What are we teaching our sons (and daughters) about being good men?

Learning to be a good man

If I ask a group of men, “Where did you guys learn about how to act as an adult?”, they are likely to answer, “The family.”  They are absolutely correct. What the men don’t often appreciate is how grounded in these earlier experiences their beliefs about men, women, children are. Of course these gendered beliefs also operate outside of families and are reinforced in the wider systems of our lives.  As men we learn very early on in life that masculinity and femininity have very clear boundaries; that there are clear rules and roles to follow. By the age of six, boys are very clear about the differences between boys and girls, men and women. As men we will have learnt the contents of the Old Rule Book — the guidelines that, for better or worse, we have used to steer your behaviour.

I guess we all had guidelines about how we were supposed to act at high school. Let’s call these guidelines our High School Rule Book. After a while it got a bit battered around the edges. It may have been constantly leafed through, with some pages missing, some torn, some dirty, others hardly looked at. We may have lost ours but no longer having one still wasn’t valid as an excuse for breaking the rules.

So like any rule-book, what are the beliefs that boys learn on the journey to becoming men? Think for a moment about what you consider these might be. From your answers we are beginning to see that there were some very important core messages (beliefs) in the Old Rule Book that we inherited from the past:

  • men are more important than women
  • men are more entitled to respect, loyalty and services than others – they expect to be in charge and others to take second place
  • men don’t have to take responsibility for the social and emotional climate in relationships; they can rely on others to face these social and emotional responsibilities
  • it is acceptable for men to dodge responsibility and blame their actions on other people, events or factors.

One of the key questions is that we can either be complicit or resistant to the ‘Old Rule Book’. It is interesting to what extent we join with the ideas above. In other words, which of the old rules have we as boys and men signed up to? In what ways does the ‘Old Rule Book’ contribute to men acting in disrespectful ways towards women and children? Let’s look at the specifics of the ‘Old Rule Book’ in greater detail.

The Old Rule Book

  1. Men are biologically superior to women, and so better at activities using physical strength (the myth of the hulk).
  2. Men’s thinking is rational and logical and superior to women’s thinking, which is emotive and illogical. (Men can’t really understand women).
  3. A “real” man is powerful, fiercely competitive, dominant and controlling. (If you are none of these things then questions may be asked).
  4. Masculinity rather than femininity is the more valued gender identity to have (men rule OK).
  5. Work and career success are the mark of a man. (Watch out for redundancy and unemployment).
  6. Self-esteem is established through achievement, competence and success. (So? Success at all costs?)
  7. A natural order exists whereby men are expected to assume control over others – especially their family, children – and their environment.
  8. A man who needs help to deal with issues or problems is weak, vulnerable and incompetent (the myth of ‘I must do this all on my own’).
  9. Expression of “soft” emotions is un-masculine and a sign of weakness – ‘Little and big boys don’t cry.’
  10. Communication based on sharing feelings, intuitions, and physical non-sexual contact is to be avoided. (I don’t understand it so it must be wrong).
  11. Sexuality is performance and goal oriented. Intimacy and sensuality are of lesser importance.
  12. Intimacy and sharing with other men means either homosexuality, or that the other man will take advantage in a competitive setting.
  13. It is acceptable for men to use their power, dominance and violence to keep control inside and outside the home.
  14. Real men are tireless, invincible and keep working regardless of the personal or health risks. (Real men die early of heart attacks, lung cancer, alcoholism, strokes).

Clearly, what these beliefs do is trap both men and women into a narrow range of choices about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. When men choose to step outside of these old messages, they risk being judged by others who still adhere to the old rules. It takes courage to stand up against these expectations from the Old Rule Book. To not do so, invites men to stay in the system that perpetuates abusive ways to relate to others and increasingly brings them into contact with the criminal justice system. How do these traditional restraints limit the choices that men and women have in both their public and private lives?

  • •             Do these restraints enhance or detract from having a caring, respectful relationship with others?
  • What costs have you and others paid by following the Old Rule Book?
  • How have you and others benefited from living out these restraints?

Perhaps it is time to begin thinking about rewriting this rule book with something more appropriate for our time and age.  I have proposed in earlier writings the idea of new rule book for men that meets the needs of men in a contemporary world.

The New Rule Book for Men

  1. Strength means different things to different people. Strength is defined as knowing yourself; your abilities, your needs, and sorting these out in respectful ways. Both men and women can be strong in physical, emotional, and verbal ways.
  2. Well-made decisions use a range of styles, including rationale, logic, intuition and emotion. Each style has a valuable contribution to make and no one style is more important than another.
  3. Real men are powerful but not at the expense of others. Real men have an understanding that power is not a finite commodity but something that is to be shared. Power is used to increase, not decrease, the opportunities of others.
  4. Masculine and feminine attributes are of equal importance. Men are not more important than women, and women are not more important than men. It is essential to value the differences and the similarities.
  5. Work and career are part of our lives. Other roles — such as being a good father, partner and friend — are of equal importance. The New Rule Book says that men don’t dodge their social and emotional responsibilities. They balance their lives with a range of activities that enhance positive self-esteem.
  6. Self-esteem is established through knowing ourselves, being respected and respectful, and honest about who we are.
  7. Men and women work in partnership to create a better situation for everyone. Entitlements are negotiated between people, not given.
  8. It takes strength, energy and courage to seek out help when problems arise. Real men acknowledge difficulties and deal with them directly in ways that are not abusive to others.
  9. Real men are in touch with their emotions, and are able to identify and express them. Men are genuine and honest in letting others know what they are feeling. The only weakness is hiding yourself from yourself.
  10. Communication is the most important tool in relationships, so real men take the time and energy to express themselves and hear others in ways that are appropriate and non-abusive.
  11. Intimacy and sharing are the most important parts of sexuality. This requires men to be present physically, emotionally and verbally during this time.
  12. Real men are able to feel comfortable enough to risk being honest with other men and respect other men’s need to share with them.
  13. It is unacceptable for men to use power, dominance and violence to keep control inside and outside the home. Real men see the ultimate costs of this behaviour and take steps to ensure they act respectfully towards others.
  14. Real men take care of their physical and emotional health, balancing the demands of work, home and recreation.

Which rule book do you operate by and what rules govern your life? Love to hear your thoughts.

Published on Wednesday, July 11th, 2012, under Family violence, What Ken thinks

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