Falling Awake

Just Darts Since 2009

Boys to Men: A Father’s Day Essay by Tony Woodlief

I’m going to quote a (possibly illegally) large amount from this essay, because hardly anyone clicks on links, and I think this is too good not to share at length:

I think Father’s Day ought not to be a celebration of every man who managed to procreate, but instead a time to honor those increasingly rare men who are actually good at fathering. But what makes a good father?

I’m allergic to most danger. I get a stomachache at the thought of confrontation. I’m grouchy and self-centered, and have few of the traits that William McKeever, in his curmudgeonly 1913 classic, “Training the Boy,” considered essential to manhood: “courageous action in the face of trying circumstances, cordial sympathy and helpfulness in all dealings with others, and a sane disposition toward the Ruler of All Life.” I’m hardly qualified to be a role-model for three boys.

Many academics would consider my lack of manliness a good thing. They regard boys as thugs-in-training, caught up in a patriarchal society that demeans women.

But I can’t shake the sense that boys are supposed to become manly. Rather than neutering their aggression, confidence and desire for danger, we should channel these instincts into honor, gentlemanliness and courage. Instead of inculcating timidity in our sons, it seems wiser to train them to face down bullies, which by necessity means teaching them how to throw a good uppercut. In his book “Manliness,” Harvey Mansfield writes that a person manifesting this quality “not only knows what justice requires, but he acts on his knowledge, making and executing the decision that the rest of us trembled even to define.” You can’t build a civilization and defend it against barbarians, fascists and playground bullies, in other words, with a nation of Phil Donahues.

Maybe the problem isn’t that boys are aggressive, but that we’ve neglected their moral education. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote to one of his sons: “I would rather have a boy of mine stand high in his studies than high in athletics, but I would a great deal rather have him show true manliness of character than show either intellectual or physical prowess.”

The trick is not to squash the essence of boys, but to channel their natural wildness into manliness. And this is what keeps me awake at night, because it’s going to take a miracle for someone like me, who grew up without meaningful male influence, who would be an embarrassment to Teddy Roosevelt, to raise three men. Along with learning what makes a good father, I face an added dilemma: How do I raise my sons to be better than their father?

What I’m discovering is that as I try to guide these ornery, wild-hearted little boys toward manhood, they are helping me become a better man, too. I love my sons without measure, and I want them to have the father I did not. As I stumble and sometimes fail, as I feign an interest in camping and construction and bugs, I become something better than I was.

Feminists have long downplayed–if not outright denied–the masculine virtues.  Doing so has not improved our society, if indeed that was ever their aim.

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One response to “Boys to Men: A Father’s Day Essay by Tony Woodlief

  1. learningwoman January 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

    I liked this essay a lot. Being the mother of two boys, I’m really aware of wanting a balance between them growing into physically free, courageous men and thoughtful, good natured, happy men.

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