Our culture is letting our boys down in a serious way.
I have no doubt that the way we socialise boys into men contributes to the high rates of mental health problems and suicide amongst them. Because, in New Zealand (and many other societies), being a man requires a person to shut down large parts of themselves.
Men don’t, for instance, get to feel and express their full range of human emotions. To do so is to open themselves up to jest and insults that question their manliness. They’re encouraged to put aside their better judgement and adopt dysfunctional attitudes towards many things, including women and drinking.
Meeting the various expectations put on them doesn’t allow our men to be fully human. As a result, I have to really search the crowd for role models of the kind of men I want my boys to become. It both worries and angers me that I can’t trust society to support me in raising happy, well-adjusted men.
MEN ARE STRONG
Strength is a quality associated with manhood. But the idea often gets misused by men trying to stay in role – perhaps to assert themselves over another or to avoid their feelings. To me, this behaviour is not a sign of strength but of weakness, an inability to truly face themselves or another. The kind of strength I want my boys to have is the strength to be themselves and to accept others as they are.
Currently, a “good kiwi bloke” is defined as one who is self-reliant and independent – but our brains are wired for connection and society relies on our interdependence to function well. I want my boys to have the skills to participate in & enjoy relationships of every kind and to be commited to love themselves & others enough not to adopt the problematic attitudes they see around them.
HOW MEN CAN SAVE THEMSELVES
It’s men themselves who perpetuate the definitions of a “real man” that I reject. But I don’t blame them. They’re products of the generations before them, they’ve learned what it means to be a man from their fathers, who learned it from their fathers. But, if today’s men are to stop passing along the same unhealthy ideas about being a man, they need to do something different.
Men need to let each other off the hook and free one another from the expectations that confine them. Instead of egging one another on to “have another” (drink) or avoiding each others’ pain, they can be real mates by encouraging each other to make good choices at the pub and checking in to see how their grieving friend is really faring. And their sons will be watching.
I want to acknowledge that some men are already doing things differently and, fortunately, there are a few of them in my boys’ lives. But, as a society, there’s a long way to go.
WHAT MOTHERS CAN DO TO SAVE OUR BOYS
I have both compassion and anger for today’s men. Sometimes, I (metaphorically) shake my fist and yell at our men to get over their macho s**t & save our boys! But, instead of blaming, I have to ask myself what can I do, as a mother, to raise boys who will become men of real strength within a culture with a warped sense of masculinity? My boys are looking to the men in their lives to show them how to be men but I have to do something.
Here are my first ideas about how mothers can make a difference for our sons –
Find and talk about good male role models. Whether they’re family members, school teachers, people featured on the tv news or characters in a movie, we can point out men of real strength and discuss with our boys what it is we admire about them. One of the first people I think of is ex-All Black Sir John Kirwan, who has very publicly shared his struggle with depression in a show of tremendous strength of the kind good men need. The situation isn’t all bad – there are great men and great things about men to focus our boys’ attention & aspirations on.
Develop our boys’ ability to talk about feelings. The first step, which we can begin doing when they’re babies, is letting them feel everything they feel, without trying to distract them or talk them out of their feelings. Since my boys were very young, I’ve been helping them to name their feelings and encouraging them to be honest with me about how they feel. I try to be open with them about my feelings too so that they learn how to listen to and support others also. By doing these things, we can help our boys to become comfortable and skilled at having conversations about thoughts and feelings.
Teach our boys how to be good friends to one another. I love the way my son celebrates his teammates’ successes & reassures them after disappointments on the football field and I reinforce him when I see him doing these things. I encourage my boys to ask after their friends who’ve been off school sick or have had a pet die. We talk about what it means to be a good friend, such as helping one another to make good choices and be their best. If we teach them how to be a good friend, maybe our boys can effect change themselves by being mates who step up.
Encourage our boys to be themselves. For me, authenticity is more important than living up to anyone’s ideas about what a man should be, including my own. My boys know that I prize their uniqueness and I’m explicit about their special sets of qualities, interests and values so that they can know themselves. As one of my favourite quotes says –
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are”. – e.e. cummings
IN SUMMARY: RAISING CHANGEMAKERS
I often find myself brooding over what I can do to help solve the problems of the world – environmental, social, economic and otherwise. My efforts can feel tiny, inconsequential in comparison to the enormity of the issues. I will continue to do what I can but I’ve realised lately that my biggest impact on the world may be in helping to raise future generations.
For change to occur, different attitudes are needed and I can raise my boys to expect better from themselves and those around them, including their mates. Whether we’re talking about pollution, equity gaps or society’s ideas about what it means to be a man, transformation will likely take generations but our boys can play a significant role in changing direction.
Please share this post with a mother you know who is raising a son – let her know that she is not powerless to change the messages our boys are getting about what it means to be a man.
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