America is in danger of raising a generation of boys who are “unproductive narcissists,” and Trail Life USA CEO Mark Hancock says his organization is prepared to step in and neutralize the threat.
For the last eight years since pulling his sons away from the embattled Boy Scouts of America, Hancock has been promoting his "unapologetically Christian" alternative to the iconic youth organization, which he argues has lost some 2 million members since 2013 because it abandoned its “laser focus on boys.”
And his message has been gaining traction among Christian parents and churches worried about the threat of a mainstream culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to raising their sons as traditional men.
“It’s as if boyhood is some kind of social disease that needs to be eradicated,” Hancock, a trained mental health expert and father of two boys, told The Christian Post in a recent interview. “We don’t celebrate boys like we used to. We don’t recognize their strengths and their impulsivity and their risk and their attraction to competition as positive things anymore, and they used to be accepted. Those were strengths that were being tested in a boy that would serve him in manhood.
“When you look at the history of the country, it’s winning and focused men who took chances, who took risks, who made the difficult decisions, who sometimes made unpopular decisions that really led us to be one of the greatest countries in the world," he said. "And if we’re not still instilling those same things in boys, letting them know that risk and competition are not bad words, letting them know that they can get outside and exercise their strength, their masculinity, in a godly way is not a bad thing, then I think it’s not going serve us well going forward as a society that’s going to require that we have men do things like go to war. Like stand up and defend our rights, stand up to defend the weak, to be strong, to have convictions, to be bold about certain things. And if we aren’t instilling that in our boys, we’re certainly not going to have it in our men.”
Trail Life USA was launched in 2014 in the wake of the Boy Scouts lifting their ban on gay youth. The Boy Scouts have since made more changes that conflict with traditional Christian values, such as allowing openly gay scout leaders in 2015. It also expanded membership to include girls in 2019, which led to a lawsuit from the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.
In just nine months after it launched, Trail Life USA attracted more than 14,000 members. It recently reported some 30,000 members and has continued growing even during the pandemic. And in the last month alone interest has remained high.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth. Just the past month or so we’ve seen over 300 people reach out to us and just say, ‘How do I start a troop?’ ‘How do I get a Trail Life troop in my community? I need this focus. My son needs this.’
"I really believe that families are scrambling in search of an organization that will help them make godly men from the stuff of boys, and we believe that Trail Life is that organization,” Hancock said. “That’s why our numbers are exploding. We’re seeing people that are responding to messages like ‘boys and girls are different.’”
He said even though people of faith are finding it more difficult today to find organizations that align with their values, many are still not willing to compromise.
In 2013, Hancock said he had to personally respond to that dilemma.
“For me personally, it was in 2013 my sons and I were active in Boy Scouts, and when they began making decisions that I saw were contrary to what I believe. I had a choice to make as a father. We were part of a troop in the organization that we truly loved, but it was a difficult thing to sit down with my sons and tell them that we could no longer do that. The alternative was to sit down with my sons and say, listen, ‘we don’t agree with what’s going on, but we’re gonna do it anyway.’ And I just could not imagine myself instilling that sort of thought in my sons that it’s OK to align yourself with something that doesn’t align with your own values,” Hancock said.
As the BSA watched their numbers dwindle to just 762,000 this year, Trail Life USA is now on a mission to “guide generations of courageous young men to honor God, lead with integrity, serve others, and experience outdoor adventure.”
“I’ve seen a lot of reporting trying to explain why their numbers are declining, and I just felt like I needed to take issue with that because Trail Life USA, in that same period of time, has seen explosive growth. … I really believe that the reason they are seeing this decline is the changes and decisions they’ve made at a national level to fundamentally change the focus of the organization,” he said.
And Christian parents aren’t the only parents worried about how institutions, including churches, have been serving their sons. Data from the 2020 American Family Survey show that parents, in general, are concerned.
A striking minority, just 36%, of parents believe churches are serving their sons well, the survey shows. This share is almost equal to the 33% who say the same about how the criminal justice system is serving their sons. A minority of parents also believe churches are serving their daughters well, but that number is 5 percentage points higher at 41%.
Hancock says mainstream culture appears to be serving girls better today, but that progress is coming at the expense of boys.
“Girls are incredibly strong; girls are incredibly gifted in so many areas. They excel in every single academic category. There are more girls graduating from college at every level all the way up to the doctoral degree than there are males. They succeed much better academically. In so many different ways girls are excelling. And it’s wonderful to see. But somehow, in the process of helping girls, we’ve dismissed boys. And I think that parents and leaders are starting to recognize that. Parents, in particular, are saying, ‘I need a place where my son’s strengths are celebrated.’ And there’s just fewer and fewer places. Toxic masculinity paints with a broad brush that every boy is somehow dangerous,” Hancock added.
“There are dangerous men and there are dangerous boys, but not every boy is dangerous. And not every man is dangerous,” he continued. “I think we are in danger of raising a whole generation of unproductive narcissists. They’re unproductive because we haven’t really challenged them, and they are narcissists because we haven’t let them fail.
"In Trail Life USA, we challenge boys with things they haven’t done before. Whether it’s a difficult hike, planning an event or to work with a team of boys toward a certain objective. And then we help them to understand failure. Sometimes they don’t win. What that means is you try harder. You go back and you practice and you get better at it. … That’s what we’ve understood in the past. And it seems like we go overboard now in affirming qualities and dismissing the fact that boys need to be encouraged when they fail … everybody doesn’t get a trophy.”
While Hancock continues to promote his message of building an ‘unapologetically Christian” alternative to the BSA, he does not ignore the nearly 90,000 claims of sexual abuse against the organization that occurred well before the changes that scared away many Christian members.
He assures parents that Trail Life USA is committed to keeping their sons safe and policies are already in place to handle concerns transparently.
“We were forged in the fire of this difficult reality and we knew that we needed to structure ourselves in such a way that the safety of our boys was paramount. We knew that parents would want that. We knew that it would fall to us to do a better job than prior organizations in keeping boys safe. So we have policies and procedures in place. We are dead set in carrying the gold standard for child safety and youth protection,” Hancock said.
To keep troopers safe, every adult leader in Trail Life USA has to pass a background check. They also must complete child safety youth protection training every two years and present a personal reference from a church representative.
In every troop, there is also a position called the Troop Ministry Liaison.
“That person’s number one job is to know the adults he’s laboring in that troop with and to sign off to say, these are men or women of good character, and I personally can account for them,” Hancock said.
Child safety policies in the organization also dictate that there is no one-on-one contact between men and boys and that there is always another adult within eyesight or earshot for safety.
Troopers also never travel alone; they are always in groups of three with peers of the same age since older boys can also abuse younger troopers.
He said if those safeguards fail, the organization plans to be very transparent with cases and will allow law enforcement to handle abuse allegations.
“Our unapologetically Christian stance puts on us a great deal of responsibility for boys,” he said. “We take seriously the ministry we do for boys,” he added, noting that their policy is to always protect the trooper, not the organization.