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What Does it Mean to be a Real Man?

I've had the pleasure of working with kids at risk on several occasions and always find it to be a rewarding and eye-opening adventure. They have a perspective that is often uniquely shaped and it's not hard to tell they've had a rough upbringing by the things they believe to be true.

On one notable occasion I worked with a group of young men - 16 and 17 year-olds - at a community school. These were boys that didn't fit into the mainstream education system because they had trouble integrating with other teens. My program with these kids was essentially on life skills, but, owing to the fact that the group was comprised entirely of males, I based it upon the skills associated with being a man. So I started with the question, "what does it mean to be a man?" The answers I got were, mostly, to be expected. There was, of course, the usual big-noting and peacocking, but I thought they did pretty well. The answers I wrote on the whiteboard included (excuse the language) ...

  • Do what you want

  • Put up with no bullshit

  • Don't be told nothin' by no one

  • Don't let no one put one over on you

  • Stand up for yourself and others

  • You get to achieve things

  • Protect your family

In typical communication trainer fashion I then put the positive spin on these things and wrote beside them phrases like "Strength of will" and "Strength of Purpose" and "Strength of Character" etc. At the conclusion I asked the group to look at the common denominator. Strength. The boys basically felt that the best part to being a man, and the part that distinguished us from being a woman (or those that identify as gender neutral etc.), was strength.

"What about the strength to apologise?" I asked. "What?" they all said, looking incredibly uncomfortable. "What about the strength it takes to look someone in the eye and say, 'I'm really sorry.'?" Unanimously they shook their heads and came up with the reasons why that's not good. "You've got to stand your ground and stand up for what you believe in and never let anyone get the better of you and ..." blah blah blah. But I was insistent. "If apologising is hard then it takes strength." I said. "And if men are all about strength, we should be better at apologising than anyone. True?" There was some tacit agreement but they weren't happy to concede the point.

Then I hit them with the next tough question!!!

"What about the strength it takes to cry?" Whoa! Back that bus up! Nowhere does it say men have to cry. Too far!! "OK," I continued. "If strength is all about facing and overcoming your fears, then what if I said to you that the only reason you don't want to admit you cry is because you fear what others will say?? So you are actually afraid to stand up for yourself.

The partial artist

You see, real warriors are not afraid to express their real emotions. Only fake tough guys are. If you want to be a warrior, you must learn to experience life in the fullness and richness that it was intended. You must experience it with all of your senses and all of your emotions, otherwise you're only a plastic warrior ... a partial artist."

It's fair to say there was stunned silence.

I bumped into one of those kids recently; five years on. He told me that, until that day he thought being a man was all about being able to stand over and dominate someone. That being tough - i.e. the ability to beat someone in a fight - was what manliness was all about. He said, "I never had a father, so I never had someone show me what being a man was supposed to be ... until you." He then stuck out his hand and I shook it. "I wanted to say thanks. I'm working now and raising a family. Like a real man should." He smiled and nodded and walked away.

Have we forgotten to remind our boys that being a man has NOTHING to do with being tough? Have we filled their minds with the notion of the brooding, squinting, grunting mono-syllabic hero like they constantly see on the TV and in movies? And in the process have we lost the "real" strength of the man ... the protector of the weak NOT the bully; the one dedicated to justice NOT the violent vigilante; the one raising his own children in the strength of love and kindness. Have we lost our true warriors???

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