Much emphasis has been placed in my generation on the need to raise boys up into manhood. There has been a call to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their sons”; for men to teach their sons how to be men, and for other men to fill in for those who have no fathers, or whose fathers abdicate.
This is a beautiful thing.
But it raises the question, what does that mean? Being strong and brave? Kind and gentle? Knowing the Scriptures?
The problem is, some people are automatically more suited to these definitions, and others are at an immediate disadvantage. Can you be small, quiet, intellectual? Can you struggle to read? Stutter? Shoot a gun? Be afraid of guns?
What exactly is it men are supposed to call out in each other? What does this “godly manhood” look like?
This has been the question of questions in our home these past several years as we have been raising up two very different sons. If there is a specific picture of manhood, then does only one of them match it? Which one? Does the other one need to be taught to be more “masculine” in some way?
Actually, the question of manhood has been an interesting one from the beginning in our family. First, because of a cultural shift: My husband grew up in Alaska, and all the expressions of manhood that were relevant there didn't exist in Tennessee. He couldn't take his sons ice fishing as his father may have done with him, unless they took an expensive trip to a place that had ice fishing. Do you have to be rich to be a man?
In this new place, fathers were supposed to play basketball with their sons, or watch football, or go on golfing trips. But my husband didn't grow up playing those sports. He was good at skiing, and swimming, and building forts for snowball wars.
Also, he grew up with sisters, and there weren't such gender-distinctions in his family. His older sister was an expert marksman, and they all had the same chores. She didn't always do the dishes because she was a girl, or not participate in things he did because they were “just for boys”.
It didn't make sense to teach our sons it was their job to protect Mommy when they were small and Mommy was a black belt. Or to not include her in camping trips or other outings she would enjoy simply to contrive father/son time. Why did anyone have to be left out based on age or gender? One-on-one time happens organically when we're all sharing life together without having to intentionally exclude anyone from events they'd like to be a part of.
When we got together with friends, why did the girl children have to be taught to help the moms bake cookies and the boys be banished when they wanted to help, too? Were these even messages he wanted to teach our sons?
Not only was there this culture shift as he entered fatherhood, but when our sons were young, my husband suffered a serious blow to his health. He got Lyme Disease, which required multiple rounds of strong antibiotics. He finally began to recover, and then it recurred. He wound up being on one of the strongest levels of antibiotic for a month. Afterward, his immune system was shot. His lungs were like wet tissue paper. He seemed to be allergic to everything. For a year, he threw up every day, several times a day.
As far as manhood goes, he was absolutely heroic in my eyes. During all this, he somehow managed to continue preaching and working another full-time job. Despite how terrible he felt, he still prioritized time with his family, even when it cost him much-needed rest.
But many of the things he thought he'd do with his sons—biking, hiking, spelunking in caves—were now impossible for him. He couldn't even sit around a campfire because breathing the smoke would cause an asthma attack that could put him back in the hospital or in bed for days.
All the things he had wanted to teach his sons in childhood about being courageous and adventurous had to be replaced with caution and safety. Whenever he grew frustrated with this and tried to extend himself for their sake, he wound up twice as sick as before. We found ourselves constantly confronted with the fear of losing him, and angry with those who painted a picture of manhood that he couldn't participate in.
Is manhood really about being tough, or athletic? What about our artists and visionaries?
What about those who feel they can never measure up to other people's definitions of manhood?
Sometimes manhood is just staying the course; sometimes it's just validating the humanity in another person.
“For the body does not consist of one member, but of many.” I Corinthians 12: 14
Imagine a body where there isn't one picture of manhood, there are a thousand different ones. Where you can learn to swing a machete to cut down tall grass alongside your Nigerian brother, and work with wood, and make music, and learn Greek, and cook, and dance, and pray. Where everyone gets to play, even the girls.
What if you can opt out of certain things because you aren't interested, and it doesn't mean you're not a man? What if you could always be invited and welcomed, but never forced, never pushed into a box?
What if, instead of manhood, we are all meant to be calling each other into spiritual maturity? And that's not about whose job it is to mow the lawn. It's about expressing the nature of Christ.
What if what we could have is simply more love, and freedom? Freedom to be the fullness of who we are, and not to be who we're not.
So we raised our sons in a different way. We all talked about things together, and everyone was free to express their own thoughts and needs and interests. We shared ourselves with each other. We read great books together. We went on adventures.
They received life-affirming words from their father, and from their mother. They gave them to each other. Because that's how we all speak.
Sometimes only the people who were interested in certain things did those things, and we learned that it's okay to like something or not like it whether you're a boy or a girl, because you're a unique human being.
Sometimes people did things they weren't as interested in because they valued time with each other. Sometimes people did things by themselves that no one else wanted to do at that time, because we are free to enjoy things no one else does.
And we didn't tell our sons how to be men. We let them tell us about the extraordinary men they are.