From boys to men

David French first wrote:

This week CBS News released a short documentary that asked, “Is there a better way to raise boys?” It explored the challenge of raising boys to avoid the trap of “toxic masculinity,” and the crew visited our home in Franklin, Tennessee, to get the perspective of a conservative Christian family. You can watch the documentary here:

I write and speak quite a bit about masculinity in America—not because I represent any sort of ideal but because our nation faces an immense challenge in raising boys, and any discussion of the challenges of modern American society (including deaths of despair) that does not explore the masculine identity crisis is missing a big piece of the cultural puzzle. It’s true that men still achieve well at the apex of American society (they fill boardrooms, legislatures, and CEO chairs), but in the rest of American society, men are starting to fall behind.

There are complex economic, cultural, and spiritual reasons for the struggles of millions of young men, but one reason is that our nation is losing its understanding of virtuous masculinity. Note well, I’m not arguing that we’ve lost an understanding of virtue—we know we want children to be kind, to be truthful, and to be brave, for example—but we’ve lost a sense of what it means to translate these virtues through a distinctly masculine filter. Or, to put it another way, the effort to raise a child to become a good person is quite often different from the effort to raise a boy to become a good man.

Yes, we’re all just people. And no, men are not all the same. But as a general matter, men and women are different, and that means (again, in general) that we’ll be disproportionately plagued with different vices and disproportionately blessed with different virtues.

Instead, our culture often treats vices in men as the result of their masculinity, while viewing their virtues as the result of their humanity. The result is a culture that often tells young boys that there’s nothing distinctly good about being a guy—but there is a lot that’s perilous.

Are you aggressive? That’s a bad thing that plagues boys. Are you brave? Fantastic! But anyone can be brave.

Are you emotionally distant? Well, young men often struggle with expressing themselves. Are you steady under pressure? Wonderful! I admire people who can respond to adversity.

Indeed, we’ve reached a point where the American Psychological Association is essentially pathologizing traditional masculinity itself. In early 2019, it declared that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” It published guidelines that arguing that “traditional masculinity ideology”—defined as socializing boys toward “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence”—has been shown to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict,” and negatively influence mental and physical health.

But wait. Look at those lists of characteristics again. Many of them can be virtues—even indispensable virtues. Is there an inherent problem with achievement? Of course not. A desire to achieve helps build families, economies, and nations. Is there an inherent problem with stoicism? Of course not. As I explained in the documentary, there is often a desperate need for a man to be able to handle the storms of life with a calm, steady hand.

Is a sense of adventure problematic? Don’t tell Neil Armstrong. Even risk and violence have virtuous and indispensable uses. Just ask the men who held Cemetery RidgeHill on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, or the men who surged forward onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, or more recently the men who landed in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

If you spend any time around boys, you know that they are disproportionately (though not always, of course) prone to take risks, seek adventure, and demonstrate aggression. If we tell a child there is something inherently wrong with those things, we will often tell a child that there is something wrong with his very nature.

The challenge of raising a boy, then, should not lie in suppressing their masculine characteristics, but rather in shaping them and channeling them toward virtuous ends.

It is absolutely true that there can exist a “man box” (a term used by one of the experts in the documentary) and that boys who don’t possess many of these stereotypically male characteristics can live a life of misery as they’re forced to conform to society’s expectations against the grain of their unique nature and disposition. It is also true that many of these male characteristics are stereotypical for a reason, and that our desire to create more liberty for young boys should make the walls of the “box” porous—it should not obliterate or denigrate masculinity itself.

Toxic masculinity is a real thing, and we see its effects in the #MeToo sex predators, in the violence of gangland criminals, and in the rage and fury of abusive boyfriends and husbands. As a Christian, I see toxic masculinity as the outgrowth of what happens when men surrender to sin. A man surrendered to sin will often behave quite differently from a woman who surrenders to sin—with a greater propensity to commit acts of violence and predation.

At the same time, a man raised to live a life of virtue will often behave quite differently from a woman raised to live a life of virtue—with a greater propensity to take the kinds of adventurous risks that quite often advance human civilization and a greater propensity to channel aggression into protection. You could swing the doors of the infantry wide open to men and women, and men will always choose that path with greater frequency than women.

One of the mysteries and realities of the differences between men and women is the way that boys so often respond worse to fatherlessness than girls. Leadership by example is so vitally important to young men. A good father, a good coach, a good teacher, or a good commander can demonstrate for his son, his player, his student, or his soldier the golden mean of manhood—a life that shuns the excesses and indulgences of toxic masculinity but also shuns extreme overreactions to male misbehavior and understands that there can be something distinctly good about being a man.

Then French wrote:

Writing in The Atlantic, Peggy Orenstein has put together a masterpiece – a well-researched, sensitive, and balanced portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young man in America. In particular, it highlights a deep challenge that faces our boys—too often, they’re effectively peer-raised. In the absence of a culturally-positive vision for masculinity and in the absence of strong, virtuous male leadership, they’re adrift on the very meaning of manhood itself. I found this passage particularly interesting and troubling:

Feminism may have provided girls with a powerful alternative to conventional femininity, and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but there have been no credible equivalents for boys. Quite the contrary: The definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting. When asked what traits society values most in boys, only 2 percent of male respondents in the PerryUndem survey said honesty and morality, and only 8 percent said leadership skills—traits that are, of course, admirable in anyone but have traditionally been considered masculine. When I asked my subjects, as I always did, what they liked about being a boy, most of them drew a blank. “Huh,” mused Josh, a college sophomore at Washington State. (All the teenagers I spoke with are identified by pseudonyms.) “That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.”

This hearkens back to something I wrote in my Sunday newsletter earlier this month. To the extent that our culture treats men as distinctive, it treats them as distinctively bad. In other words, while guys can be good, there is nothing inherently good about being a guy. In essence, the culture tells men, “Don’t be bad,” but it doesn’t show them how to be good.

Orenstein doesn’t shrink from the characteristics that have defined boys and masculinity for generations. Note above that she recognizes that honesty, morality, and leadership have “traditionally been considered masculine.” Moreover, she recognizes that even the more “problematic” masculine characteristics have their virtuous aspects. “Stoicism is valuable sometimes, as is free expression,” she writes, “toughness and tenderness can coexist in one human. In the right context, physical aggression is fun, satisfying, even thrilling.”

Yes, yes, yes. But a young boy needs someone to show him the way, and boys collectively need strong leadership to turn their athletic, military, and other mostly male spaces into a training ground for virtuous masculinity rather than cesspool of negative peer conditioning. People are not inherently good, and left to their own devices, kids will generally deviate downward. Boys are no exception.

Time and again, Orenstein refers to flawed male leadership—distant (or absent) fathers, coaches who reinforced the worst in young men, older peers who mocked and denigrated any attempt at virtue. Role models matter.

The good news is that this reality is starting to sink into American pop culture. …

There is no magic formula that can guarantee that any given boy can grow to become a good man. But we do know the formula for leaving boys adrift, and that formula removes good men from a young boy’s life.


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