My dearest son,
It’s late, you’re asleep, and so is Mama. I’m still up because I’m trying to think of the words I want to share with you but didn’t this afternoon when you grew inconsolably angry. It was yet another example of a reaction you had to a small incident that leaves me worried. Why am I worried about something that, admittedly, was a blip that neither one of us will remember? Because the longer Mama and I wait to help you work through the “big” feelings that sometimes overwhelm you, the harder it will be for you to handle them a few years down the road — at a point in life when bigger boys act on such feelings in ways that sometimes harm themselves and often hurt others.
By the time you’re old enough to read and understand this letter, you will have long forgotten what I’m talking about here. So, I’ll recap what happened. On the car ride home today, you were very upset and had that wounded look you get on your sweet little face, the one where you stare out of the car window, looking as if a rug was yanked out from beneath you. In a sense, it was. Eventually, you shared with me that one of your first-grade friends, Luke, had cut in front of you to take a turn at bat during kickball.
“I thought he was my friend!” you barked. “Friends don’t do things like that to each other.”
“I think it’s great you’re thinking about what makes for a good friend,” I responded. “But Luke probably didn’t even realize that he had done it. I bet it was an accident.”
Arms crossed, lips pursed, vigorously shaking your head as you continued to look out the window, you weren’t having any of it. Then I suggested something that I’m only learning to do now in middle age. “Maybe tomorrow you can tell Luke that what he did hurt your feelings, because it sure seems like it did,” I said in the car.
When you heard this, you practically exploded from your car seat. “I knew you were going to say that!” you bellowed. “Words don’t work, Dad! They don’t take them seriously.” Then you grew more upset. “Telling them I’m going to beat them up with karate is what gets them to stop,” you yelled, your voice breaking as tears welled up in your eyes like little knots. (Already you are following in the footsteps of too many men who lump people into a generic and convenient “they” out of hurt.)
“Did he hurt your feelings?” I asked. Long silence. No head movement. “Did he?” I asked again. You nodded, still looking out the window at the winter trees in all of their bare, angular truth.
I know that the way you felt and handled your hurt on this afternoon may not seem like a big deal. It wouldn’t to many, maybe most, people. After all, you are only seven. But tacitly accepting this “boys will be boys” worldview starts a runaway train in explosive thoughts and behaviors that few boys, eventually men, ever reverse for the rest of their lives. You’ll witness this when you get older, if you haven’t already, how the only time men look within and question their behavior or worldview is when they face tragedy: a wife, partner, or girlfriend walks out on them; they become addicted to something and lose their career, home, and maybe their family; they develop a serious illness. There’s a sudden awakening. Otherwise, there is no reason to change a way of being in the world that nearly everyone directly or indirectly condones and that seemingly has served them up to that point. When you see males going through this, ask yourself: Why don’t most women who face personal strife also experience this sudden emotional implosion?
Since you were five, you have been making comments and asking questions about war, fighting, and death. The questioning has grown more frequent this year. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to understand why. After all, Mama and I don’t allow you to play violent video games, nor do we allow you to watch violent cartoons or television shows. And we always encourage you to “Use your words” — and to describe your feelings — instead of reaching for your fists or “fisted” words. This was why I lost my cool when you asked the seemingly innocent question one morning at breakfast, “Do they still shoot soldiers for running away during battles like they did during the Civil War?”
“Could you please stop talking and thinking about violence all of the time?!” I snapped. This is something I find myself asking you, with varying degrees of patience, over and over.
What I didn’t tell you is this: asking you to not think about violent things is like asking a cornered animal not to lash out. How do you put the skids on a survival skill? Now, I know from my own experience that extreme anxiety can lead to violent and morbid thoughts. But there’s something else that triggers a lot of boys’ violent thoughts and feelings that no one talks about: fear and the need to conquer it. Contrary to the adult belief that being a child is easy and carefree, it’s not. When you’re young, especially if you’re sensitive, insightful, and observant, as you are, the world can be a very scary place — and you’re fairly powerless. Lashing out at the things that scare you gives the illusion of conquering and controlling them.
But there’s another reason — one no one seems to talk about — that I’m convinced also stokes the volatile reactions of boys and, later on, men. Contrary to what we’re all told about girls being more emotional than boys, most boys are born with stronger feelings and emotions than girls are. What makes it even harder for boys is that many parents don’t help them deal with these strong emotions. They teach them the opposite: to swallow them down, to hide them, because (1) parents think this helps prepare their sons for “manhood,” and (2) too many adults think that older boys and men who show emotional vulnerability are ultimately failures as males.
This is one of many things I learned along the way: boys are taught to work hard, really hard, to mask their strong emotions and feelings because they know that they’ll be judged harshly and rejected if they show them openly. It’s why you struggled with the way other children could be mean and unwelcoming when you encountered them for the first time at summer camps or on the playground. Kindergarten was the first year when you started acting like the other boys, when you sometimes pretended that other children’s hurtful slights didn’t faze you. You and I spent a lot of time on those car rides home, talking about how it was okay to feel hurt, how to let other children know that they said or did something that hurt your feelings, and how to set boundaries with them.
If there’s anything you learn from me about all that I have ever shared with you, have tried to teach you, about what it means to be a healthy man, I hope it is this: so many older kids and adults, both men and women, will say and do many things to you and to other boys in the name of preparing you to become a man. They will tell you not to cry. They will tell you to “suck it up,” to “man up,” or to “take it like a man” when your feelings are hurt, when you’re in physical or emotional pain, when you feel like you can’t handle a situation. In other words — and this is crucial to remember — they will try to make you feel shame for expressing the very feelings that make you a healthy man and human being. These are the people who believe that becoming a man means shutting off the pipeline to your deeper humanity because it “toughens you” and will make you a more competent man.
And they’re patently wrong.
Here’s the secret too few adults know or, even if they do, will tell you. Closing off the pipeline to our deeper emotions and to feelings other than anger doesn’t make boys into stronger, more competent men. It weakens them. It enervates and depletes boys and, eventually, men of the courage to “show up” and offer the people who need it most their sensitivity, their compassion, their empathy, and, yes, their vulnerability. The people who rely on us don’t need yet more strength in our biceps; they need it in our hearts.
Please don’t think for one second that, for all of my idealism and righteousness, I’m an ideal father. There are so many things I do wrong and model for you. I’m too reactive, too anxious, too indignant, too non-resilient many days. None of this would be a problem if I didn’t see you watching and emulating me so closely. But I hope that I also model a way of being a man that is far more empowering, liberating, and healthy for you. I may not spend my time with you trying to make you laugh, going on adventures, or teaching you the value of being “cool.” But I will always encourage and support you on the quest to find a masculine identity that
- gives you permission to love and take healthy risks without fear;
- gives you greater emotional resiliency;
- finds strength in vulnerability;
- gives you deeper strength and courage;
- teaches you to be accountable to yourself and to others;
- and allows you to experience the full range of your deeper emotional life — the full spectrum of your humanity — without apology.
This, my son, is the real hero’s journey.
As long as I have breath in my lungs, I will give you the love and nurturing that you need and desire, on demand. If there is anything you remember me for, I hope it is this: that I always fought the good fight for you … and for all boys and men.
Andrew Reiner is a professor at Towson University whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications.
From Better Boys, Better Men. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Reiner. All Rights Reserved.
This article is featured in the May/June 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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