The Hammer

What a boy needs to become a man: a metaphor for our time.

Posted Oct 16, 2015

Recently I spoke by phone with Craig McClain, co-founder and executive director of Boys to Men, a non-profit organization in Southern California. Boys to Men provides a structured way for teenage boys to connect with a community of men on an ongoing basis. The organization also owns a ranch on Mount Palomar, a mountaintop in San Diego County best known for the Palomar Observatory, whose 200-inch telescope was, back in the 1950s and 60s and long before Hubble, the most powerful telescope in the world.

Mr. McClain will sometimes hire one of the boys to do some work at the ranch, typically paying about $50 for a few hours’ work. Not long ago, he hired a boy to come to the ranch to do various chores, including getting the nails out of a pile of old lumber. He showed the boy the stack of lumber and handed him a hammer.

“That whole job should have taken, maybe, 30 minutes,” McClain told me. But when McClain returned in 30 minutes, the boy was sweating and frustrated. The boy had removed the nails from just one plank of lumber, in 30 minutes. The boy had been using the blunt end of the hammer. Nobody had ever shown him how to use the lever end of the hammer to pry the nails loose. He didn’t know what the lever end was for. He had never asked. McClain took the hammer from the boy and — in less than a minute — showed him how to use the correct end of the hammer to pry the nails free. McClain handed the hammer back to the boy, who finished the job. 

This kind of story is now common. We assume that a teenage boy knows how to use a hammer to get nails out of an old piece of wood. But how should a boy know, if he has never been taught, if he has never seen a man use a hammer for that purpose?

McClain sees this story as a metaphor for the plight of many young men today. They have never been trained in the tools of traditional manhood. Then they come of age, angry and frustrated because the tools don’t seem to work. Yet it is not the tools that have failed. The culture has failed. The culture has not provided a community of men to train the boys.

And the end result of that failure is an angry young man with a hammer in his hand.  

Leonard Sax MD PhD is a practicing physician and the author of three books for parents. His fourth book, The Collapse of Parenting, will be published in December 2015.