I’m jumping right in at the deep end with this first topic in the Building Strong Boys Series — The Meaning of Manhood.
Now, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a tomboy. As a child I was a tree-climbing, football-throwing, frog-chasing little girl. When teachers at school asked for “a few strong boys” to help move something, I would be the first one to shoot up a hand and ask, “What about a strong girl?” And when my grandmother gently chastised me for sprawling all over the couch, reminding me that ladies don’t sit like that, I vividly remember thinking to myself, “That’s just fine, because I am no lady.” (Of course I knew better than to actually say that out loud…)
I’m not in favor of gender stereotypes, and I can totally relate to those of you who may get a bit riled up reading about archaic and stereotypical definitions of gender roles. It makes many people uncomfortable to define manhood or to accept the exaggerated caricatures of masculinity. But those erroneous definitions, as well as our resistance to creating new ones are two parts of the same problem.
As common thought would indicate, an over-exaggerated, macho-type definition of masculinity can be hazardous for our boys. Research indicates that heavy pressure to conform to narrow definitions of gender can have negative implications. In his book, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, Dr. James Garbarino notes that many of the young men he interviewed in correctional facilities place an unhealthy premium on this macho version of manhood. Repeated are themes of justifying violence in the name of “respect”, an objectified and possessive view of women, and an overriding attitude that “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
While none of these characteristics seem worthy of the title of “gentleman”, these troubled youth believed these views (as well as the actions that led to their incarcerations) were part of establishing themselves as “men”. The authoritarian image of a man as a forceful, emotionless, and uncompromising figure has led many young men down undesirable paths.
So we know we don’t want the exaggerated caricature of a man, and we’ve seen the hazard of pushing rigid views of gender roles on children. As a whole, we’ve become more flexible, which is generally good except for when it’s taken too far.
The more I study human development, the more I realize the answers are usually found in the middle ground. Yet the pendulum keeps swinging. Past generations in the US embraced rather rigid views of gender roles. We often look at them today and say they appear a bit (or a lot) sexist. So we made adjustments and made amends. But as that pendulum swings too far the other other way, we now find that we’re reticent about discussing any gender differences or talking at all about what characteristics comprise manhood or womanhood. And it appears that may be detrimental as well.
Several experts on the topic the development of boys and young men note that when boys are not given healthy role models or thoughtful guidance to build their gender identity, they are left with the “whisperings of society” — a little Slim Shady, some Jersey Shore, and a bit of Grand Theft Auto — to teach them what it is to be a man.
In his book, Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax shares his discussion with the headmaster of an all-boys school. The headmaster, Kenneth LaRocque, says this: “It’s not enough for a boy to become a man. We want him to become a gentleman…A boy does not naturally grow up to be a gentleman. You need a community of men (and, the book notes, the positive influence of women as well) showing boys how to behave.”
It isn’t that our boys need the stereotypical archetypes, and yes, as many of you will argue, much of what they need to be taught as characteristics of manhood (responsibility, self-discipline, altruism, etc.) are virtues for our daughters as well. But when we avoid teaching boys what it is to be a man, their hard-wired drive for identity development will find that definition elsewhere.
Dr. Sax goes on in his discussion to note, “We are now seeing a rise in violent crime committed by young men. I suggest that one of several factors driving the current rise in crime may be our collective neglect of this transition to adulthood.”
Rites of Passage
Perhaps the most interesting points I found while researching this aspect of building strong boys, was the research on rites of passage. Perhaps like many of you, for me, the term originally conjured up images of ancient tribal rituals and awkward scenes from Fred Flinstone’s days at the lodge with the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.
The term originated in 1908 from the work of French Anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep, whose seminal work introduced the term in its title, Les Rites de Passage. Anthropologists that followed his lead studied tribes off the coast of Australia in the early 1900s and the Ndembu people of Zambia in the 1960s.
The concept seems outmoded in today’s Western cultures. We’re advanced. More civilized. We don’t need that, right? Or do we?
Dr. Sax, writes rather extensively about the purpose of these rites. The chapter title plays on the over simplified notions of what rites of passage are about. Calling the section, “Revenge of the Forsaken Gods”, Dr. Sax explains:
“When I say that “the forsaken gods will have their revenge,” I am not suggesting that I believe in the literal reality of the gods and goddesses who oversee the sacred festivals of the native communities that Professor Gilmore (an anthropologist referenced in the book) describes….We ignore the importance of these traditions at our peril. Manhood isn’t something that simply happens to boys as they get older. It’s an achievement — something a boy accomplishes, something that can easily go awry. If we ignore the importance of this transition, and fail in our duty as parents to guide boys through it, then we will learn the hard way why traditional cultures invest this transition with so much importance.”
Rites of passage are not limited to those sacred ceremonies performed amid firelight to the beat of ancient drums. They are readily available here in the 21st century. Some include ceremonial aspects, others are the fulfillment of a more gradual experience.
Research on rites of passage suggest that included under that title are religious ceremonies like bar mitzvahs, confirmations, and ordinations. Also included are significant trips and outings, celebrations of events (graduations, note-worthy birthdays, etc.) ,and programs like Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Clubs, and YMCA.
Positive rites of passage experiences appear to be founded on a period of skill-building or character development, achievement, and connection with positive adult role models. The rite of passage is more than the ostensive ceremony, but the understanding and cognitive change that comes with it. Simply pushing boys into contrived rituals and ceremonies has no more positive outcome than neglecting these rites. It’s the combination of the event with the meaning that it carries for the youth involved and the positive experiences that led up to that moment. It’s the conversations, connections, understanding, and accomplishments that come with it.
It is interesting to me to find that when components of healthy development are missing, the engine that drives of human development compels us to fill it as best we can. Unfortunately, the alternatives are often unhealthy counterfeits. In the case of rites of passage, youth may find counterfeits in gang initiations, drug use, risky behaviors, delinquency, or violence. Without a positive declaration of their manhood, some young men seek a replacement in anyway they can find. Anything to prove to the world — and to themselves — that they are no longer children, but men.
To be certain, defining the meaning of manhood is a complicated, and personal task. But it’s not one we can turn our backs to. Our boys need adults who will support them in their innately-driven quest to understand and attain manhood. Research and common sense tell us that that achievement isn’t the function of age, but of experience and growth. It’s a process. A journey. One that begins before the teenage years. And it isn’t something we can simply leave to chance.
What are your thoughts? How do you support boys in making a healthy transition to manhood?
This post is part of the Building Strong Boys Series. Start the series here.
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