Training men out of manhood
In May 2018, the second and expanded edition of my book, Raising Chaste Catholic Men, was released by Holy Heroes (a great place for Catholic Christmas gifts for kids, by the way!). I have said often—or at least thought!—that the most needed chapter in that book is the one entitled “Training Men Out of Manhood.” I really believe that our unhealthy and disordered culture is destroying our boys, and thus our men. I have reproduced here most of what is in that chapter, with a few edits:
Many of the dangers our sons face are easy enough to spot. The red flags of early sexualization, the hook-up culture, pornography, and moral relativism make themselves clear enough.
But there is something more subtle that traps our boys. It’s a steady drumbeat of dismissal, disdain, condescension, and disposability of men’s unique gifts, contributions, and innate masculine nature. I call this “training men out of manhood,” and it’s insidious.
As an example, one feminist activist blogger used to proudly identify herself as a mother who “regularly annoys her 6-year-old son by staging peace talks with his action figures, and by grounding him whenever he attempts to rescue a princess.” My heart broke when I read this! This primal, vital, God-given instinct of a boy to be protector, provider, and hero is disparaged and made grounds for punishment by the first woman in his life.
While the attempt at some kind of social consciousness here may be well-meaning, this mother’s approach is tragically misguided. Every boy and man wants to charge into battle as the knight in shining armor ready to defeat the evil villain for a noble and righteous cause. Good vs. evil is the thrilling, ultimate battle, not only temporally but in the spiritual realm. The masculine heart is made for such things, and a small boy starts his training young.
And, oh, the desire to rescue the damsel in distress should be cultivated! In this culture where so many women and children look in vain for good and protective men, why would we discourage our boys’ intuitive desire to willingly sacrifice themselves for others, especially women and children who are in danger? If we dampen (or, worse yet, punish) this instinct in men and boys, we risk killing the part of them that gives them purpose and mission. In fact, we deaden the very instinct that puts the “gentle” in “gentleman.” Who wants a man unwilling to save the fair maiden but instead is quick to save his own hide? What is so terrible about “women and children first”? If chivalry is dead, it’s largely because too many feminists, and even misguided Christian women—many Catholic!—willfully extinguished the protective instincts in their sons.
Our boys are floundering from too many cultural blows to their masculine identity. They need to be shown the path to manhood by other men, and when fathers are missing in their lives, as is so often the case today, we find many lost boys. Women, we can’t take the place of men, but our boys do need us to understand and encourage the nature of a man.
As one of my favorite Catholic writers, Professor Anthony Esolen, says in one of his many brilliant essays on boyhood and manhood*:
A woman who would lead boys must somehow see in them the fathers-to-be, the leaders of other men; and this involves her in some difficulty. She wants to raise sons to be men who protect women, and who would not use their considerable advantage in strength and in tolerance for aggression and danger to put women at risk. But she cannot inspire boys with the noble calling of protector and provider while assuring them that they are no different from their sisters….
God Himself made male and female different. I had the privilege of sitting on the original working panel for Bishop Olmsted’s Into the Breach. One of the presenters was Dr. Deborah Savage, a professor at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, who made a point that pretty much blew my mind and has stayed with me ever since: In the Book of Genesis, “man’s first contact with reality is of a horizon that otherwise contains only lower creatures, what we might call 'things.’…Woman comes into existence after man, [and] her first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man, that is, it includes persons….Other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze."**
This realization spurred and confirmed my understanding that we women are naturally relational and more oriented toward people, while men are more naturally oriented toward things and tasks. As Dr. Savage explains, men have a gifted capacity for understanding how to use the goods of creation to protect and provide for family and society. Neither disposition is better or worse, as each speaks to the respective genius of female and male. If we take away the particular “task” of man and his sense of mission—if he has no land to subdue, castles to build, or battles to win—we take away part of who he is, and he shrivels to something less than what a man was created to be. Women, and especially mothers: We must not diminish our boys’ God-given sense of mission and identity!
I have no problem with my boys doing sword play or simulating duels or using fake guns. Cops and robbers, slaying dragons, or dreams of joining the military to “fight the bad guys” might be objectionable for some, but I don’t discourage it.
One of the best conversations I have ever heard (and, I promise, the only one on which I’ve ever seriously eavesdropped) was between my two oldest sons as they talked in their room late one night before bed. My older son was home from college, and the two young men were discussing self-sacrifice, dying heroically, and even the possibility of martyrdom. When my seventeen-year-old kept insisting that there is no more honorable or even glorious way for a man to die than to lay down his life for another (throwing himself in front of a bullet for a stranger, came one example), my maternal heart leapt with joy. Far from being anxious or worried about his desire, I felt so much peace interiorly, and gratitude to God for making great and noble the heart of my son.
I have never met a married woman who does not want her husband to take care of her and protect her. And I don’t mean that she wants no voice, or she that wants to be a helpless little girl who can’t do anything for herself, or that she wants to be dominated or controlled. The women I know are very strong, capable, and intelligent—nobody’s fool. But when many of these same strong women hit rough patches in their marriages, they complain that their husbands are not “being the man.” In fact, the exact words of many of these women are as follows: “I am tired of being the man. I need him to step up. I need to be taken care of sometimes. I want to feel like and be treated like a woman.”
Think about that. None of these women are products of strict gender role-modeling from a 1950s detergent commercial. They are women raised in the ’70s, ’80s, and ‘90s, when “women’s liberation” was already in full swing.
A while back, I wrote a piece in which I identified three types of men who support abortion. The first two—“the ignorant apathetic” and “the lech (or cad, or reprobate, etc.)”—are interesting to ponder, but it’s the third category that is the most tragic in my mind, “the man trained out of manhood.”
To illustrate this man, I took former President Barack Obama as an example. I don’t mean to pick on him, but to me he is representative of so many other men raised and formed under similar circumstances. He is a man so lacking in the male protective instinct that he is fiercely committed to abortion at any stage and situation, even to the point of voting to let a child die who survives abortion. How could this be? It makes sense if we consider his upbringing. As I said in the article:
Obama was raised by a radical-leftist-secular-feminist-socialist mother. His father wanted nothing to do with little Barack, essentially abandoning him and becoming simply a myth and a longing in young Barack's life and dreams. It's actually incredibly tragic to ponder, truly heartbreaking.
So, this fatherless boy was not raised to know what it means to be a strong man who stays, protects, provides. He had no idea, and in fact the opposite was modeled to him by his absent, negligent father. Meantime, he had his strong, outspoken, and deeply committed feminist mother who taught him what a “man” should be, according to her radical template. Obama himself has described his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, as “the dominant figure in my formative years….The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics." He called her “a lonely witness for secular humanism.”
Not surprisingly, he grew up and married another strong radical feminist, Michelle Robinson. Both these women were the dominant forces in his life, and they no doubt pounded it home to him that women have an absolute right to abortion. I'd be surprised if Barack Obama has ever had a true friendship with a strong pro-life woman, or even meaningful interaction with one. But the message he received time and again from all the women in his life—the woman that raised and formed him, the woman that married him, and even the radical women he hung out with at Columbia and later in politics—goes like this: “You men have no right to tell us women what to do with our bodies. We have a right to abortion on demand and without apology. You are either with us on this most basic of freedoms, or you are a misogynist brute oppressor.”
What is a fatherless, lonely, ungrounded boy/man to do? I can hardly blame men like this, because, at least for a time, they simply don't know any better. They defer to the women they love regarding “women's issues” and “women's bodies” and “justice for women,” because they really believe it's not their place to speak. These men really believe that this is how one “supports” women.
Much like the six-year-old son of the blogger I mentioned at the top of this chapter, feeling shame about being a male is what will drive our boys and men to snuff out or reject their natural and rightly-ordered instincts to be protectors, providers, leaders, and heroes. These men, in increasing numbers, have perhaps never seen a truly honorable man up close and active in their lives. Perhaps they have never known a male role model who keeps his commitments, protects and defends women and children, and is willing to lay down his own life for them before he’d consider harming them, body or soul.
The man trained out of manhood champions abortion, “gay marriage,” “gender fluidity,” no-fault divorce, and the radical feminism of today because he believes that’s what he’s supposed to do if he cares about women and humanity. He is left with an impoverished masculinity, and the whole world suffers for it.
Ladies, we have an important role to play: We must rejoice and affirm our boys when they want to engage in fake sword play with their brothers and friends. We must encourage the “hero” posturing and good guy vs. bad guy scenarios they dream up, even if the good guy wins by pretending to punch the bad guy in the nose, or by taking him out via dueling pistols in the Wild West. (One of my favorite home videos is an elaborate dueling scene between two of my then little boys, filmed by their older brother, unbeknownst to me at the time. We all laugh about it and enjoy it to this day.)
When we allude to “boys will be boys” in my house, it doesn’t mean anything like what today’s feminists assume, i.e., license for boys to be oppressors, rapists, wife beaters. Nor does it mean what some fellow Christians say, that “hey, of course boys will be masturbating, looking at porn, and having premarital sex, no big deal.” In our house, it means that boys will naturally want to play the hero warrior, fight to protect the innocent, and defeat the bad guy. We could say more accurately that that’s how boys will be men.
We have a task ahead as we raise our sons to understand their own mission and identity as men. We must never concede even one inch to those who would have us train our men out of their very manhood.
*Esolen, Anthony. May 21, 2016. “Remember the Boys” https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/05/21/remember-the-boys/
**Savage, Deborah. “The Nature of Woman in Relation to Man,” Logos (Winter 2015): 89 & 9