Within the African Caribbean community, mums are generally expected to play a vital role in preparing their daughters as future wives and mothers, and helping them understand society’s construct of their feminity and its expectations. However, when it comes to our young men, our role in this regard is rather transient. We ought to be able to help our sons to positively define and articulate their manliness, particularly as it pertains to being a good husband and father. Several reasons why we need to rethink our approach include:
- The dynamics of the husband-wife relationship is evolving and remarkably different from what it was 20 years ago; men can’t be palpably high-handed as family leaders.
- The divorce rate amongst churchgoing Christians is exceptionally high (Barna Research Survey, 2008).
- High suicide rates among young males.
- Domestic abuse within Christian marriages is being described as a silent epidemic. (I am not suggesting in any way, that this is solely down to men and their upbringing. However, they are real issues that demand innovative solutions.)
The Bible offers examples of mothers who brought up their sons in a particular fashion to ensure that they were fit for purpose and that their divine destinies were fulfilled, eg. Hannah and Samuel; Samson and his (unnamed) mother; Elizabeth and John the Baptist. Hence, we can reasonably extrapolate that a Christian mother ought to pay attention to bringing up her son to be fit for his purpose as a husband and father.
How do we do this?
I am going to assume that spiritual solutions, like praying with/over them, regular church attendance, Bible studies, pastoral oversight, etc. have already been established, so I will focus on hands-on approaches that we can take on board.
Firstly, we need to get rid of the mentality that only fathers can help our sons define and navigate their masculinity. Of course, dads play a significant role, but we have our unique role as well. We should expose our sons to strong female role models. Too many of our young men are reliant on the Media’s portrayal of women as their only source of knowledge about women, and of how they are to be treated. The music and film industry presents blatant messages that exemplify women as sexual objects, as stupid objects to be toyed with. Some computer games project subliminal violence that includes taunting and teasing of women. An effective way to counter these affecting portrayals is to expose boys in their formative years to lots of positive, strong females, ie. females other than mum. An emotionally healthy man (and ultimately husband) can identify and relate to competent women; some of whom are his equals, and some whom he considers unashamedly to be his superior. This is rather crucial to the upcoming generation of men; not least because, increasingly, today’s girls are incredibly smart, socially empowered and financially independent.
We can influence and help our young men with their body image and behaviour.
Body: Mums often erroneously think boys do not care about their appearance, and some even believe that it is vain to spend good money on their clothes, ie. that anything will do. I used to be one of those, but I’m now reformed. In reality, most boys care deeply about their appearance. Generally, there is an entrenched view that a manly look is athletic, muscular and strong. Very few men meet these criteria, however, and mothers need to be understanding and helpful when their sons feel the need to join a gym, or engage in activities that promote body image. Part of his function as a husband is to treat his wife’s body with honour as he would his own. It is therefore imperative that he considers his own body and treats it with honour.
‘In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the Church’ Ephesians 5:28-29 (NIV).
We must show an interest in their clothing, helping them choose clothes that accentuate their manly features. We should affirm them by paying them compliments, and encourage them to be happy with their bodies and to take care of them. Impress on their minds that cleanliness and smart clothes are important in defining manliness and being attractive to godly women.
Behaviour: Boys again associate manliness with behaviours that suggest being in control and acting tough. They often interpret being in control to mean ‘controlling’ and being tough to a ‘bad boy’ image. We should be careful not to encourage the thinking that being kind and caring equates to being soft and unmanly. Neither should we allow our sons to feel judged, feel inadequate or any form of awkwardness whenever they do articulate their softer side, like engaging in activities like cooking, sewing, shopping or wanting to cuddle a teddy; or when we observe them reveal tender feelings towards their girlfriends, sisters or female relatives. We should encourage them to express affection in meaningful ways, helping them understand concepts of affection from a female perspective.
Boys adore heroism, and there are two parts to this. The first is having a hero that they look up to. It might be a real one, eg. dad, or a mythical one, eg. Superman. Boys emulate their hero. They want to be able to do what he does and earn his praise. We can help them to build a stock of men from different walks of life to emulate, eg. teachers, sportsmen, politicians, pastors, uncles, etc. We should take time to tell our sons about men whom we respect and why. In other words, use these role models to challenge their view of what a hero is, and use such discussions to interject the feminine perspective. When it comes to heading up a home, heroes are the ones who care for their families emotionally and financially in equal measure. Also, it is imperative that we constantly tell our young men positive but truthful things about their dads – particularly the absent ones.
The second part of heroism is that boys like to think of themselves as a hero. Hence, they strive to win at everything – be it games, academics, careers or financial success. Sadly, this need to be a hero can result in behaviours that range from showing off to being a clown to being a bully – incessantly demanding respect. Winning or being a ‘knight in shining armour’ matters to females, but less than men think. Good women often choose and respect a perpetually sensitive and supportive man over any ‘Del Boy’. We can inculcate this type of thinking into our sons.
Lastly, we should guard against deifying our sons, thereby producing a mini-god whose every little whim must be honoured; order has to be obeyed, and ego constantly stroked. He then tends to construe female interests (or indeed his wife) as being disrespectful or ungrateful, when they do not show enthusiasm for his passions or interests. At an emotional level, he might even feel rejected, and his attempts to resist could lead to domestic abuse, depression or suicide. It is right for a mother to pay attention to her son’s manly pride, to honour it; to esteem his problem-solving abilities, and communicate with him in a way that does not belittle his heroic inclinations. However, this needs to be balanced.
I hope that this article helps us reflect on our approach to helping young men define masculinity and navigate their function as future husbands and fathers.