The Man Factor

(Continued from yesterday.)  So why do young men seem so stunted in their development?

First, the demands on young men are few and easy.  Whereas a boy of 13 might have been expected to go on a hunt or even into battle centuries ago, the boys of today are engaged in fun but inconsequential projects.  They play, doing few things that count as work.  Or worse, they interact only with a video game, shutting out even the rough-and-tumble world of rowdy boys vying for recognition as the toughest, the fastest, the smartest.

By the time I get them in my classes, only a precious few show signs of having been tested in any meaningful way.  Genuine failure, the birthplace of resilience, is a novel idea.  They expect that doing X always results in Y.  Studying the number of hours (minutes?) they are “supposed” to in itself justifies the A.  No matter that the assignment was a grammatical disaster and a logical pretzel.

I had a young man recently come to me to contest a grade.  This is rare in the extreme in my classes, mostly because I invite them to discuss their grades at any time during the semester.  I also make it clear that asking for reconsideration is fine when accompanied by a cogent argument.  Begging for a grade because one “needs” it is not.  I think it is the “cogent” part that discourages them.  Either they realize they do not have a cogent argument or they are too lazy to look the word up.

This student had missed an A by a small amount and attributed it to having missed the deadline on one of my online exams.  I had already told several students “no makeup” for exactly the same issue earlier in the semester.  My explanation fell on deaf ears.  Classroom justice did not matter, really.  When his suggestion to go back and give those folks a break was met with scorn, he changed tactics and suggested that he rated an A because he cared enough to raise the issue with me.  No amount of reasoning satisfied him.  In frustration, he finally blurted, “I don’t make B’s!”

Then I knew.

This poor soul had never failed, even to the extent of getting a B.  I strenuously avoid sarcasm or harshness with my students, but in this case, I was exceptionally blunt.  “Well, you did this time.”

I remember the bitter taste of my first significant failures–losing a speech contest, not making the baseball team, and then later failing to make important sales or bring in enough money to pay the bills.  It was not fun.  It was not, at least at the time, a “lesson to be learned.”  It was failure.  It hurt, it stank, and it stayed with me.  In the end, though, swallowing and digesting it was the nourishment I needed to become a man.  Will this young man ever swallow that bitter herb?  Somehow I doubt it.

Second, young men have few examples of manhood to follow.  I am an easygoing father.  My sons and I enjoy a lighthearted and fun relationship.  We can because from the time they breathed air, Cindy and I insisted they call us “sir” and “ma’am” in a time when that was unheard of.  They are allowed to tease, rib, and joke, but never disrespect or argue with us.  We listen to them, we let them know that their point of view is valued, but we do not pretend they know as much as we do.  In short, we are the adults; they are the children.

When I interact with them, I let them (actually I push them) to figure things out on their own.  When they ask me how to do something, I give them a couple of tips and then reassure them that they have everything they need to figure the rest out.  When they get stuck, I give them only as much guidance as they need not to cave in.  Countless times, the frustration of pounding away at a problem for hours has given way to the elation that only victory brings–the math problem solved, the light bulb changed, a new personal record in sit-ups reached.

They are not achievement junkies.  They are two young men learning to be two grown men, the kind that stay with it until the job is done.  I know it is working because they show it.  My youngest is not all that fond of math.  He finds pre-algebra a challenge.  Last semester, he started asking me to take him to school early so he could work with his teacher on problems he could not solve the night before.  I told him that I would carry him there on my back if I had to in order to support his manly and responsible decision.  There is simply no substitute for the look you get from your son when he hears from you a genuine man-to-man compliment.

I contrast all this with what I see on the baseball diamond and in the community.  I see fathers pushing their sons for all the wrong reasons, usually to make up vicariously for their own shortcomings.  I see those that don’t care at all, biding their time on the sides while their sons learn and grow without them.  I see sons challenging their fathers in public, arguing with their fathers in public, holding scornful and contemptuous gazes at someone they barely consider human, much less a man to emulate.

Men are not men anymore.  They fear being seen as arrogant, vicious, or even violent.  The general culture has harangued them for decades now with messages of yielding and pliability, rather than firmness and resolve.  They are told that women want soft, sensitive men, that wanting to be tough is a silly “macho” aspiration–one that makes the world harsh and mean.  They slouch and hunker down hoping that no one will notice that the spirit of their true natures has passed them by and that the new rules of false manliness will buoy them up.  Deep down they know it is a lie and they die on the inside long before they are buried.

Our society has taken on this faux manliness.  We no longer ask ourselves how to fix things.  We ask why they aren’t fixed for us, usually by the government.  We do not ask what is required of us to make things better, we shove the responsibility off on others, and at that never meet our proposed benefactors face-to-face.  Perish the thought that we should approach someone with self-respect and say, “I need help, but by god I will bring everything I have to the effort.”  Instead, we embrace the vague notion that someone else or something else is supposed to take care of things, just like Mom did.

Of course, we don’t couch it in precisely those words.  If we did, we would realize that Mom isn’t here anymore, that the nursery is a graveyard we visit in our waking dreams, and that our longing to be taken care of has poisoned us, kept us in the dark, kept us childish, and is now poisoning our offspring.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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