Prologue: Pass It On

At work on Friday, just before the close, a coworker and I were talking about the importance of having a purpose and goals when a quote from my dad came to me. “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”

My dad had a way with pithy sayings, and a lot of them have stuck with me. Just like the other things I got from him, including his sense of quiet responsibility, his muted intensity, and his love of researching before a decision. (Less so his affection for the Yankees.) They’re an indelible part of his legacy.

Parenting isn’t just safely shepherding a child through twenty years of peril until they can understand not to run off a cliff. It’s also passing on lessons. A child launched into adulthood without instruction will be rudderless. Part of parenting is to figure out how to teach good values and lessons that will help the new adult flourish in the world.

The things that can’t be taught in the home are taught in the community. Schools, governments, religious institutions, and other civic places show the next generation how to be part of civil society, preparing them for when they need to step up.

American Legion Jersey Boys State starts on Father’s Day each year, which is an interesting date. Usually, when we think of our start date, we think of the family ties—fathers and sons, one generation to the next. But there’s more than just family ties wrapped up in this day. We have a sense of partnering with the families and the communities that these young men have come from, trying to pass on some lessons that we may have. It’s why we take it so seriously when a single parent chooses to hand off their son to us for a week. That is no small responsibility for one human, let alone 1,000.

But part of being an adult means taking responsibility for hard things like teaching government and civic society. We believe we have a program that does this quite well. We’ve seen countless young men enter the program and leave with a greater understanding of what it means to be be an adult. Some of them have got on to much greater things, like being US Senators, Governors, and Supreme Court Justices. We have 73 years of history doing this, and we think we’ve got some things to share.

And like any good parent, we know there’s a balance between teaching a lesson and giving room for practice of that lesson. Our week is built around that balance. There will be seminars and speakers, and there will also be a mock political system. Your sons will have many hours to practice evaluating social issues, weighing options, debating with others, and coming together to create solutions.

And then it will be over—for us.

And then the young men that we’ve taught will go back to their homes and lives, taking their lessons with them, rarely to return. Will it stick? Will they flourish in their civic lives?

In this, we understand the challenge of parenting. We have one week—sorry, six days—to teach your young men government and civic responsibility. That is not much time for some complex lessons. The clock is always, always in our minds, right next to the stack of “things to pass on to our statesmen.” The stack is taller than the time. We’ll only get to pass on a handful of things to them, and then it will be theirs to apply. Will we be aware of what we didn’t get to? Always. Did we do a good job? Hopefully.

Each statesmen’s year at Boys State begins with two solemn, simultaneous handoffs. The first is the handoff from parents to us. The other handoff is the statesmen being handed off to himself. This is the first week many statesmen have been on their own. Sometimes it’s the first week they’ve been apart from their parents. It’s time for them to step out from the parental penumbra and begin to walk their own course.

The beginning of Boys State states that the intense period of training and teaching is nearly over. This is the time when parents get to see the results of seventeen years of lessons and example.

It’s also the beginning of our time of lessons and example. Hopefully we pass on all our best things and none of our bad traits. That’s our aim, anyway, just like that of parents.

Love you, dad. Let the week begin.