What’s it like raising boys? I get that question a lot as a mom to three of them. My answer varies from “it’s an adventure” to “high energy” to “I sit in pee” to “so much more wrestling than I expected,” and everything in between. It’s like nothing I ever could have imagined and everything all at once.
I’ve been in the thick of Hot Wheels and Nerf wars for several years now, but my oldest son is now a full-fledged tween, so the times – they are a-changing. As I learn to navigate new conversations (what’s appropriate to say vs. not, what’s appropriate to watch online, etc.), I’ve been reminded that I am not only raising boys—I am, in fact, raising men.
What does that even mean these days? Long gone are the days where the woman is the caregiver and the homemaker while the man is the breadwinner and protector of the family. The rise of women working and even becoming the primary breadwinner is all around us. It seems the role of the woman has been redefined to “handle it all!” But how has the role of the man changed?
Without diving deep down a rabbit-hole I’m not at all qualified to write about, how are we even still talking about roles that are so associated with and driven by gender? Or maybe not gender, but sex – male or female. In a time when there is so much more open dialogue and awareness of gender identity, same-sex relationships, transgender, I started to wonder what it really means to be raising men (males), and what the world seems to think it means to “be a man.”
I started to write this post based on what I think it means, and how I want to raise my boys into men. But then I was inspired by Justin Baldoni’s Man Enough to start a conversation and see what males think. I surveyed a bunch* of friends and family, ages 3 to 73, asking them what they think it means to “be a man,” and the results are in!
(*not a statistically valid sample size, but a super-interesting group of responses from males I know — married, single, fathers to girls, fathers to boys, students, adults, quiet types, boisterous types . .. )
But before I even get to the results, the reactions to the question were equally, if not more, fascinating! I received a 4-paragraph essay, some one-word answers, many who ghosted me and never even replied (why don’t men talk?), others who said it was a weird question, some who answered right away and others who needed to think and then think some more. There was laughter and sarcasm, a bit of science, and a lot of heart in what came back to me.
Drum roll, please . . .
What are you expecting? The words “STRONG” and “PROTECTOR”? Yeah, there’s a lot of that. But also lots of love and “taking care.”
From the word cloud, you can see that many responses included the classic, stereotypical, historically male traits, such as tough and strong and the protector and the provider. But I had the benefit of reading or hearing all the respondents’ full answers, not just the one-word summary I captured for the word cloud. And that’s where so much depth lies.
Be a man … be the PROTECTOR:
For some, this actually means keeping the family safe from harm. Locking doors at night, having a security system, providing financial security. For others, it goes toward emotional protection as well – being supportive, enabling action to help others achieve their dreams, and even providing structure and guidance on how to do so.
Be a man … be STRONG AND DETERMINED:
This isn’t just physical strength – it’s the notion of being strong-willed, confident in your thoughts and the path forward – setting the direction and following through. This man doesn’t want to let others down. He sets his sights and follows through . . . a reliable provider, if you will.
Be a man … be a LEADER:
This captures being a role model (lead by example), but maybe ironically also being at least an equal partner. Being a leader does not mean being in charge – an important distinction that allows “leadership” to include inspiring others to follow your vision (in life, in work, in sports, in whatever…) and setting the tone for the emotional environment as well.
Be a man … be a PROVIDER:
Many respondents still view this as providing financial resources, shelter and food. But others view it as providing so much more: “Being a man means being a person who provides compassion, structure and strength to others, especially those he cares about — physically and emotionally,” explains one 29-year-old male.
One man in his mid-forties stated simply and confidently that “Being a man means you lead, you provide, you protect.” Is it really that simple?
Be a man … be IMPERFECT:
Yes! It means admitting when you’re wrong, stepping back when you should, and realizing you don’t have to “show up in a superhero cape in every situation” (M, age 47). Some days, you’re just not the superhero, and that’s not only OK, but also understood and allowed.
Somehow, this imperfection allows you to be EMOTIONALLY AVAILABLE for those you care about in your life. This is sort of like a big circle, right? Be strong, be a leader, but be a bit imperfect – let others in. That lets you support and provide . . .which apparently is all part of being a man.
And being emotional helps you TAKE CARE:
Being a man means taking care of “things you love” (C, age 10), and “taking care of his mom, his family, his pets, and everything and everyone who needs protection” (L, age 7). Emotionally. With support. And laughter. And talking. And understanding. And, yes, also finances and safety and leadership and protection.
Is this confusing?
I sure think so. But here’s a perfect way to sum it all up in my mind, and echoed in the words of several respondents:
Being a man means … BEING A GOOD HUMAN:
Man, woman, whatever . . . treat others as you’d like to be treated. It reminds of that “Everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten” saying. It’s true, right? Respect others. SHOW UP – emotionally, physically. Hold yourself accountable for your promises and “do right by yourself and others — even when nobody is looking,” says one 24-year-old. Take care of things you love. You can be afraid, but don’t let it paralyze you – (as one of my own sons says, “Don’t be a wuss. Just get it done.”) Lead the way forward . . . and sometimes, actually step back and follow someone else’s lead (Yeah! My dad said that: “step back when appropriate” — I love it!)
Interestingly, although we may learn all of that in kindergarten, the idea that “being a man” means “being a good human” came out much more so from respondents age 30 and older. Probably because of more life experiences, broader perspective, and maybe even a little more emotional maturity. A little. J, age 53, the father of girls, said “I don’t have the same desire as others to be more ‘manly.’ I’m fine with just being human.” (and an amazing human he is, btw).
Still confused? Then I refer you to what was quite possibly the most realistic and accurate answer of what it means to be a man, at least based on all the men I know: Straight from the mouth of a wise 3-year-old boy, being a man means “ON THE POTTY.”
So, where do we go from here with raising our boys into men, after they flush the toilet? Here’s what I think:
Be good. Just be a good freakin’ human. It honestly should be that simple, and my moral compass says there shouldn’t be much variance in what that means. Now, obviously, I’m wrong, or we’d be living in a much more peaceful world. But to the extent possible, just live by the whole “Do unto others …” rule. Treat people how you’d want to be treated.
Be you. I don’t care who you love or how you love or who you want to be or what you want to be or where you came from or where you’re heading. Just be you, and be happy with who that is.
Be real. If you will feel better after expressing emotion, express it. If you need to go through things alone and process more introspectively, that’s ok, too. Just be real so that you and friends around you know what’s up. I remember waiting in line to get my ears pierced when I was 8 years old. I was soooo nervous, and I kept shaking my leg and repeatedly saying how nervous I was. My sister, who was also waiting to get her ears done, sat quietly and didn’t say a word. It’s not a gender thing — it’s a human thing — some people process one way, others process differently.
Be there. Show up. Look people in the eye. Get off your phone, and focus. Have a presence — emotional or physical. Lift people up.
Be true. For my sons: You know how sometimes, when we watch a movie together, I try my hardest to not cry but the tears run down my face anyway? That’s ok. That’s how I am. Emotional, emotionally expressive, emotionally available. It’s ok if you’re like me. You make me proud.
What do you think it means to “be a man,” and how are you raising your boys into good men?
I’d LOVE to hear from you . .. because this rambling post barely even scratches the surface of the discussion we could have.
THANK YOU to all the males who helped make this post possible!
[This post may contain affiliate links through which M.O.B. Truths may earn a small commission if you make a purchase.]