What makes a man?

I am not one who pines for the “good old days” because I know that the good old days were not really so good. However, there are strengths and weaknesses to every generation and I want to talk about one of our era’s weaknesses: why do we seem to have a dearth of real men today when compared to the past?

To start, I am going to throw out a theory here and I will readily admit it is debatable. But when you contrast today’s American teenager to one of a few centuries ago, there is a very noticeable difference. In the past, boys had to work. Today, they play.

The prosperity of America has sort of created that shift. While in the past, children were needed on the farms and in the family businesses to help the family survive, today, children are playing sports and doing other activities that have nothing to do with work.

I want to be careful here because I am not anti-sports or any other of those extracurricular activities. However, let’s be honest: when considering the overall health of a child, it would be hard to argue that playing games is anything more than a poor substitute for significant work. Replacing nightly chores with Little League baseball practice is not really healthy.

I know I am trampling on American wisdom here and some of you won’t like what I am saying. But if you are considering how to develop a child into an adult, what is a better investment of their time: practicing for a meaningless game or doing significant work that teaches valuable skills and the weighty responsibility of contributing to a family’s well-being?

When a society replaces work for play, let’s face it: things are probably not going to turn out so well. And in our case, they haven’t. If a boy spends excessive time playing video games as a teenager, should it really be a shock that he is in his parents’ basement a decade later still playing video games? If he is never responsible for anything more than guarding home plate as a catcher in his baseball league, should we be surprised that he can’t be a responsible spouse and father when he is 30?

And as societal norms for children have changed, we have also conveniently rebuilt our perspective of what a real man is. Duck Dynasty and other entertainment has helped with that. We have learned that real men are tough men that hunt and fish. They know how to knowledgeably talk about sports. Real men have facial hair and love the second amendment and blowing things up. Real men have toys just like real boys but they are different toys like motorcycles and boats. Intelligence is optional but guns are not.

In other words, the “real man” today is just an extension of today’s teenage boy. The only thing that really has changed is the kind of play and as many of you women will attest, the increased cost of a man’s toys.

It is hard to write what I just did because it will make some of you uncomfortable. Some of you sound like the man I just described or maybe your spouse is. So let me reassure you one more time that I am not against any of those things. If you like to hunt and fish, go for it. If you like guns, shoot your guns. If you like motorcycles, have a motorcycle. I am not suggesting that my piano is in any way a superior investment to your motorcycle.

Just don’t think that those things have anything to do with whether you are a real man or not…

So what is a real man?

  • A real man knows the difference between work and play.
  • A real man prioritizes correctly between the unimportant and the important. He does not play when he should be working.
  • A real man respects women as equals rather than toys, objects, or property to lorded over.
  • A real man accepts his role in society and the responsibilities that go with it. Here are examples of what that means. It means that even if he has the option of staying in his parent’s basement playing video games, he doesn’t. It means that he chooses to be a husband rather than casual dater. He chooses to be an active father if kids come along.
  • A real man owns his responsibilities and accepts failures without blame shifting and excuses.
  • A real man does not take what he does not earn.

I once read a book called “A Day No Pigs Will Die” that always comes back to me when I think about these things. It describes the difficulties of the Great Depression and is full of stoic Quaker wisdom about how to deal with those difficulties. Here are a few quotes in that book that have stuck with me. They describe perfectly what being a real man really is. Contrast this wisdom against what we are seeing today.

“Need” is a weak word. Has nothing to do with what people get. Ain’t what you need that matters. It’s what you do.

That’s what being a man is all about, boy. It’s just doing what’s got to be done.

If I had to sum it up what I think a real man is in a few words, it would be just this: a real man is a man that does what he has to do.

It is that simple…