Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Does It Take To Be A Man?

June 13, 2011

"What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice, and all that is nice:

That’s what little girls are made of.

What are little boys made of?

Frogs and snails, and puppy-dog’s tails:

That’s what little boys are made of."

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which sex comes out ahead in that comparison. In recent years, men have been roundly criticized for a multitude of sins.

What women dislike. Women complain that men are gross, don’t know what "clean" really is, don’t listen, are insensitive, are blatantly self-centered, and don’t know what their feelings are, much less talk about them.

Their list of complaints might also include how men use power or control in relationships, feel entitled to maternal care, tend to experience sexuality apart from the context of a relationship, indulge themselves in anger or rage, and generally do not act like full partners in the home or in raising children.

Women paint a disturbing picture of a dominant, silent, withdrawn, competitive, disconnected man who has little self-awareness and minimal concern for others. No wonder men feel under the gun. Some of our favorite weaknesses are probably on the list.

Provider role carried to extremes. Even the "provider" role has its problems when it is overdone. Being a provider to the point of self-sacrifice and workaholism creates a cycle where a man expects to be indulged to have his child-like demands met after his workday is over.

This cycle of self-sacrifice/indulge can create problems with materialism, non-relational sexuality and chemical dependency. With all the women in the work force, the traditional male role of the "good provider" no longer is as essential as it once was.

What do women want? No longer can men define their masculinity through taking care of family and friends, being strong and dependable, and solving their problems.

The old training in problem-solving, logic, risk-taking, staying calm in the face of danger and assertively responding to obstacles is fine but no longer good enough. Now men are expected to be nurturing and empathic to others, revealing weakness and expressing their most intimate feelings.

Men haven’t been trained for these skills and some of them seem to violate the traditional code of what being a man is all about.

Adolescent masculinity. The juvenile version of manhood sometimes carries more ugly trappings: a willingness to defy authority, an avoidance of conventional responsibilities, a resistance of being subordinate to others, a retreat from commitments and a silent stoicism about their own and others pain.

The code of maleness is the code of the mob. Boys put on an emotional straitjacket for fear they might be judged as a "wimp" or a "nerd" - a male lacking in either toughness or cynical sophistication.

They renounce their talents, their imaginations, their expressiveness, their willingness to stand out or apart, or any hint of femininity and then cruelly disparage these qualities in others.

Women are showing less and less tolerance for these unpleasant, obsolete and dysfunctional masculine qualities. Men need a new image of healthy masculinity with which they can identify without taking on the liabilities of the old code.

A real man is a man when:

- he is productively living a life with meaning and commitment to worthy goals. This is a tremendously competitive and expensive world to live in. Men accept this challenge, not only in being a provider but also in finding their own satisfying outlet for creativity and usefulness.

- he discovers his own talents and contributes to the benefit of society. He understands teamwork, cooperation, loyalty, dedication, perseverance and self-reliance in the pursuit of his goals.

- he is connected to the well-being of others and to his community. He has learned to love with respect. He is generous and sacrifices his self-interest for the good of others. He learns the needs of others and is willing to satisfy those needs.

- he is strong, courageous, and independent enough to resist evil at personal risk. He sees misfortune and responds. He sees injustice and fights for right.

- he faces his own emotions, drops his need to be perfect or always in control and is willing to talk about his fears, sadness and confusion. He mourns his losses and comforts others with theirs. He has learned what his feelings are and how to express them without fear.

- he nurtures his wife and children and provides encouragement, love and support. He puts effort into being a good father and husband. He shares household labor and childcare responsibility. He is willing to address his wife’s concerns non-defensively and work toward resolution of conflict.

Men still necessary. Men are valuable, essential, important and special. There are still plenty of problems to be solved and risks to be taken. Some of those challenges and risks come from within.

Thanks goes to psychologist Ronald F. Levant of University of Akron, Akron, Ohio for some of the ideas used in this article.