Men need permission to be men.
I’m lucky enough to be a father to both sons and daughters. The boys play with cars, wrestle shirtless, have a deep appreciation for scatological humor, and very much enjoy dangerous physical activities. For instance, this past week the two boys used their pocket knives to carve even bigger knives out of blocks of wood, which they then wielded to vigorously attack each other throughout the course of the day. Boys need this sort of activity, so I allowed it with one provision – they could attack and injure each other as much as they wanted, but they had to leave their sisters out of it. And of course the girls wanted no part of the violence anyway. They spend the vast majority of their time reading fairy tale novels and sewing new clothes for their hand-crafted mermaid doll family.
As a father, it’s fascinating to observe the difference between the sexes. Personally, I have zero interest in cars, construction equipment, digging mud pits, or deadly weaponry. I haven’t encouraged or discouraged any of my kids from these pursuits, but my boys have nevertheless enthusiastically embraced them. Try as we might to convince ourselves that gender is a meaningless construct, my experience with my own children says the opposite. Biological maleness is mysteriously and often connected, for good or ill, with certain masculine traits.
As an adult male, masculinity is hardwired into my circuitry, so it’s odd to consider that my masculinity is toxic and that, in order to become a safe member of society, I must erase maleness down to the very core. It’s true that certain concepts of masculinity can be toxic, and men can and do perpetrate violence, have aggression issues along with a tendency towards alpha-male behavior, and are often ill-formed for polite society. The #MeToo movement has recently been highlighting this issue and holding men accountable. The complaints of the women who have been sharing their experiences are valid and disturbing. They deserve to be heard, and it’s clear something has gone very wrong. What have men become? Are we monsters?
We have to be careful, though. There’s a difference between calling out sexual predators and actually shaming the fundamental concept of masculinity. If there’s something wrong with me for simply being a man, and if the solution being sought is for men to become less masculine and more gender-neutral, then the movement seeking justice for women will fail.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia recently gave a talk to men in which he explains why criticism of masculinity needs to become more substantive:
“A real reform of male behavior will never come about through feminist lectures and mass media man-shaming by celebrities and award ceremonies. … A man’s actions and words change only when his heart changes for the better.”
We can’t force men to stop being men, so the solution isn’t to shame us relentlessly, but to help men have a conversion of heart. What I need as a male is to become more of a man.
There are real differences between the sexes — both in terms of parents observing their children’s behaviors, as well as in the evidence that while girls seem to be doing just fine, boys are not doing well right now in general. For instance, for years now boys have been doing worse at school and struggling to form mature relationships that result in marriage. In those differences is the key to the current problem in masculinity. Men have become Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. They’re having trouble growing up. It’s confusing figuring out what it means to be a man right now, and it doesn’t help when the very concept of masculinity is disparaged.
I find it more helpful to re-examine what it does mean to be a man, in the fullest, healthiest sense of the word. Chaput says, “As men, we’re hardwired by nature… to provide, to protect, and to lead – not for our own sake, not for our own empty vanities and appetites, but in service to others.”
All of those typically masculine vices that are causing so much trouble right now have corresponding virtues … Aggression, self-centeredness, and anger can, with a little encouragement, become courage, self-sacrifice, and chivalry. Men simply need permission to be men, to build things with our hands, to feel as though we’re protecting those who are weaker, to have families we can provide for, and to embrace personal responsibility. If men feel confirmed in their masculinity, they will also feel the security to display emotional vulnerability, write poems to their wives, and hug their daughters.
With my boys, I encourage their burgeoning masculinity instead of squashing it. I want to be an example to them of true masculinity, an example that teaches them to protect their sisters, to fight bad guys and not the innocent, and to always play the hero. Give a boy an adventure, arm him with virtue to bring out the best in his natural, God-given masculinity, and watch him become the sort of man that the world needs right now.