Being responsible
Being a good provider, protector
Doing the right thing
Putting others first, sacrifice
Standing up for the little guy

Where, I ask, did you learn this? They look confused. Eventually, someone will say, “Well, it’s everywhere.” And he’s right. It’s Shakespearean, Homeric. It’s the Judeo-Christian heritage. It’s the air we breathe; it’s the water we drink. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is what it means to be a good man, and that we learn it through osmosis in our respective cultures. (Of course, this is what it means to be a good person. But you might be surprised how gendered men feel it to be.)

“Okay, fair enough,” I say. “Now tell me if any of those ideas or words or phrases occur to you when I say, ‘Man the fuck up! Be a real man!’”

The guys look startled. “No, wait, that’s completely different!” they shout, almost instantly, and almost as one.

I ask what it means to be a “real” man, and this is a short list of what they say:

Never cry
Be strong
Don’t show your feelings
Play through pain
Suck it up
Win at all costs
Be aggressive
Get rich
Get laid

“Hmm,” I’ll say, “and where did you learn this?”

Here is what they say, in order:

1. Father
2. Coach
3. My guy friends
4. My older brother

If they mention women at all — and they rarely do — it’s “Mother.” And she comes in at about No. 6 or so. They sometimes even say “Teacher” before they say, “Mother…”

In A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, I refer often to the power that personal definitions have over our behavior, choices, and experiences. Plese consider how trying to be a “real man” rather than a “good man” might affect young a man’s choices. Can you see the conflict young men face as they try to be both, and inevitably fail to be both? Look at the lists again. They conflict. According to this belief system, a young man has to choose between being a real man, and being a good man.

In my own work with young boys, I see it happening before my eyes all the time. A young sweet boy slowly learning about integrity, honor, responsibility, doing the right thing, and putting others first suddenly grows up, and his life becomes all about “fitting in, being cool, sucking it up, and not being a baby. To do any different is to be bullied and teased as a “mama’s girl,” “a sissy,” a chicken,” “a wimp.” This is what we have been teaching our boys.

Did you know that although boys are teased about as often as girls, the boys are much less likely to report it? After all, they are taught that only babies snitch while real men learn to take it.  Eventually, they even learn how to give it.

Now I  like to remind my students that we can’t change others, we can only change ourselves and how we influence others. So here is what I am doing, and what I recommend to you. Redefine “real man as good man.” Simply say to yourself and any young boys around you that a real man is a good man. I am not saying it will be easy. I am asking you to redefine a lifetime of conditioning. It may even make hanging with the guys uncomfortable once you realize that a good man stands up for the little guy and calls people out on any smack talk. It takes a real good man to be a good man, but it is a choice only you can make for yourself.

And ladies, you can help as well. What characteristics do you consider those of a real man? After all, we do tend to attract the behaviors we reward. Wouldn’t it be nice to attract some real good men? Maybe we could also teach that to our daughters.

So what’s the bottom line?

The most fundamental changes in life happen when we redefine who we are. When we see ourselves differently, we think differently. When we think differently, we feel differently. When we feel differently, we behave differently, and we don’t need some quick-fix technique to control ourselves, or others.

So open your mind and explore your definitions. Your life will expand proportionately.

*Michael Kimmel is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University. His new book is Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism.

**Portions of this article are quoted from How to Raise a Boy, which is a weeklong series published by The Cut centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.  Click here to read the full article and series.

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