Few boys enjoy the benefit of being raised by the kind of man’s man who was my father. He was a veteran who served as a U.S. Army medic; a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do; and an exemplary athlete with trophies from baseball, softball, tennis, and billiards. He was tough as nails: he once sewed back on a piece of his thumb (without anesthesia!) that he had accidentally cut off while working in the garage; and he had to have reconstructive surgery on his nose because of how many times it had been broken in fistfights or while playing sports.
My father’s own childhood had hardened him up quickly. Now clinical specialists would diagnose such a boy as hyperactive and provide the parents with professional guidance and perhaps even medication. But for a young rascal growing up in a hardscrabble 1950’s family like my father’s, the answer was corporal punishment, and lots of it. That kind of treatment reached a climax in 1968 when my dad, then a sophomore at Auburn University, brought home a terrible report card. My grandfather tried to shove it down his throat, which resulted in him being thrown through a wall by my dad. Months later, my father, then a college dropout, was drafted.
In large part because of his own abusive upbringing, my father, who had a conversion to evangelicalism after his time in the Army, decided to take a different tack in raising me. Corporal punishment was rare. When I tired of participating in so many of the activities he held dear—Boy Scouts, Tae Kwon Do, and even baseball—he didn’t put up a fight. He permitted me to play video and computer games for hours, even on beautiful, sunny days. I was grateful (perhaps naively) that my father took such a gentle, relaxed approach to parenting.
Yet in some respects, my father’s parental decisions reflected an (admittedly understandable) overreaction to his own childhood experience. Some necessary aspects of male maturation resolved themselves—I gave up baseball but took up tennis and achieved all-state honors in high-school; I dropped out of Boy Scouts, but dad and I often went camping, fishing, and hunting. Other things, to my own consternation, took a lot longer to work out.
As an only child, I had no brothers to roughhouse with, and I lacked any sort of aggressive, testosterone-heavy activities that would have taught me how to physically defend myself and resist bullies. Dad did plenty of handy projects around the house, but he typically let me off the hook when I resisted or—after about ten minutes—got bored and drifted away. In allowing me to spend so much time alone doing decidedly unmanly things, my tendencies toward timidity (especially when it came to members of the opposite sex) were protected, if not exacerbated.
I think in some respects the confusion of my experience in evangelicalism also retarded my masculine maturation. Though there were certainly plenty of “tough guys” at the churches and college fellowships I attended, my personal reading of the Bible persuaded me that non-violence was the default, and testosterone-infused aggressiveness was a sin to be avoided. I remember once discouraging a black elementary-school student I tutored in Charlottesville’s projects from fighting other kids who bullied him. “Jesus demands we turn the other cheek,” I instructed him.
It wasn’t until several years later, during my first tour in Afghanistan, that I realized how wrong I had been about true masculinity. When people are shooting rockets and small-arms at you, you understand pretty quickly that a different approach to manhood is required. One month into my first tour, several people I knew were killed or wounded by a suicide bombing. One night, a rocket landed about 100 feet from my bunk. I was afraid, terribly afraid, that I was going to die—that I would never marry, have kids, or grow old. I knew something had to change.
It’s strange to communicate it this way, but during my second tour in Afghanistan I came to terms with dying. Not that I wanted to die, but I had accepted the fact that I might die, and that this would be the Lord’s good will for me. And that would be OK, as long as I was in a state of grace (by then I had converted to Catholicism). About a year later, I was dating the girl I would later marry. She told me one of the things she loved about me was that she felt safe with me, that my strength and confidence convinced her I was capable of protecting her.
Brad Miner, in his recently published third, revised edition of The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry, seeks to define the qualities that define a true gentleman. Among other things, these include the roles of warrior, lover, and monk. By these, Miner means that men must be willing to defend and fight for the truth; that they must demonstrate virtuous love, compassion, and understanding for members of the opposite sex; and that they must exemplify qualities of faith that orient them toward transcendent, eternal realities. Miner’s analysis is right, and his capacity to draw from diverse traditional and contemporary sources to prove his point makes The Compleat Gentleman an engaging and enjoyable read.
One thing Miner cites as exemplifying the true gentleman is the Aristotelian “golden mean,” that difficult-to-achieve median between extremes, one that philosophers and theologians have lauded from the classical to modern era as essential for authentic manhood. Yet whichever cardinal virtue we seek to exemplify—prudence, courage, temperance, or justice—it is that moderate middle that men must identify and grasp if their aim is to be a true chivalrous gentleman. Some things I’ve learned from my father’s parenting style may be instructive.
I think my father’s compassionate and gentle approach to me was commendable, and I have tried, imperfectly, to model it with my own two sons (I also have two daughters). Boys, like girls, can be sensitive, and they need to know they are loved and affirmed for who they are, just as our heavenly Father loves us regardless of our failings. Yet I also think boys need to be exhorted to be tough and to be given outlets to develop their martial, testosterone-driven potential, in which they can test and prove their capacity to fight. My older son, despite not knowing that his father has a gun safe with hunting rifles and pistols for self-defense, turns every stick he finds into a sword or gun. Having a male sibling with whom to roughhouse also helps, but so can other, physical activities: football, wrestling, karate, or boxing come to mind.
Possessing a sister is also incredibly beneficial for a young boy because it can help temper some of the “feminine mystique” that can drive a young, lusty boy crazy. If that’s not possible, encouraging activities with members of the opposite sex—with appropriate parental guidance, of course—can help boys learn how to respectfully relate to females. Parents also need to work hard to shield their boys from the plague that is pornography, which can deceive and ravage a young man’s understanding of sex. (My wife and I are committed to keeping screens away from our kids, not only to avoid porn but also the variety of other useless and addictive wastes of time like gaming and video sites.)
Inculcating a robust faith among our male progeny is also essential. Leading by example, as sociologists like W. Bradford Wilcox and Mark Regnerus have documented, has a tremendous, life-long impact, especially as it relates to the influence of fathers. It certainly did in the case of my dad, who I witnessed pray on his knees every morning while I, the typical teenager, watched SportsCenter. Yet adolescent boys also must know that devotion to Christ does not equate with being a pushover, and that there is a place for a tough, virile form of masculine Christianity that is willing to fight, and even shed blood, in order to safeguard one’s faith, family, and nation.
Defending something good, by extension, means being willing to suffer and even die for that good. In that sense, men are called to model the sacrificial example of the perfect man, Jesus Christ. Our Lord died on the cross for the sins of humanity, not necessarily because He was a stoic philosopher who could disinterestedly ascertain the objective good, but more because He knew there was a far greater, perfect reward awaiting Him in Heaven. We must teach our sons to believe the same, loving and living for the higher goods.
Young men must know that while it is foolhardy to wantonly throw their lives away for sensual or narcissistic pursuits, it is of the greatest glory to suffer and die for a true and good cause. Helping our sons perceive such goods demands they be humbled by great, chivalrous men whose heroic stories from ages past serve as exemplars of virtue. St. John Henry Newman defined the ideal gentleman as “patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.” In a time when our elites are telling us that the heroes of our past are villains worthy not of memorialization but opprobrium and desecration, forming the next generation of true gentlemen will be all the more difficult, and all the more important.
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