Promises to Our Boys About Manhood (On the First Day of School)

I’m writing this from the empty playground at my boys’ grade school. Right now, in the final dog days of summer, it is still and quiet. But in a week, when school starts, it will be teeming with the energy and activity of my boys and their peers.  And it will be teeming with messages.

boys men

Photo Credit: MFer Photography via Compfight cc

What messages will this playful space send them about being boys and becoming men? If history is any indication, our boys will learn to live like an old, buried, neglected water main…

When Water Mains Explode

Earlier this month, in Los Angeles, a 93-year-old water main burst, and twenty million gallons of water flooded the streets of L.A. and the campus of UCLA. Why did it burst? Because the city of L.A. built it, buried it, and then put it on a 300-year replacement plan.

This is not uncommon.

For instance, the 30-inch water main that delivers water to much of Washington, D.C. was put in the ground before Abraham Lincoln was elected. It’s been in use every day since. And it will likely remain neglected until it explodes. This is how we treat our water: we bury it, forget about it, and then reap the consequences when the pipes finally give out.

It is also how we raise our men.

We tell boys—in a million ways both explicit and implicit—to bury their emotions if they want to become men. Bury them and neglect them. Pretend they don’t exist. Until they explode.

Sitting on this playground, I wonder if my boys will learn what boys have been learning for centuries:

Boys are supposed to compete for attention, not surrender to connection. Boys get attention for winning, not for feeling. Boys are supposed to be hard, on the outside and the inside. When boys feel tender things, they shouldn’t reveal tender things. Boys don’t use their words; boys use their bodies.

Sitting on this playground, I wonder if my boys will draw their own natural conclusions about what it means to be a man:

Men compete and achieve and win. Men have control and are under control. Men have power and wield their power. Men don’t love vulnerably; they lead invulnerably. Men don’t feel because men aren’t weak. Men don’t falter because men have no faults. And if all of this leaves a man feeling lonely, instead of trying to connect more, he should try to conquer more.

When Feelings Explode

Last week I was sitting in my home office, with my boys and their friends playing in our front yard, when I glanced out the window to see one of the kids standing over my son kicking and punching him. I catapulted myself down the stairs and out the front door and I charged at the boy, eyes wild, a protective father bear roaring, “Get out of my yard right now! Go home!”

He quickly reached for his bike, but, as he turned, I saw the fear of me in his eyes. I had stopped his aggression with some of my own, matched his anger with mine, traded his explosion for another.

I was teaching him to be a man.

I called out to the boy, asked him to come back, told him to look me in the eye, and then I said, “We want you here, but if you are feeling hurt about something, don’t hurt someone in return. Tell us about it, instead.”

And with a force that surprised even the therapist in me, his water mains burst. Tears gushed forth and in a matter of seconds this young boy was a sloppy street full of saline and snot. Feelings of rejection and isolation and loneliness poured forth and they flooded his face and they flooded my yard.

When we have that much emotional water rushing through our human pipes, and we are told to bury it, and everybody neglects it, we eventually break. When our boys are taught to suppress, they are being groomed to explode.

Promises to Our Boys about Manhood

Next week, this playground I’m writing from will be teeming with messages. Those messages aren’t up to us. But when our boys return, we can make sure our homes are teeming with messages, too. We can make promises:

We promise your fight and your façade are not required here.

We promise connection can happen without competition here.

We promise your tears and fears will have an audience here.

We promise you a space in which being human is the only requirement.

We promise you that you will make mistakes here.

We promise you we will make mistakes here, too.

We promise you it’s okay to cry about them.

We promise you we’ll find our way to “I’m sorry” and “You are forgiven.”

We promise you, at some point, we will fail at all of these promises.

And we promise you, when that happens, we will become grace, and begin again.

Let’s promise to send our boys this message:

In the end, the question isn’t whether or not you’ll become a man; the question is, “What kind of man will you become?” Will you become the kind of man who buries his feelings and then floods everyone with them when the pipes burst? Or will you become the man you already are? Because to become a man, you need only two ingredients: your self—all of your feelings and fears and dreams and hopes and weaknesses and strengths and joys and sorrows—and a little bit of time for your hormones do their work and grow your body.

In the end, we promise you this, Boys: we love you, and we want all of you to show up.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Eoin Brennan

    I grew up in a proper mans man kind of place. That school yard you spoke
    about………..it was like the Lord of the flies where I went to
    school. I learned it wasnt ok to cry, show vunerability or any kind of
    weakness. Every day some kid would try and put your head in with his
    fists and every day you had to fight your ground otherwise you’d be
    cannon fodder. The fall out was a very violent childhood, but it was all
    done quietly, behind the backs of parents or they just turned a blind
    eye. There was a reunion last year and everybody was looking back with
    rose tinted glasses………..it made me wanna throw up. Childhood was a
    violent part of our lives, we all experienced it yet nobody would even
    mention how violent it really was, like the big elephant in the room
    nobody wants to see. But I saw the damage it had caused in their lives,
    we all had the scars no matter how hard we tried to hide them.
    I hope
    things can change and young boys can learn how to deal with their
    emotions and express them without fear of attack. If that could happen
    then the world would be a far happier and heatlhier place.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Eoin, thanks for redeeming that violent playground space a little by allowing yourself to be vulnerable here in this blog space. We need to be reminded that, although adults may have turned a blind eye when we were kids, we can do something different now. And I do think things are changing. Thanks for reminding us why they have to.

  • Candice Marquette

    This is the first day of school for my two boys. One a “jaded”fifth grader the other a nervous fresh kindergartner. This post arrived magically as if delivered by a Hogwarts owl, just in the nick of time, reminding me to buck the system and let them be complicated emotional curious humans. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Candice, I do hope they returned home happy and excited, but if they didn’t, it’s clear they had a mom waiting for them who was okay with them showing up just as they were. They’re blessed.

  • As the father of three 20-something young men, I truly appreciate this post. So true.

    Although I didn’t know enough when our boys were young to make these promises, I’m lucky to have a wife who had the understanding and ability to get the job done.

    My sense is that most of us men (young and old) could use a good “water main break” from time to time, or at least have a good conversation that matters with someone close to us.

    Thank you for these wonderful thoughts.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Don, I feel like I’m learning as I go, too. In my experience, your boys will always feel like your boys, no matter how old they get, and I imagine you all could still have some “water main breaks” in your future. : ) My best to all of you.

  • Clayre Thompson

    I grew up in a household of females. My Dad had 5 emotional “messy” girls. We blew up, made up and moved through. My Moms favorite expression was “You gotta go THROUGH it”. My husband was taught as you shared, still emotionally blank. I have taught to my own children what I learned. I did to know boys were not to be treated the same way, that they were it to be tender and sensitive. My eldest boy is in his late 20s and a caring and gentle man. My 11 year old is a “messy” emotional pre-teen who I hope to help to identify his feelings. (As I try to help his Father). Thanks for the confirmation that I am walking a good path.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Stay on the path, Clayre. Messy is real, and kids know it. It’s a blessing to have a parent who acknowledges it with them!

  • Lenora Johnson

    This is an excellent post! My husband, now deceased, was a wonderful, devoted, dedicated and faithful man who was also rigid. He never told anyone when he wasn’t feeling well, to do so would violate his need to always be a manly man. Every physical problem required the family to rush him into the emergency room. We reared three sons that never wanted to talk with their dad about anything except money management. Anything dealing with emotions was brought to me, their mother. Until they left home, I was careful to make that time a priority. Sometimes their father would become concerned about their silence and ask me to talk to them. He would say, “You are better at talking to them than I am.” A man can still be a manly man, maybe even more so, if he grows up knowing how to communicate.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lenora, it’s so good to hear from you. I have a real empathy for men in your husband’s generation. There were so few examples of men who were okay with feeling. Yet, his concern about their silence shows he was in tune with it. It’s changing with each generation.

  • William Gallagher

    Kelly, I am sending this to my four (40 something) children. They each have two children. Three of them are boys: eleven, five, and three. I wish I was taught this when I was a boy. But then, that was seventy years ago. Things are changing. Hooray!!! Rev. Bill G.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Bill, please give my best to your four children and (wow!) eight grandchildren. I love that you can wish you were taught it but still have compassion for yourself knowing you were not raised in a time when it was taught.

  • Jim Sando

    I wish I’d read this 30 years ago, when my eldest son was born. I was raised in the culture you describe and learned at an early age to keep my feelings from showing (although I wasn’t very good about it!). I tried not to raise my sons that way, but I probably didn’t do the best job at it and certainly never identified an effective way to overcome the influence of the culture upon them. If we saw/heard this message more frequently and from men who are considered male role models, it would be a tremendous improvement to our culture

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jim, all any of us can do is try our best with what we have. I hope your oldest is aware of how hard you were trying.

  • Cat Cavazos

    Wonderful! I’m so used to men hiding their feelings, that it’s quite common for me to forget that they feel just as I do.They really are few and far between in the circles I run in. I find it so endearing to have meaningful conversation with a man who has learned that it’s okay to express himself in a healthy way. It’s a learning curve for me; it takes getting used to and being comfortable expressing myself because they really do care as well; not a facade. Thx!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cat, thanks for this. It truly is an adjustment for all involved when men begin to express feelings. Everyone around them has to get used to this new, feeling person. But it’s definitely an adjustment worth making!

  • CJ

    Excellent post! May I add that boys would benefit from learning that girls’ expression of emotion is not weakness, a thing about which to be annoyed or a frightening mystery.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, CJ. I think sometimes in the effort to maintain the suppression, the emotion we see in others (including women) is a difficult reminder of what we carry around inside, so we have to criticize it in them.

  • Beautifully said, Kelly. I was 36 years old before I learned this lesson, and breaking through so many years of conditioning was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

    I’m doing my best to teach my son (and my daughter) he doesn’t have to live like a water main, that the heart of courage is not silence, but sharing; not putting ourselves above our emotions, but living fully in our messy selves.

    Thanks for helping me find the words!

    • drkellyflanagan

      “Breaking through so many years of conditioning was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” This is so, very true. I get to watch men do it every day. It’s downright courageous. Your children are fortunate to experience the fruits of your courage, Scott!

  • Kelly, I admit to holding my breath & wondering what your response to his tears were after you invited him into that loving space. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to his words and your words as the tears dried. This is often something I struggle with when a man shows me emotion like that. I thank them for being vulnerable, but it sometimes feels hard to not make something a bigger deal than it needs to be when a man cries. Watching anyone cry in your presence is hard, but it feels particularly meaningful when it’s a man. I wish this wasn’t so, but it is, at least for me. Thank you for another wonderful read and opportunity to reflect.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Rochelle, I know what you mean. When something feels rare, we tend to react strongly to it. In my experience, men often want what women want when they are emotional: to simply know you’re still there. Maybe that’s being there in silence, maybe a hug, but just something small that says your emotion isn’t going to scare me away.

      • Perfectly said, Kelly. I appreciate your perspective, and it’s something I will definitely keep in mind in the future. Less is more in this type of situation, I think. Thank you.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Emphatically, yes. My husband was raised in that space of masculinity that doesn’t allow for tears and vulnerability. My son is so connected to emotional life — his own and others — that it is crucial for all of us to be able to talk through, work through, and give each other our space to be our own selves through the ways we handle emotions.
    The playground will have the messages it will have. But we will not make our home a place that reinforces or remains quietly complicit in the cruel ways culture has coerced men into forfeiting the full range of their natural emotions in order to prove their worth.

  • Brooke

    I don’t think this article is limited to just males, but both girls and boys – men and women.

  • Karen

    WOW! This is incredible writing. As the mother of an 11 year old boy, I worry about these things. I think you are a good man to call the young boy back – it takes a strong man to do that. Thank you for the post!

  • Kiran

    Thank you Kelly! thisi s so well written and so to the point. Loved reading it specially as it resonates with what I am delving in these days.

  • Joan Cannon

    The men I knew early in my life were clearly products of this philosophy, but none of them had lived by it in any deep sense. They all tried to show what was expected, but never denied what was underneath. As in so much, compromise is the way to get through hard times, and it can be the track through a wilderness of ill intention and callous misery. A real man has the soul of a human being first.

  • Tim Wright

    Wow, well said. I know that there are still many little boys inside of me clinging to a lie, trying to protect myself. Learning to let those lies go and learning how to receive The Father’s Love has been the most painful but also the most rewarding part of my life. As older men, we are responsible as Stephen Mansfield says to protect children from the lies from a “broken culture” will try and perpetuate upon them. Be it the lie of porn, of power, being vulnerable is weakness, etc… Thanks for mining the pain of your own life that we may see the riches of Christ in you.

  • Mia

    As a mother of a boy I have come to realize quite a time ago that we don’t want our boys to be kids, we want them to be grown-ups straight away.
    What is the consequence of kids that a raised like this? They have no access to their feelings (if they are brave enough to grow them at all) and become cold and stiff, first on the outside and later on the inside. That’s what happened to my boys father as a child and made it impossible for him to live in a family where he would have to show his feelings sooner or later. So he chose to go and I let him go.
    Women usually complain about their “heartless” and cold partners and husbands but much too rare are the cases where a mother encourages her son to show emotions and to … lets keep it simple here… to feel for a start.
    I have decided to grant my son his right for feeling.
    When he falls off his bike, I take him on my lap until he feels better.
    When he loses a game and cries I tell him it’s OK to feel sad and that maybe he will win next time.
    When I feel sad I don’t hide from him, I let him witness my way to deal with emotions.
    From his very first day in my life I talked to him the way I would talk to a grown-up, using “Please”, “Thank You” and “I’m sorry”. That way those expressions came natural to him.
    And any time he wants he can comme over to me and climb into my arms, which he actually does every day followe by the words “I love you Mum”.

    SO WHAT if he wants to play with his best friend’s loom box or doll?
    Does that make him a worse “man”? What would a worse man be anyway?
    SO WHAT if other mom’s look at us as if we were some sort of aliens?
    I can at least tell that this kid is absolutely happy.

    Strangely he can play with his buddies just the same, he climbs onto every tree he sees, he broke his arm last year wrestling with his friend in pre-school, he plays football and loves “boy games”. So according to any measurements he is no “worse” boy because he is allowed to be himself.

    Besides: Feelings belong into our lives and hiding them will leave you dead on the inside sooner or later. Do we want that for our kids? I definitely do not.