America has been talking a great deal in recent weeks about what it means to be a man. (What’s more discomfiting is that one of our presidential candidates has been the source of most of this discussion, but that’s a post for another day.) As the father of two boys, it’s a conversation I’ve been paying close attention to. There will come a day in the not-so-distant future when Bubby and Boo will wake up and realize that the world they know—the tiny one under the roof of a ranch home in eastern Missouri—is but a microcosm of a much broader, more diverse world. I simply hope the lessons I teach and behaviors I model soften the blow and help them assimilate more easily.
In an effort to help me understand what I want to teach my boys about manhood, I had to first take a step back and understand what I believe about it. (Try it sometime; it’s harder than it sounds.) What makes a man a man? I like sports and beer and tools, but I also like books and singing and cooking. Does that somehow make me more or less manly than other men? Of course not. What I came up with amid all the soul searching are three primary factors that I believe define manhood.
Men are educated. This goes way beyond earning a postgraduate degree or even a high school diploma. Let’s face it: formal schooling just isn’t for everyone. Some guys would simply rather forego college and pursue other interests. And that’s ok; we’ve all heard the success stories of guys who dropped out of school and went on to become millionaires. While I personally wouldn’t recommend that path and would be highly disappointed if my boys failed to complete their senior year, it does prove that one can be educated without attending school. Education is about being informed, about researching a topic you don’t understand before making up your own mind about it. That goes for everything from what you want to be when you grow up to how to vote on a particular ballot measure, from how to build a computer to how to throw a curveball. Whatever the issue, whatever the topic, men will make it a point to educate themselves lest they make unnecessary mistakes or sound unnecessarily foolish.
Men are passionate. Whether it’s political views, a favorite sports team, family values, or career aspirations, men are steadfast in their devotion. They will do everything they can to be the best at what they do. To piggyback off my previous point, men will continually learn and hone their skills to become masters of their craft. The tricky part is not to let that passion become unmitigated obsession. Having the wherewithal to recognize when perseverance becomes obstinance is as much a part of manhood as the passion itself.
Men are respectful. Convention would have you believe that men should be afforded certain privileges over women. The unfortunate part is that far too many people—men and women, consciously and unconsciously—perpetuate that unjust stereotype through their words and actions. So it is incumbent upon the “real man” to look past the stereotypes; past gender; past ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation; and respect the person. Think about how the world might be a little different if resumes did not feature names at the very top of the page. What if your nightly newscast outlined just the basics of the story rather than plaster names and mugshots on the screen? Neither of these scenarios is very likely, but I challenge everyone reading this to take half a step back next time you’re in a situation where gender, race, or some other stereotypical belief might be impacting your judgement and think for a few seconds before making a decision. Would you hold a door for one more person each day? Would you stop and let one more driver in front of you on the highway? Would you say hello to one more stranger in the grocery store?
If you read back over the last few paragraphs, you might see that this post has been decidedly one-sided. Ostensibly I have been—fairly or unfairly—targeting the fellas. But I don’t really see anything above that couldn’t apply to the ladies as well. In fact, if I were raising two daughters instead of two sons I would still expect them to be educated, passionate, and respectful. Our job as parents is not to raise good boys or good girls. Our job is to raise good people, people who will make the world a better place. People who will spread love and laughter and wisdom. People who will make humanity great again.