What My Son Has Taught Me About Being a Man: Vague ramblings of a father of a nine-year-old boy
Our son Morgan is nine now. Since his birth, I have actively participated in his care. This has not always been easy. I think my first lesson was that men as fathers are expected to help their wives but not be too interested in actually caring for their child. Father's should be helpful around the house but not wander too far into "women's territory."
When Morgan was a baby, I worked only part time so I could share equally in his care. We made daily journeys to the park. We played in the sand with his trucks and talked with the moms who were there. Because I was the only man at the park with my kid, the consensus or assumption was, this man is taking care of his child because he is unemployed.
I remember talking with a grandmother who was at the park. I told her how both my wife and I worked part time. That we didn't need to hire "childcare," and how fortunate I felt to be able to spend this time with my son, especially while he was a baby. She listened attentively. As I left the park, she told me how much she had enjoyed talking with me and hoped that I would be able to get more work soon!
I lost count of the number of times women said to me how nice it was to see a man "mothering." I usually responded that they were actually observing fathering. I was not attempting to be a role model or make a political statement about men as fathers. I was taking action on what was important and meaningful to me.
So this was my first lesson. Procreation was part of being a man. Feeling one's potency through conception, this was definitely masculine. Yet, wanting to care for a baby, no this was not what being a man was about-at least that was the message I was getting. But this was just the beginning.
These early years with my son were wonderful, exciting-and like living with a Zen master. Morgan, like all young children, lived totally in the present. With him, I learned about plants, bugs, flowers, cracks in the cement, and all the little details of life and our environment that usually passed me by.
It was when Morgan entered school that I got my real insight into what it means to grow up male in America. Boys and girls are different. Just go to any elementary school and it is easy to verify this. It also became evident that active and energetic boys are sometimes troubling for teachers. They can't sit still, their curiosity is insatiable and most teachers (who are usually women) may not be tolerant of their exuberance.
In the second grade, Morgan had studied about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. On our way home from school one day, Morgan told me that in his class the boys where being treated like "the blacks" in the South that Martin Luther King was trying to help. I asked him what he meant. He said if the girls talked out of turn or didn't listen, the teacher would tell them to please be quiet. If the boys did the same thing, she would yell at them and be very angry about how bad they were.
The shaming starts early. To be a man in America means to grow up with a large dose of shame. Shame about your energy and desire and shame about your body. Morgan's experiences began to remind me of what I had heard so often in school as a child. "You're too excited and you can't sit still. What's wrong with you that you can't sit still." What was wrong with me because I got too excited? Why was it bad to feel this way? What a terrible body I must have, that I can't sit without moving. If the words themselves weren't shaming, the tone was.
Morgan has learned many wonderful things in school and he has developed and worked out many important relationships. He has had great, mediocre, and bad teachers. My wife and I have tried to guide him to situations that were socially and academically life enhancing. I would be in denial not to say that boys are treated very differently in school than girls are. At least at the elementary level. And so much of our creativity and feeling is shamed out of us. The exuberance of a third-or-fourth grade boy is a dangerous experience.
The next insight on what it means to be a man has to do with competition. I am amazed and appalled by the level of competitiveness I see among young boys. It begins with athletics and then permeates all other aspects of their lives. What I see is that by the fourth grade a pecking order, a hierarchy is already established. That hierarchy seems to grant each child a limited potential of feelings and expression. It is the beginning of our life-long experience with isolation from our peers. In my son's case, I see the absence of any adult males in any other areas than athletics. There are so few men in the schools to model any other ways of being and feeling.
The competitiveness goes far beyond athletics. Who has the best new toy. Whether a new book or a new Nintendo game, there is a real lacking of appreciation for the other boy's experience. It becomes threatening to these 8 and 9 year old's if a friend has something of value.
How well that translates to my experience as an "adult" male, and the difficulty I see in myself, sometimes, in being able to support and appreciate the achievements of other men. I understand this intellectually, but on a feeling-level it runs deep. Watching my son's experience with his friends, it is obvious how I "learned" these feelings.
At Morgan's ninth birthday party, he had ten of his friends sleep over. In the morning, the "gang," as we called ourselves, walked to the bakery. On the way home, one of the boys tripped on the sidewalk and fell. He was crying. Immediately everyone laughed and made fun of him. They had learned it is shameful to cry and were shaming their friend with their laughter. I held the hurt boy. I called all the other boys around me. I told them the men I know would help out a friend if he was hurt. I said "real" men would show their strength by caring about what happened to a friend. I was not prepared for their response.
They began to ask their crying friend where his hurt was. They crowded around him and put their arms around him. As we continued to walk home, individually the boys talked with him about his tripping on the sidewalk. The whole interaction shifted. I don't think it was the "eloquence" of what I said.
It became apparent that these boys absorbed what I had said as if it were water and they were walking through a desert. They thirsted for some validation of an adult male to say,It's OK to have concerned feelings for a hurt friend. It's OK to cry. I am sure they all knew the loneliness of being teased when they got hurt. I justtold them that men care about their friends and show concern about what happens to them. A simple "message."
Where are the men, fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, mentors political leaders, teachers, to carry this simple message to our children?
The shaming, the competitiveness we experience as children cuts us off from appreciating ourselves and others. My son has, through his journey, reminded me of how painful a process growing up in America is for boys. I hope by my participating in his life I have helped him to develop some skillful means to antidote the shaming and competitiveness. By being present in his life, and with the help of my male friends, I hope he will see a wide-range and depth of feeling experienced and expressed by different men.
I am a warrior when it comes to the entitlement of children. Children are due a safe place to explore, learn and live. Children are to be treated with respect.
Perhaps growing up male in America is basically an abusive experience. We as men can help each other recover from our shame and competitive/isolating lives. (Much has been said about this in the recent men's movement.) Let us begin our own healing by respecting and nurturing the sons, daughters and children that we know.
For Further self-reflection and discussion:
1. What feeling do you have about this essay?
© 2010 Dr. Bruce Linton
The kind of man who thinks that heping with the dishes is beneath him will also think that helping with the baby is beneath him, and then he certainly is not going to be a very successful father. - Eleanor Roosevelt
Dr. Bruce Linton is
the founder and director of the Fathers' Forum in Berkeley,
CA. In his weekly columns he share his expereinces and
insights gained from his work with fathers in his groups,
classes and clinical work. He explores how parenting and
fatherhood effects us as men. Bruce is a Marriage and Family
Therapists and recieved his doctorate for his research into
men's development as fathers. He is the father of two
children. Dr. Linton is the author of Finding
Time for Fatherhood: Men's concerns as
parents. Visit Fathers'
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