Photo Credit: Sabine van Straaten, Unsplash.com

Written by Luke Iorio
August 14, 2019

“Be a man.”

“Man up.”

“Toughen up.”

These are the types of phrases that have filled conversations from boyhood through the teenage years and into adulthood for men for a long time.

I know these words well. I uttered them more than I can count or care to recall (or admit) through my younger years. I said them to others; and I said them over and over again to myself.

In my own journey, I did toughen up. I did what a good boy and a good man’s supposed to do—suck it up, keep it in, show strength, never let them see you sweat . . . and whatever you’re going through, it’s your problem and no one else’s, so deal with it.

Up until about eight years ago, the only use my body had was to be pushed for fitness or recreational purposes. I was disconnected from my body and emotions, and the connections I had in my head were of old stories and narratives of who I personally, socially, and culturally “should be” as a grown man.

These were a few of the key influences that led to good old burnout, tons of frustration, and feeling like “what’s this all for . . .” I found myself married with two children—the youngest a boy—and thinking, there’s got to be a better way; I want more for him.

I looked out at the state of the world today, keeping in mind my bright-eyed boy (and his sister) whom I was helping raise. If I was to truly serve them well as a parent, I knew I had to start figuring out my own sh!$&t.

The topic of masculinity is one that’s getting a lot more coverage and conversation today. I think it’s one that impacts not only parents and educators—and not just men either—it affects us all. We live in a relational, interconnected, and interdependent world. We need to figure these things out together.

I’ve seen enough to know and feel we, as families and society, could use a lot more understanding, a lot more listening, a lot more compassion, a lot more patience, a lot more kindness, a lot more benefit of the doubt, a lot more openness and space, and a lot more vulnerability, with a lot less bravado, ego, territorial, and tribal thinking. To do that, we need to look at the heart of masculinity and begin to understand it anew.

The combination of self exploration, a real desire and commitment to support my son and family, and the constant warning signs that were and are all over the media led me to really challenge myself and look at what needed to change.

A Starting Point: Raising a boy requires looking at yourself

Whether we want to talk parenting, leadership, or any type of relationship, the first step is looking in the mirror and coming at this with an inside-out approach—meaning that I needed to be aware that whatever was already inside my mind and heart is what would come out of me in the way of approach; and how did I want to rewire this more intentionally so that I could be more of the parent and father that I wished to be?

I began with questions such as:

  • What was it that I learned about parenting from my own parents—for better and for worse?
  • What were my actions, beliefs, and behaviors role-modeling to my children—for better and, yes, for worse?
  • What pressures was I feeling as a father about being a father and raising a boy? How were any of these impacting me?
  • What were some of the expectations, “shoulds,” masks, and other ways I “manned up” that served only to move me away from my true sense of self?
  • So who do I want to be as his father? And thus, what would that image of me believe?

These questions have helped me both look at the image of the father I wished to be for my children and to look at and get real about where the gaps existed in my awareness, beliefs, and behaviors. I began to open up (not overnight, mind you), and among the first things I noticed was that I had these things called “feelings.”

In all seriousness, feelings were something I had held back and at bay for a very long time in my life. I needed to consider that emotions were more than just a distraction. I found out that I had a body that could tell me a lot more than simply how hard I had worked out.

In time, as I felt what was truly present in my body and life, I sank back into my heart. I cried. I shared. I got vulnerable. And with each layer I peeled back, I felt more and more myself and like I was once again finding my center . . . finding what it felt like to be home . . . it’s as if I had moved out of myself years ago and it felt good to be back.

Creating Space for a Calm Mind, Open Heart

I found that being available and present to your children and loved ones begins with creating space—space between what’s occurring, what’s being felt and experienced, and how you then respond.

This sequence of an event, a feeling, and a reaction happens in milliseconds because of our conditioning. Our minds and nervous systems have already learned and been wired to react rapidly based on all the experiences you’ve already been through in your life. Your mind loves saving energy so it only rethinks it’s conditioning and response when it’s consciously asked to or forced to, because it’s been jarred awake. 

So, to change our conditioning and bring new awareness to how we wish to experience and be, we need to create space. Breathing and a deliberate focus on your various senses (and what they are experiencing at that moment) are two ways that you can slow yourself and your reactions down. We can intentionally take a few deep breaths (which calms our nervous system) and become present to whatever we’re feeling. We can consider, “is that feeling moving us toward how we’d like to show up or is it stemming from fear, anxiety, frustration, or resistance, and likely to create an adverse reaction out of stress?” We can breathe through those feelings for a moment if we need to. 

This isn’t a one-time practice. It takes repetition and reinforcement, and basic mindfulness meditation is also very helpful. 

However, in time (and usually a bit quicker than you may actually think), you start to create that space and a calmer mind that’s open and willing to slow down and become more aware and understanding before it puts you in motion.

That space and calmer mind allows you to see and listen to others with more openness as well, ultimately arriving at a place where your heart opens and your compassion emerges. 

Why this matters to parenting and raising boys?

You’ve heard it before—your children will learn from and mirror you from your actions to your emotional reactions, to your thoughts and beliefs. 

And you’ll begin to identify and switch an important dynamic that often arises. When our children test boundaries (and boys are quite gifted at doing this in ways that press on us in the early years), we often go into our own personal management—thinking about, “how can I get more peace and quiet? How can I get some time for myself? How can I make this moment more like I want it to be?” Instead of being present to the needs of our child at those moments. 

Our children are “relational machines” as Dr. Michael Reichert, author of How to Raise a Boy and founder and head of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives (a research collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania), describes in his recent interview on One Idea Away. They are wired to elicit responses to what they need. When we’re caught up in our own unresolved needs, we aren’t present to theirs. 

What Boys Truly Need 

Whether we’ve wanted to or not, the majority of us heard and bought into the generational paradigms that boys need to learn to be the independent, as lone wolves who can care for themselves. That “boys will be boys” when it comes to being rough and tumble. That they should toughen up and not show emotions. That moms shouldn’t coddle their children but instead be sure to push them out of the nest. 

As Reichert describes, we need to get out of the “man box”—the set of stereotypical traits we believe men should embody (like the above). 

Turns out, that’s not at all supporting our boys in the manner they actually need. What Reichert’s work has clearly shown is that connection is at the heart of boys growing up to become secure, more self confident, and be more true to themselves—even when that means not conforming to societal expectations for what a boy should be. 

Reichert summarizes his key finding that each boy needs “a relationship in which a boy can tell that he matters . . . a young man’s self confidence is not accidental or serendipitous but derives from experiences of being accurately understood, loved, and supported.”

Connection’s at the Heart of Parenting

Connection may seem perhaps a bit too simple or obvious as a focus, and nonetheless it remains the foundation of what our children—even our boys—truly need. 

As you reflect on what you want for your children and how you can support them in becoming the fullest expression of who they each uniquely are, consider these questions:

  • How can I deepen my connection with my children?
  • How can I be sure to be available and accessible to my children when they’re looking for it?
  • When I’m stressed or struggle to be present with my children, how can I recenter myself in those moments?
  • What practices or routines would help support my ability to be more present and connected with my children?
  • What are the qualities of the container I wish to create as a space for my children to grow in? How can I create that through action and language?

Allow these questions to create both a vision and the makings of a plan for how you’ll connect more deeply and powerfully with your children.

Hear more from Michael Reichert on the One Idea Away Podcast!

Photo Credit: Sabine van Straaten, Unsplash.com