Wednesday 16 January 2019

Can we really make a different kind of man?

Beneath the chaos, a new masculinity is being born, and not a second too soon, writes author and psychologist Steve Biddulph

Each culture passes on its ideal of manhood, but that can quickly fall out of sync with the needs of the time and place. We are at such a time now. Stock image
Each culture passes on its ideal of manhood, but that can quickly fall out of sync with the needs of the time and place. We are at such a time now. Stock image

Steve Biddulph

Even in our globalised times, you still see it. Different parts of the world create different kinds of man. Londoners are different to Dubliners. A Senegalese is not like a Canadian, and even within a country or a city there are clear and distinct kinds of male - the corporate, the artistic, the nurturing, the dangerous.

We can call these "masculinities" - acknowledging that beyond individual variations there are also package deals in how to walk inside a male skin.

Each culture passes on its ideal of manhood, but that can quickly fall out of sync with the needs of the time and place. We are at such a time now.

How to be a man is an enormous issue because we are having such problems with masculinity, from a world-endangering US president to the mass shootings and terror incidents across the world, and back home to the predatory sexuality of rugby players.

Newspapers could use the same headline every day - More Trouble with Men.

I've spent a lifetime on this problem and I think we know how to solve it, though that's not to diminish the scale of the task. In our society, masculinity is handed down to boys in a bizarre and dysfunctional way.

Five generations ago, as the industrial mode of life swept the world, two things changed. Men were pulled away from family and community, into workplaces that pretty much ate up their lives.

And wars became industrial in scale, so that almost every second generation were caught up in distant conflicts which, if they survived, turned them into hollow-eyed wrecks with massive emotional damage that we now know as PTSD.

We'd always had problems with maleness, but in the last two centuries, it all came to a head on a very personal level that we all recognise from our own childhoods.

Men disappeared, both emotionally, and physically, from the lives of children, and we are only just getting them back.

Manhood has to be actively transmitted and taught, by both women and men.

But in researching my book Raising Boys in the 1990s, I found that the time fathers spent with children in conversation or play averaged less than eight minutes a day.

Girls survived this with some diminished self-worth, but boys were hammered because they simply did not see enough of how to be a man, the interior world of male feeling was blocked to them.

A typical 20th-century man was like a log of wood, mute and distant except when he blazed out in violent rage.

Alcohol was an essential vitamin. When he spoke to his son at all it was with spirit-crushing coldness.

The average boy matured on the outside, a tender little boy's body turned into a big adult one, but we were not given the software of how to do manhood from the inside.

As a young man, I felt an enormous hole inside me every waking second, and the men I have worked with across the world all say the same.

We had no idea how to do male, but we had to do it anyway.

So to deal with this, we clamped on a mask and hoped no one would see past it. In the mid-teens, most boys look at the available range of standard masks, try out a couple, and then clamp on the one that seems most successful.

Then they live with it the rest of their lives.

There are four or five standard (Irish?) masks:

The hard man, raised in surroundings where looking soft will guarantee a beating. The cool dude, sunglasses atop his head. The hard-working go-getter. The loveable funny guy, often alcohol dependent and at high risk for suicide.

Even gay males can find themselves trapped in a "type".

The masks do a terrible thing to young men - they isolate even as they protect.

A boy in a mask has no true friends. His parents feel him slipping out of reach.

When these boys become adults, the women and children they love get no sense of connection, and soon their families start to fall apart.

It's no accident that we males have problem lives.

Nine times more likely to go to prison. Many times more likely to harm others or ourselves.

But enough of the gloom! This was the past, and thankfully it's falling behind us now.

Men and boys are undergoing change today on a scale comparable to what women did through feminism, breaking out of the old straitjackets.

Soon we will see boys developing into diverse, rich and, above all, authentic men, especially in the ability to show emotion, be close, be warm and alive.

Parents today are determined that their sons be able to cry, be vulnerable, and see women as friends not enemies.

Today's fathers are spending treble the amount of time with their children, and the signs are good for a proper passing on of healthy maleness to our sons, and self-esteem to our daughters.

The revolution we are seeing in sexual identity is widening the spectrum of how to be oneself so there is more authenticity and less pretending.

There is such a thing as healthy and life-affirming masculinity, and it takes many forms.

At this pivotal time, it has never been more needed, or more possible.

Do what you can to bring it about.

Steve Biddulph's new book Raising Boys in the 21st Century will be released later this month. Steve is the author of 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys. Complete Secrets of Happy Children and The New Manhood. Visit for details

Sunday Independent

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