What does it mean to be a man? This is a question I ask myself often when I consider my role as husband and father. Is being a man a reflection of how much money we earn? Or the type of car we drive? Is genuine masculinity measured by sexual conquests or how much we can drink or our ability to tear a phonebook in half with our bare hands? I certainly can’t tear phonebooks in half. So what does being a man and embracing a masculine identity mean? Before fully answering that question, it is important to look at how we learn to be men. This starts with our fathers.
The relationship between father and son is a critical one. All children grow up. There are no real life Peter Pans. Given enough time, boys will become men. The sort of men they will become largely depends on the examples they see. As the boy grows older, he begins to leave childhood and attempts to enter into the world of men. The first person they naturally turn toward to assist them in navigating this transition is their father. Fathers can unintentionally make this transition more difficult for their sons. Fathers who are absent (physically or emotionally) can leave a child feeling adrift. If there is no father present, who will serve as a role model for the son? Fathers who are overly harsh or aggressive can come across as rejecting, especially if the son isn’t overly physical, but is a quieter boy or is more interested in creative and artistic pursuits that athletic ones. Fathers must be present and willing to connect with their sons, meeting them where they are rather than demanding that the son becomes a carbon copy of his father.
Speaking personally, I’m grateful to my father for the job he did in managing to connect with me and my two younger brothers. The three of us were very different kids in a lot of ways, each with different interests and personalities. The youngest was a seminarian who later ended up in the Army, the middle one was a heavy metal drummer who studied to be a grade school teacher, and I worked in TV before starting my doctorate in psychology. Clearly, three different lives being led by equally different people. Dad was different from all of us too. He was (and still is) a big man. A football player in college who went on to become an engineer, and has now found his calling chasing a dozen cattle around a small ranch in Texas. But my dad always reached out to meet us where we were. He made time for us, both individually and with the three of us together. We had Saturday trips downtown where we’d go to a favorite comic book store or explore Chinatown. These adventures, which my father called “Man Time” accomplished three things – one, we were able to spend time together; two, we were able to see what we had in common despite of our differences, and three, we learned more about who our father was as a man.
It’s important for boys to spend time together, in a healthy and appropriate way. It’s how boys learn from each other, and also learn from the positive male role models in their lives. This is why team sports or youth groups can be helpful. It gives boys and opportunity to be together, under the guidance of someone who is genuinely interested in them growing into men of strong character. And in being together, we can begin to understand that we can each be the men that God calls us to be despite being different people. In spending those Saturdays with my brothers, I was able to see the things we had in common, rather than focus on the ways in which we were different. Focusing on differences can lead to negative comparisons against others (he’s stronger than I am, he’s smarter than I am) and an increasing isolation. When we were together, it was easier to see the overlap between us – our shared absurd sense of humor, our love for science fiction, and an appreciation of world cuisine. But it was in watching my father that I learned the most. I understood that genuine masculinity wasn’t a number in a bank account, or the ability to shout the loudest. Instead true masculinity is protecting and providing for your loved ones. It’s a measure of a man’s generosity, gentleness, and honesty over worldly accolades. True masculinity is loyalty and perseverance in the face of a world that speaks in narcissistic whispers. And these traits of genuine masculinity are perfected in the examples of Christ and St Joseph, true and good role models for all men, no matter their physical size, strength, or net worth.
Ultimately, in a father’s efforts to help his son become a man, what he is doing is assisting his son to embrace his God given gifts and talents, whatever they may be, and accept that he has dignity as a man made in God’s image and likeness.
Dr. Horne is Director of Clinical Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) in 2009, where he specialized in child therapy and wrote his doctoral dissertation on violent video games and their impact on the player. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, Dr. Horne worked in television at KVR9 in Austin, Texas and Houston PBS. Dr. Horne has experience working in several Catholic mental health clinics including Catholic Social Services in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Alpha Omega Clinic in Fairfax. He has also had the opportunity to serve as a school counselor within the Diocese of Arlington. He is the author of The Tech Talk: Strategies for Families in a Digital World (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017). Dr. Horne and his wife, Kara, live in Fredericksburg with their three children and are parishioners at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. (Bio taken from the Diocese of Arlington website)