does manliness matter?

After I wrote the piece on boys being boys, instead of saying “hey, good post, pal,” and giving me a hearty thump on the back, Jason said

Hmmpf, it’s good, I guess, but I think you took the easy way out.  You neglected to address what makes a boy a boy if he’s NOT playing with guns, being too loud or staring at women.”

To which I responded maturely with a but, but…but that’s hard,” and a “hmmpf!” of my own.  We ended up tossing around several ideas about what exactly makes men men and women women but ultimately we came to no good conclusions and we tabled the discussion for the night.   

The conversation left me wondering, though.  Is this something I need to figure out?  Clearly there are differences between boys and girls, like testosterone and estrogen levels, different chromosomes and the like.  But what is a parent supposed to do with those differences?  Do I need to teach my boys to be “manly?”  Does manliness matter?

A couple days ago I read this quote by Cesar Chavez…

I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.  To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!

For a split second I envisioned my boys throwing their arms up over their heads like William Wallace, shouting “God help us be men!” and I thought “Here it is!  This is what it means to be a man.  I’d be happy for my boys to strive for this.”    And I would.  But wouldn’t I also be happy for my (admittedly hypothetical) daughter to strive for these things as well?   What about this particular description of struggling for justice and suffering for others is particularly manly?

And there’s the rub, I think.  That’s why it’s so daunting to try to figure it out.  Because if I did somehow manage to come up with a list of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman, there are bound to be countless men and women who would not fit the description.  Probably my own kids wouldn’t even fit the description.  And then what?

Our culture typically assumes that “manly” men are tough.  Stoic.  Firmly heterosexual.  And sports fans.  Definitely sports fans.   What about my husband who wouldn’t know an NBA player from the high school MVP?  Is he not manly enough?  Or my firmly NON-heterosexual friend, Michael…where would he fit in here?  He’s certainly a man but he doesn’t meet all the criteria on that list.

Maybe it’s all in the “equipment?”   Is that what makes a woman a woman?   Her breasts, her vagina, her uterus, et al?  What about my good friend who had a hysterectomy several years ago?  Is she no longer a woman?   Or my friend who lost her breasts to a double mastectomy.  Is she less female without them?  No, certainly they are still women!  Right?

You see the trouble?  Other cultures, other people, have their own lists, their own assumptions and expectations, and many of them are in complete contrast to our own.  What then?  Which one is correct?  Which parts of us are nature, which parts nurture?   Which parts biological and which parts cultural?  We will probably never know.  And I’m not sure it really matters.

In our house, there are some things we do that are stereotypical (Jason usually takes out the trash, I do the laundry) and some ways that we go against the grain.  We’ve figured out where we each excel (me = cleaning, J = not so much) and fought over figured out what works well for us as a family.  But there isn’t anything specific that Jason does because he’s the man.  I don’t think that it’s important for Jason to be the “man of the house.”  I do think that it is important, vital even, for him to be the Jason of the house; for him to be his fullest and most real self, whatever that may look like.  Because being a man (or a woman) is apparently not something that can be nailed down or boxed in.  I don’t deny that there are differences between the two of us but I don’t ever worry about whether Jason is being “man enough.” I do worry about whether he is being Jason enough.

I know that this is just a tiny cross-section of the larger discussion surrounding gender and identity and sex and attraction but rather than teaching my boys to be men, I think I’ll focus instead on teaching them to be themselves.   To be Gryffin and Isaiah in all their Gryffin and Isaiah-ness.  Because in the end, I can’t think of a single quality that I would want to teach my boys in order that they be good men that I wouldn’t also want to teach my daughter.

Forcing my kids to be someone other than who they are so that they can fit into the restrictive “man” box our society or our church or we ourselves have constructed for them would do them harm.  I’m sure that they themselves will try to fit into one of those boxes as they grow up and start to sort things out on their own.  We’ve all done it.  But I hope they don’t stay in there too long.  Brene Brown (I know, my new BFF) writes in Daring Greatly,  “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known…” and that is one of my deepest and dearest dreams for my boys; that they would be willing to show me and Jason and the world their most vulnerable and powerful selves.  And that seems hard enough, don’t you think?


What do you think?  Do you teach your kids certain things because they are male or female?

**UPDATE: After some lengthy discussions with Jason, we agreed that manliness does matter; that it is important that our boys have a sense of being a MAN.  But… we’re still not sure how exactly that would manifest itself.  More to come…