will of others will always be more apt to let others control his will than a boy who has been raised without such control. A boy who is used to being bossed around will be unable to break this habit when he becomes a man.
As Harriet Martineau realized, a nanny-state begins with a nanny. To avoid it, we must stop babying our boys, and even encourage them to live a little dangerously. The Dangerous Book for Boys is not a bad place to begin. I am giving copies to several boys of my acquaintance. I just hope that I can remain friends with their parents afterwards.