Recently, I wrote here an article, “Toxic Femininity,” that had nothing to do with toxic femininity. I spoke instead of our culture’s need to re-establish norms of “gentlemanliness” and find better ways of preparing young men for full adulthood, including the responsibilities of marriage and family. Human beings are biologically “adult” – that is, they can reproduce the species — at fifteen or sixteen. Societies must decide either to make them capable of taking on those responsibilities or suffer the consequences. We have simply decided to suffer the consequences.
After the article appeared, a good friend, a mother of three sons, wrote to say “Good article, but. . .”
She had, she said, a “serious question.” She is a passionate, intelligent woman whom I have known for many years and an accomplished writer in her own right, so allow me to let her speak for herself.
“Where would a young adult male go today,” my friend wanted to know, “to find an adult to hang out with so he could mature? Who in public life seems like an adult by your lights? I would pit any of my three sons, including the 22-year-old socialist and the 15-year-old baby of the family who has a lot of growing up to do, against virtually ANY (one or two glorious exceptions) teacher they have encountered in grammar or high school (to say nothing of civic leaders, sports figures, entertainment figures) for Christian virtue and manliness.”
She has a good point. There are very few figures in public life you could point to as a good role model for young men. This has a lot to do with the cheapening of public discourse and the corruption of the news media. There are very few “adult” conversations in modern media. Everything is subsumed to “entertainment.” And a reasonable, mature adult who speaks passionately, but sensibly, about a topic is not as entertaining as a bomb-throwing crackpot.
So give up on public figures. A son needs to engage in activities in which the safety and well being of others depends upon him doing a skill with excellence, and in which his safety and well-being depend on others doing their jobs with skill and excellence.
But back to our devoted mother. She makes this plea:
“Something I did not understand before I raised sons, and before I did some spiritual direction with women, is that a man’s heart is actually more fragile than a woman’s in certain respects, and many women have no idea at all how casually cruel they are to the men in their lives. I look at my sons and see, with all their faults, how good and pure and noble their hearts are, how much they want to please, and I see how the world is determined to tell them they are awful all the time, and to think the worst of them, and I fear for them being beaten down and made cynical.
“Even otherwise sensible young Catholic women I know are always saying things like, ‘I’m going to raise MY son not to be toxic,’ as if they look at their innocent little boys – their toddlers! – and see incipient monsters – a nature that has to be beaten down or made other than it is, rather than a thing of beauty to be loved and admired and helped to mature.
“In my experience, ALL the institutions and people who are supposed to be their defenders and champions are failing. I mentioned moms who think they have to fix their toxic boys. But also their boys’ high school, where the campus ministry is run by women and all the retreats are not about Jesus and aspiring to be like Him, but instead begin with the assumption that they are aggressive and angry, and have to be lectured endlessly about not being bullies and not being cruel. In short, no one in the culture LOVES them or believes in them, and no one expects them to be good. They take these beautiful souls filled with noble aspirations and longing to be noble and endlessly accuse them of wicked motives that must be beaten down. They are seen as problems, of whom the most that can be expected is a certain low-level restraint from criminal behavior. It’s dispiriting. And in some cases, it will create the very resentments it’s trying to inoculate against.
“I took what happened to the Covington boys very much to heart,” she says. “One of my boys has a big, wide, awkward grin like that main kid. It could have been him. The ease with which the boys’ own school, their bishop, the leadership of the March for Life, etc. jumped to the wrong conclusion was to my mind just par for the course. No one likes or understands boys, and this in itself is a massive and toxic cruelty.”
As a woman and a mother of three sons, I suppose she would know.
No one should want to reintroduce stereotypes that were not helpful in the past and would be worse now, such as so-called “traditional” roles that didn’t really exist much before the 1950s in America and haven’t existed for a long time since. Rather, we should consider more seriously the difficulties that arose when fathers began to work for long hours outside the home. Granted, it doesn’t help to do the same with mothers, but children, both girls and boys, do best with both parents raising them and enculturating them with an eye to making them capable of becoming good parents someday soon.
A culture that spends very little time educating its teens to live successful married lives and most of the time talking to them about sex – as if that were the only thing they needed to know about marriage – while seeking above all else to make them “successful” financially in business careers is setting them up for repeated heartache and many years of unnecessary loneliness.
*Image: The Lincoln Family by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (engraving by John Chester Buttre), 1865 [New York Historical Society]