Parenting is weird. Especially in the modern age when each generation is virtually indistinguishable from all previous ones. I imagine there was a time, before the industrial and digital revolutions, when raising a child could pretty much be done exactly how you yourself were raised (building on lessons and failures from the past). Life really didn’t change all that much for people before technology started taking off on its exponential growth. Not to say that people in the past didn’t have their challenges in parenting and that there was some sort of magic book to follow, I just imagine that there isn’t as much to pass down these days as there used to be. My parents had no playbook for what to do about the internet, fake news, YouTubers and social media challenges (I hear kids are eating laundry soap for some reason?).
But some things can be passed down which is why it came as no surprise to my father when I told him that, despite regularly asking our two boys if there is anything they need clothing or toiletry-wise only to be told that everything they had was “fine,” that everything they had was not, in fact, fine, and that they needed some serious back to school clothes shopping in January (that probably should have been done back in August). Parenting lesson learned; never trust a teenager to self report a situation that they tacitly know will trigger a trip to the store for socks and underwear. I also now understand why Christmas time always came with a couple unexciting presents of basic clothing needs. Turns out Santa wasn’t trying to give me the shaft after all, and the holiday was just a good way to time an annual replenishment of certain items.
I discovered this need not because my sons finally came clean about it, but because I myself was in a situation where I needed to borrow a pair of socks. The flu season threw us off our regular laundry game and I needed to grab a pair from my 16 year son who was at his mothers house for the week at the time, so I went into his room to grab a pair. Despite the fact that his shoe size is now two whole sizes larger than mine, I found the socks that he had to be too small even for my feet and about as thin as a paper napkin. My wife and I decided that the time for intervention had come and resolved ourselves to a full clothing inspection once they returned home on Friday for the next coming week (as is routine with our week on/week off custody schedule with my ex wife and her husband).
When we returned home with them that Friday, I instructed them to put all of their clothes into piles on their bed and make sure they had a piece of paper and something to write with so they could make lists of what they were going to need. I told them to remove anything that didn’t fit or that was full of holes and place it to the side, a donation pile for items that are too small and a throw away pile for items that were not serviceable. This reminded me very much of inspections in the military, but I saved them the grief of rolling their socks and t-shirts into six-inch rolls and organizing all items to a standard display pattern. Call me soft, call them spoiled, but I try to not push military training on them, even if they have been dropped for a few sets of push-ups when all other methods of communication failed.
Come to discover that, not only were the 16 year old’s socks too small and thoroughly worn thin, the 14 year old only had one pair of socks that he had apparently been wearing for a week at a time, washing on Fridays when their chores before returning to their mother’s house include doing all their laundry, then repeating the process for who knows how many months. Other discoveries were on the order of holes and stains on shirts, jeans that were purchased one or more growth spurts ago and shoes that seemed okay while they were standing up, but were falling apart upon closer inspection.
Throughout the whole process I still had to push back against the “everything is fine” assessment coming from the kids who were still trying to sneak unacceptable items through the inspection process. “No, those jeans are not fine. They are six inches too short, put them in the donate pile. Why are there no socks here? What do you mean you only have the pair you are wearing? Okay write it down. You need socks and underwear and jeans and…” you get the gist.
So with their lists made we all four, the 16 year old boy, the 14 year old boy, my wife and I, piled into the car and headed to the department store so they could get what was on their lists. We explained that it would be up to them to shop for what they needed, try things on, then let us know when they were ready to check out so we could rejoin them in the store and pay for the items. We were not going to hover over them, select items for them, give them our opinions on the fit of items or anything else that we won’t be there for in the next few years once they are fully launched into adulthood. We were merely financing this operation, and not much else.
I saw another opportunity to hand down a lesson as we were driving away from the house and started speaking to them through the rear view mirror. I wanted to push back against this tendency they’ve grown to report everything as “fine” even when it is not. I understand that in their minds everything was, actually, fine. They intrinsically had no problem with the state of their clothing. To them, holes were just holes and stains were just stains. An awkward fit probably didn’t even register to them. So I began to speak to them.
“As you both continue to become young men, there are ways you need to learn to take care of yourselves. That is, you need to learn these things if you are going to become the men I want you to become..”
My wife at this point, hearing the word men, interjected as she saw what she felt to be a gender disparity in my statement.
“It’s not just men…” she slipped into the conversation.
I paused. Then I remarked, “They are young men. There are no young women in the back seat.”
My wife conceded her moment of asserting gender balance and remarked that it was true, I was not addressing a mixed audience, and I continued my spiel to my sons about the young men I wanted them to become. Young men who know when to throw away ratty-rags of socks and underwear, young men who know that old stained t-shirts are okay for house clothes, but not acceptable for public wear, young men who know explicitly that their appearance and the way they present themselves matters in this world. If I had a daughter, I would have probably said something similar with the words young woman added, but I don’t have a daughter and I see no reason to balance my pronouns until a day comes when one or both of my sons tells me they are deciding to become a different gender. Which, if that day ever comes (statistically not likely, but possible) then that will be the day I start handing lessons to my daughter(s). But that day has not come, and it will probably never.
In the back of mind I started thinking about this. We discuss so much in society these days, especially in the more liberal ideologies, about raising our sons to be non-toxic males. We talk about teaching our sons about consent and about respecting women and how not to rape, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Boys need to be taught how to become better men than the men who came before them, and we regularly do have those respect based lessons and check-ins from time to time. But I think that if we are truly to change the masculine culture for the better, then we need to replace it with a better masculine culture. We cannot just wash over masculinity with pronoun balance, replacing all the hes and hims with nondescript thems and inserting shes and hers when there are no women in the audience. We have to be able to change what it means to be a good man to include the type of respect that women want and deserve. We can’t just kill masculinity leaving a void where a problematic gender used to be. Lasting change is not going to come by teaching a generation of boys that masculinity by its very definition is toxic and that they simply need to fight their apish urges and adhere to a cultivated master don’t list of behaviors. First and foremost, cultivating boys this way is never going to be universal. Not everyone is going to decide in unison to parent in this manner, and many will still let boys be boys, even if that means some of those boys end up being shitty to women. Raising submissive boys who are afraid of their own psyches will only create a culture of men who will be easily controlled by the toxic men who were permitted to grow unencumbered and wild. The apes that bang their chest the loudest have a tendency to dominate not just the female apes around them, but the less chest-bangy male apes as well.
I think we can have both. I think we can raise boys to be strong, be kind, be respectful and to be assertive. We can raise boys to not just be better men, but to also lead the path to a better masculinity; one that is not simply psychologically belled against bad behavior, but a masculinity that empowers itself, empowers femininity and wins against other types of toxic personalities. That’s how we create lasting change to a culture. That happens when we take the time to teach our sons about the men we want them to become. Not just the people, the adults, the humans or the citizens we want them to become, but the good, strong, respectful men we want them to become. Ones without holes in their socks, or assault in their hearts. We cannot empower one gender by muting another. We have to do the work to replace what isn’t working with something better, and empower all genders to become stronger than the apes that came before them.
We had a good experience at the store. The wife and I wandered around, purchased a couple of items we needed and waited for them to finish their shopping. They got everything they needed and a couple of things they wanted. Asking for what they want is another lesson we try to instill. Then we all went out to a restaurant to grab a bite to eat.
My sons have long been trained to be very polite, especially in restaurant settings. They say “May I please have…” and “Thank you.” when ordering, and this often is noticed and remarked on by the server. It was noticed and remarked on by our server this day, as well.
She was noticeably refreshed at such politeness from young men, surprised when she found out their ages are 14 and 16, an age that can often come with an extra helping of bad manners, and told us all that she has never, never had two young men be as polite as my two sons were. I told her that the trick was that I never gave them a choice, and now, years later, the behavior is simply ingrained and natural. I used the opportunity to reinforce my earlier lesson; that the world responds to the men they show themselves to be. That’s simply how humans work. The service was excellent, and I didn’t pay attention to how the server treated her other tables, but I tend to think we got a little extra special treatment and the refills came a bit a quicker than they otherwise would have. My sons thanked me for showing them the right way to be, which made me very proud of the men they will become.
I can’t help but think of the server’s remark that no other teenagers, not one, in her experience in her job exhibited the politeness and respect that my sons did. We live in a post #MeToo society, where we will continue to have conversations about the past, present and future of masculinity. When I hear that our culture of adolescents are lacking the basic ability to assert respect and kindness, I can’t help but think that I’ve discovered a big part of the problem. It’s not enough to simply teach our boys what not to do. We have to teach them what is right to do.