Dad Next Door: Raising Boys to be Good Men
A little encouragement from across the fence
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Boys are pressured from a young age to be tough, but it's time to evaluate whether this has a positive or negative impact on the type of men they grow to become.
I was a crier when I was little. Whenever I was frustrated or angry my brain would flood with emotions, and I lost control. My face turned red and tears welled up in my eyes. Almost anything could trigger it—a losing game of Go Fish, an argument with my brothers, being teased by classmates. Each time, the message I got from my parents, my teachers, and from the world was the same, “Stop that. Boys don’t cry.”
I think they were trying to do me a favor. They wanted me to toughen up for the ordeal ahead—the Lord of the Flies experience commonly known as middle school.
To reach my locker in seventh grade, I had to pass the corner where the “greasers” hung out. Those were the grease-palmed, chain-smoking tough kids who spent their time in auto shops messing around with engine parts.
It was mostly just insults and threats. I was a scared, chubby Chinese kid, clutching a book bag to my chest, so the range of possible taunts and epithets was nearly limitless. They never actually hit me, because there was no status to be gained by beating up a little dweeb like me, but each insult was laced with the threat of violence. The implication of violence was important, because for a ninth-grade boy at the start of a life already seeming hopeless, the only way to feel powerful is to intimidate the weak. I was weak.
By the time I reached high school I had learned the rules to survive in the culture of adolescent boys, and became less of a target. Keep your head down, defer to the powerful, find a group from the same caste, and stick with them. Above all, find someone more pitiful than you are and keep them down—they’re the only thing between you and the bottom.
I thought about these rites of passage a few weeks ago when I saw a public service message from ESPN about online harassment. In it, they took a bunch of tweets and texts that had been received by two of their female correspondents, and had random male sports fans read the messages out loud to the reporters’ faces. The effect was shocking.
The vitriol, degradation, and explicit sexual violence in those texts twisted my stomach into a knot, and this response was clearly shared by the men in the video. They paused frequently, literally choking on some of the words, and at times refused to say them out loud, but the female reporters hardly flinched. They had heard this crap far too many times to be shocked.
Here’s a fact that we all know, but rarely discuss: almost every type of violence, from the smallest cruelty to the largest atrocity, is generated primarily by men. Sexual harassment, child abuse, domestic violence, violent crime, sexual assault, war, genocide—for the most part, these are the acts of adult males.
Some argue that violence is a natural and inescapable part of the human condition. Throughout the animal kingdom, young males joust and jockey for position, learning the skills of combat and honing them for the more serious battles ahead. People argue that the potential for violence is hard-wired in all of us, and from what I’ve witnessed at NFL games, it’s hard to disagree.
But the potential for violence is not the same as a life of violence. I grew up with plenty of pressure to be tough and strong, but I also grew up with a kind, gentle father, a loving mother, and a neighborhood where violence was neither ubiquitous nor necessary to survive. In later years, I’ve been blessed with the civilizing influence of strong, amazing women. My mother, my daughters (one of whom would like to be a reporter for ESPN someday), and the woman I love are my North Star in all of this. They guide me away from the worst parts of my nature.
All men, from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, have one thing in common: at some point in their lives, they were just little boys. In that simple truth, I see hope. There may be shadows lurking in our souls, but there is also light. If we can kindle it early enough, the darkness may never fully take hold.
There’s nothing wrong with letting boys be boys. Let them revel in the awesome power of earth-moving equipment and dinosaurs. Let them challenge themselves on soccer fields and baseball diamonds. Let their lives be as filled with adventure and courage as Huckleberry Finn’s. But at the same time, let's cultivate their sweetness and tenderness as well.
Boys will be boys, but someday they will be men. What kind of men do we want them to be, and how can we help them get there? I’m going to give that some thought, and hopefully come up with an idea or two to share next month.
Jeff Lee lives and writes in Seattle, and only cries when the Seahawks throw the ball on 2nd and goal on the last play of the Super Bowl.