The three scariest and most confusing words every man hears, at some point in his lifetime, are when he is told to "Be a Man!" This cultural mandate carries behavioral demands that include stopping his tears, his emotions, and to avoid, at all cost, acting like a 'sissy' or a 'mama's boy.' These three words teach boys that to have tender emotions, to share them, show them and name them, are signs of masculine failure.
We, as a culture, both male and female, tend to have a biased approach to raising our boys by restricting them to a narrowly defined "boys must be boys" mentality. In conditioning young boys to repress the full expression of their humanity, they begin to separate their hearts from their heads, losing touch with their authentic selves, entrapped in a toxic culture of unhealthy masculinity.
Throughout the course of their development, boys are fed at least three fundamental lies about masculinity. The first lie, boys learn by the time they are three or four years old. They learn it on playgrounds, ball fields, and during preschool and kindergarten recess. Boys are taught that their value and worth has something to do with their physical strength and athletic ability. Our culture tends to recognize and reward masculinity according to size, strength, and a mentality that encourages competition, winning and dominance over other males. The boy who can hit the hanging curve or catch the down-and-out ball is elevated. Athletic "potential" allows others to see him as having more masculine promise. He is simply more "manly." Men who have grown up attempting to define their masculinity by their athletic ability are set up for tremendous failure and frustration in life. Where are boys hearing the truth that masculinity has nothing to do with athleticism and that being good at sports seldom correlates with the development of character traits that will help him to negotiate life successfully?
By the time they are in junior high they are indoctrinated into the second lie of masculinity boys receive. In our culture, adolescent boys soon discover that being a man seems to have something to do with sexual conquest. Young, developing boys receive the social message that being a real man means objectifying and/or seducing girls to gratify physical needs and/or to validate masculinity. Being a user of other human beings to gratify one's needs is not the message we want to convey to our sons regarding our daughters.
The third lie imposed on our boys is that masculinity is defined by economic success,as if the measure of a man can come from a job title and a bank account balance rather than from the content of a man's character. The sad reality in America today is that too many men associate their self-worth with their net worth. We are a society that confuses who people are with what they do and have.
As a social activist, I can philosophically connect these three lies to every social problem we have: boys with guns, girls with babies, violence against girls and women, and immorality in board rooms. When you see advertisements directed at boys and men, these lies are naturally embedded in the message. "Madison Avenue" understands that if it can make men insecure about their masculinity they can be led to wear certain clothes, drive certain cars, get certain kinds of women, all "possessions" that will validate the cultural construct of masculinity.
Based on these three cultural lies of sports, sex, and money, who are the masculine role models for a great number of boys? (And remember, a role model is someone you model your behavior after.) It's often the professional athlete. Why? Not because we teach young kids to evaluate their character and how they use their fame on behalf of their families, communities, and others, but because professional athletes have ability and skill as defined by these distorted concepts of masculinity. They compete against the world and each other and they win. They have opportunities for sexual conquest and economic success. And the target is to be the best and to beat out the other guy!
The challenge is to create a clear and compelling definition of healthy masculinity that will help guide every young man to understand the truth about what it means to "Be a Man." We need to help boys become emotionally healthy men while addressing the destructive cultural forces debilitating men from well-being and wholeness. And we need to help men discover their personal responsibility in bringing healing and wholeness to wounded masculine souls that will restore the connection of our heads, hearts, and spirits.
Joe Ehrmann (Westminster Theological Seminary) is a minister and motivational speaker. He attended Syracuse University until he was drafted out as a first round pick for the Baltimore Colts. Following his football career, he graduated from in Westminster in Philadelphia, specializing in urban ministry, and was ordained in 1985. He was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute of International Sport.