Walking the Perimeter with a Son

By Paul Koch

The raising of a son is a noble and daunting task. In these days of safe spaces on college campuses and SJWs arguing over proper pronoun use, it is easy to get overwhelmed as to what is the best course of action. The time-honored traditions handed down from a father to a son are now often portrayed as being out of touch with modern sentiments and no longer needed in a modern society. The traditional understanding of what makes a man a good man and what makes him good at being a man are viewed with a certain disdain and uneasiness.

After all, such virtues as strength, courage, mastery, and honor are not viewed as especially needful. They are replaced with understanding, sensitivity, and a willingness to work cooperatively with others. This shift can only come when there is a perceived safety and comfort is provided by others so there is no need for a man to protect and provide. But what our everchanging society deems as valuable ought to not dictate the raising of our boys.

In Cormac McCarthy’s monumental tale The Road, he tells the story of a man and his son in burned-out America carefully making their way to the coast to flee the death of winter. Along the way, he paints a picture of the fears and strength of manhood and fatherhood and what it means to continue to carry the fire. Throughout the story, there is a scene that plays out, a set of actions that occurs again and again. Every time this unnamed father and son stop to make camp for the night, the father sets out and walks the perimeter. He trudges through the snow and ash to make sure that where they’ve settled is safe. On the inside of that perimeter is his life. Inside is food and water, shelter, and most importantly his child. Outside is death, destruction, and those who would take what he is charged to protect. Again and again, he walks the perimeter. In the middle of the night when some sound stirs him from sleep, he walks the perimeter. In the morning as they warm some coffee over a small fire, he will again walk the perimeter. The reader learns quite clearly that there is an inside and an outside, an “us” versus “them.”

As I see it, the reality of the perimeter is what shapes the reality of being a man. The keeping of a perimeter will necessitate the need for strength, courage, mastery, and honor. However, we live in a world where we are constantly encouraged to ignore the perimeter. The perimeter is for the government to worry about or the local authorities or the many specialists that fill our lives. Without a perimeter to keep a man can focus on other things, a father doesn’t need to teach his son what it means to protect and provide for someone else will do that for us.

For a father raising a son, the question, then, is whether he needs to know what it means to keep the perimeter. Is it important to teach them about the perimeter that encircles the family (his mother and sisters), the perimeter that encompasses his home, the perimeter that is marked out by his confession of faith? If these things are important, and if he is to have a role in protecting and providing for those on the inside of perimeter, then a father must teach his son what it is to be such a man.

And while I am still learning the practicality of this, I know that I cannot step aside and allow the world to shape the man my son will become. In fact, I’m learning that it is often the little things that begin to shape the big picture.

My son recently turned 8. On his birthday, I was thrilled to give him his first pocket knife. Now, in a world of easy-open packaging and electric stoves, the need for a knife isn’t what it once was. However, I thought it was a great opportunity to teach him what it means to be at the ready, to have a tool in his pocket that he could use to come to the aid of those around him. It was crucial, I told him, to carry a knife as a man, and he ought to get used to it now. Now, a knife is small thing, but it can be powerful statement in understanding one’s place in the world. To see my small son carrying his pocketknife is to see the first glimpse of a man that will not simply be another consumer in the world waiting for someone else to take care of things. Rather, he comes with a certain preparedness that he can handle some things on his own.

This may not be much, but it is a beginning. And it will be crucial as he begins to identify the perimeters of his life.