Boys today are in a no-win situation ... but here's how to fix it.
Last night after dinner, I wrestled with my two sons for about an hour. Although I dominated at first with my superior size and strength, they eventually wore me down and piled on top of me in a fit of giggling and barbaric yelps.
At times, the two of them are more aggressive than a pack of wolves and I often find them randomly hitting things with other things, climbing, punching, and rolling in mud. Recently, our oldest son hugged his mother while having an openhearted discussion about why we kiss family members we love and how he likes that.
Both versions are the same boy. Both are expressions of his masculinity — the roughhousing and the emotional sensitivity. They’re both healthy and something I encourage. A boy shouldn’t be forced to choose one or the other and neither should be seen as a defect in his masculinity.
Recently, Benjamin Sledge wrote an article titled, “Today’s problem with masculinity isn’t what you think.” After pointing out how boys seem to have a lot of trouble growing into men these day, he writes,
“There is currently a two pronged assault on young boys.
- We view roughhousing, playing with toy swords, and fake war/battles as a sign our boys will become psychopaths because of recent events.
- Men falsely believe sensitivity or emotions are a sign of weakness.”
As I see it, the problem today is that roughhousing and traditionally “male” activities such as playing soldier and play-acting as mythical heroes are frowned upon as too aggressive and violent. On the one hand, boys who find themselves exploring that physical, testosterone-drenched area of their psyche are suspected of being alpha males in training and are quickly shamed. But on the other hand, boys who show signs of emotion, artistic aptitude, tenderness, or other so-called “feminine traits” have their masculinity and maybe even their sexuality questioned. So what should a man be? What options are left? Boys are in a no-win situation.
I’ve had my own manhood called into question more than once because I dress nicely. I’ve been mocked for being able to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins poems and playing Chopin preludes on the piano. I’m kind of into Jane Austen novels. I’ve watched sappy musicals before and liked them. Having my identity questioned has become all the more confusing when I’ve been told that I’m supposedly also a misogynist for being a Catholic and being okay with an all-male priesthood, or for fathering too many children and settling into traditional gender roles with my wife. The criticisms don’t make any sense.
In his article, Sledge says that other men have the same experience, and the criticism from both sides “leaves a lot of young men growing up confused.” He goes on to say, “We don’t engage in the healthy types of play we need to bond, and we don’t get the emotional connection we need from fathers or other men. This leaves men apathetic and indifferent when they feel they can be neither, and thus we retreat into our digital worlds of lethargy.”
In the end, boys end up getting lost on their journey to manhood, and many men are adolescents in grown-up bodies because we’ve had our masculinity taken away from us. All that’s left is video games, pornography, and spending every night watching sports on television. In other words, we’re left with vices and unhealthy relics of childhood that we should have outgrown by now.
So, how do we help boys grow into healthy young men?
First, understand that roughhousing, swordplay, and playing war are all ways for boys to explore their environment. Boys in particular want to seek out adventure and find their purpose in life by engaging in heroism. This doesn’t mean that they need to find a helpless woman to rescue in order to become real men, but they must be encouraged – by fathers, especially – to courageously confront chaos and grapple with the unknown. Boys learn to become men by confronting evil and conquering it. I try to explain this to my own boys at a few different levels. They can challenge their bodies through sports, discipline their interior life by cultivating virtue and overcoming vice, and discover their responsibility to defend the truth, the weak, and the vulnerable in all situations. All of these are ways for boys to become heroes.
Second, once boys are allowed the freedom to be strong, they’ll avoid an identity crisis about being sensitive and artistic. A strong man is a gentle man, and a confident man is an emotionally sensitive man. I talk to my boys about my emotions and teach them to love beautiful things like singing and playing the piano. I try to hug them a lot. I also want them to see me hug their mother and their sisters and the way I am gentle with them. I pray with my sons and go to Mass with them because worship is a masculine virtue just as much as it’s a feminine one. Men go to Church with their families.
Life is a call to adventure, and boys are excited to set out on their heroic path. With more encouragement, they can learn to be strong and sensitive, warriors, but also poets, confident in their self-identity and ready to set forth into the great unknown.