Dear Pops, how do I raise my son to be strong but not a jerk?
Every month I'll answer a question from a reader or one of my sons.
Pops, as you know, Nicole (his wife) and I have been very thoughtful about how we raise our son, who is now seven. I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts on parenting, and she’s probably binged on a couple hundred by now.
But recently I’ve been struck with the desire to make sure I raise my boy with strong, masculine values. I want to train him to be disciplined and hardworking and tough. I want him to treat others with respect and kindness. I don’t want to pander to him or spoil him. I want him to be strong and strong-minded.
I’m not sure why this hit me so hard recently. Maybe it was a podcast I listened to, or it could be that I taught junior high school for ten years—a place that seems to push sameness and softness. Being surrounded by those voices made me question the very idea of healthy masculinity. But now that I’ve been away from that for six months, I’m seeing it differently.
Having said all that, I also don’t want to raise a jerk either. I want him to be kind and compassionate and humble in his strength.
I know this is a big ask, and maybe I’m overthinking this thing, but how do I find that balance? How do raise him to be a strong man?
Dear Jess, (37)
No, you’re not overthinking this. This is good stuff and important stuff and something you are doing well to think about.
Let me begin by peppering you with a couple direct answers:
· He’s your son. You can raise him however you want.
· Balance is the key here. Masculinity can be toxic or terrific. A humble, strong, self-aware man is a beautiful thing. (As is a humble, strong, self-aware woman.)
· Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You can exert a lot of influence, true. But you know from our own relationship, he will be the man he chooses to be.
Well, as I’m prone to do, I’m going to oversimplify this. But in doing so, I think I may be right on this one. You ready for it? Have I baited you enough? Well, here it is…
You already pretty much know how to do it. Let me go one further: I’d say that 90% of the answers are already residing inside of your (and your wife’s) brain and gut. And the last 10%? They will come from things like this letter, podcasts, and observing the world around you.
Practically, I think more will be caught than taught. He will catch it by seeing you bust your ass to provide for your family, by seeing the strength and tenderness with which you treat his mother, by seeing where you draw the line on truthfulness, and by seeing the depth of your convictions about right and wrong. He will catch it by seeing the tirelessness of your service to others who are less fortunate, by seeing your willingness to apologize when you mess up, and by seeing your commitment to taking care of your temple (your body).
Let’s talk about that “wife” part of the answer. You need her perspective, her angle, her reaction to things because they will likely be very different from yours. Listen to her. Add her reactions and thoughts to the mix. Let them influence how you father. It doesn’t mean you do it her way all the time, but it does mean you think about it and pray about it and let her thoughts marinate in your brain and heart.
My one caution: When you get pissed and want to wring his neck and take him out to the woodshed and read him the riot act and (lemme think of a few other old cliches), stop, think, and “take a chill-pill,” as you used to tell me. And I say this because this is the main thing I did wrong with you and your brothers. I let my temper flare and get the best of me and made me do things I regretted later. Anger is not masculinity. Humiliating someone is not masculine. Passion under control, is.
You may remember when you left the house for a few nights after we’d had a doozie of a fight over the Winter Formal when you were 16. (Yeah, sorry to bring up that painful memory.) Anyway, when I saw you a couple nights later after you played in that basketball game, I stared you down and growled under my breath and told you that if you ever did that again you’d never play another game of basketball. It was too mean. I was too angry. It was just too spiteful. How I handled you didn’t make you more of a man—it just made you hate me for a couple years. Try not to repeat that with your son.
And yes, your caution to make sure you don’t raise a jerk is a good one. But just by you saying that shows me you are self-aware and cognizant that there is a dark side to masculinity. I know that you value tenderness and thoughtfulness and compassion and humility. Those attributes, all paired with strength, or whatever attribute you want to give masculinity, are about as attractive as a man can get. Your son will see this by the grace you give other drivers on the road, by the kindness you give service people at the house, by the respect you give customer reps on the phone, and by the judgyness you have toward people who are very different from you.
You, my son, are a good man. I have no doubt that you will raise a good man. Think about this stuff. Pray about it. Study about it.
One last thing. Try, as hard as you can, to be just a scintilla removed from him and his actions. Especially as he gets older. Do it so you can relax and laugh and delight in the unique individual he chooses to become. Try not to feel he is a direct reflection on you or your parenting. Yes, he is yours now and shares your DNA, but one day, like you are to me, he won’t just be your son, he’ll also be your friend and your brother.