Construction vehicles, matchbox cars, balls, and Legos fill the toy baskets of my home and have become my daily tripping hazards. I have both the great privilege and the great challenge of raising two boys. As a mother, it is my job to help them grow to become kind, godly men and lights in this world. The world will constantly be countering these efforts, buffeting them with its own messages, from peers and social media to entertainment and the workplace. What the world has to offer our boys is not enough. It is not equipping them to love and serve others, to flourish, or be strong in spirit.
In our current culture, masculinity is often defined by physical strength, cold stoicism, and stubborn independence. This definition puts masculinity in a box that limits what God designed men to truly be. Raising boys is really about raising virtuous human beings, encouraging them to grow in humility, perseverance, sacrifice, and compassion. Raising boys is about pointing them to the example of Jesus who was fully a man in this world, just as he was fully God. As a man, Jesus sought out community, helped others, was tender hearted, compassionate, and sacrificed himself for humanity. This picture of manhood is just as counter-cultural today as it was then. Like Jesus, a true man engages with his internal emotional life and moves outward towards others in a life of service.
The world espouses a kind of masculinity ruled by physical and emotional toughness. Boys are encouraged to show no weakness, to “man up,” never cry, and need help from no one. The problem here lies in seeing emotions as inherently weak. God created all human beings, both male and female, with emotions. He created us to love Him and love others. It is through our emotional life, through our sufferings, sorrows, and joys, that we come to understand our deep need for God and others.
As a man, Jesus engaged with his emotions when he wept after hearing of Lazarus’s death (John 11:35). He engaged with his emotions when he had compassion on the crowds and fed them (Matthew 9:36). He reminded the disciples through parables and through the way he lived that what the world considers weakness is really strength, that “the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16). In a world that discourages boys from expressing or even having emotions, parents must encourage their sons do the hard work of engaging with their inner emotional life to grow in character and in relationship with God and others.
In his book Raising Emotionally Strong Boys, David Thomas writes extensively about how parents can encourage their boys to grow emotionally. He notes that this work is especially difficult not only because of the messages the world sends them, but because “boys have a strong tendency to fall back into emotionally lazy responses” including “numbing out” and melting down. He goes on to emphasize that boys in particular “have a lot of physicality to their emotions. It’s why toddler-aged boys are more prone to biting, hitting, kicking, and screaming. Teenaged boys are more prone to yelling and punching walls or kicking doors.” These physical outbursts are the manifestation of emotions that need to be understood and dealt with in healthier ways. It is our job as parents to help our boys find positive outlets for the emotional energy that builds within them.
I have a front row seat to this reality in my own home. In my experience, the key to offering positive outlets has been paying close attention to what my toddler’s negative reactions indicate about his inner workings and needs. This helps me know how best to redirect his physical actions into something constructive rather than destructive. There are moments where my toddler wants to push and hit because he is looking for attention and connection. When I notice he is being too playfully aggressive, I encourage him to ask for a high five or first bump instead. This fulfills his need to expel some energy and connect without hurting anyone.
If a boy is upset and his reaction is to throw and kick, a parent may tell him to go outside and shoot hoops or kick a soccer ball. Parents who offer these alternatives may begin to see their child create his own positive outlets as he matures, such as running to let out frustration and anger, breathing through road rage, or counting to ten before responding in an emotionally charged conversation. Creating healthy habits like these will serve him for a lifetime.
As boys learn to engage with their emotions and release them in positive ways, parents should also encourage them to look beyond themselves to the needs of others, finding joy and purpose in service. Jesus, though he was the son of God, “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He washed his disciples’ feet, cared for the hungry and sick, and valued women and children. True masculinity leads with love and humility, seeing where there are needs and stepping in to fill them.
Encouraging our boys to look outwards to the needs of others begins in the youngest years with how we model service to them and how they imitate us in play. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Play is really the work of childhood.” My two year old loves to follow me around the house with his toy broom and mop, helping me clean and complete various household tasks. He will take care of his baby doll, just as I care for his little brother, and cook lunch in his toy kitchen. Though we often associate housework and childcare with women, many men will become fathers and share in these responsibilities and duties as well. Stepping in and serving shows humility as well as responsibility and leadership.
I hope to instill all these qualities and more in my boys, fighting against the picture of manhood that the world adopts. As David Thomas puts it, “We are fully masculine when we feel deeply, grieve deeply, and connect with our longings. We are our best selves when we acknowledge our need for God and others.” This is the manhood I want for my boys.