The idea for this article has been percolating in my head for a while now, and I’ve caught on to the fact that if it doesn’t go away after a while I’d better do something with it. I’m a sometime observer of popular culture and society, and it seems to me that one of the most pressing and unrecognized problems with modern western society, particularly in the US, is that men do not know what it means to be a man. Let me explain first of all that while the terms are often used interchangeably, being a male is not the same as being a man. Male is your sex and it’s something you have no control over, you were born into it. Being a man however, is not something you automatically are but rather something you become. This article will be about what it means to be a man, and contains things I would want to pass on to a son of my own someday.
Traditionally it has been the father’s role to pass this on, both by precept and even more importantly, example. However, it is my given opinion that over the last 40 years or so the conduct of males has been deteriorating sharply, due to (among other things) poor examples given by fathers or the complete absence of a father overall. As a result the family unit has weakened, divorce rates are exceptionally high and the moral decay of society continues. Not all of this can be laid solely at men’s feet of course, but we often underestimate the cumulative effect we can have on others.
There are a couple of basic premises I need to state. First, the basic unit of society is the family, not the individual. It is the will of the Lord to strengthen and preserve the family unit. Why? All individuals come from and are influenced by the family environment in which they were raised. The strength and emotional health of our families directly influence society as a whole. This means if families are strong and have healthy emotional bonds, societal values tend to reflect this on every level. If families are weak and tend to be dysfunctional or largely “broken,” societies tend to follow as well. In families the farther and mother set the tone. In my opinion, in general women are doing a better job at being wives and mothers than men are at being good husbands and fathers. So to begin: what qualities does a man need to have?
A man has integrity. This is the very bedrock of being a man. One of my favorite quotes is by Alan K. Simpson. He says, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” Wikipedia does a decent job of defining it: the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions. It means that we do what we say, and we say what we do. Real men always tell the truth. For most of the world’s history there were not a ton of contracts and paperwork associated with an agreement. People made a verbal agreement and shook hands and that was considered binding. It was accepted that a man’s word was his bond. In an ideal society there would be almost no need for contracts because people would not lie. In everyday life make your standard that you will always tell the truth. This includes if you say you will do something, you do it. You should not be required to say “I promise” to mean it, whether it’s as simple as taking the garbage out or as meaningful as honoring your marriage vows. You can’t control if others lie or not, but you can control if you do. In reality this makes life easier, not more difficult. If you’ve made the decision to tell the truth you don’t have to think about it when a situation presents itself. You don’t have to keep track of your lie, or go to any length to keep it from being discovered. Now none of us are perfect. If you do lie, the right thing to do is to go back and tell the truth. If you said you will do something and then didn’t, go do it. If it’s too late, at least apologize for not keeping your word. Your life will be happier and simpler as a result. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, we all make them and they’re a large part of how we learn. Included in this is always owning up to your mistakes. When you make a mistake, immediately own up to it and apologize. Never attempt to shift the blame to another. This is all part of having integrity and will also avoid a ton of trouble in your life. A good rule is to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Always look people right in the eye when you talk to them.
A man has self-control. A man without self-control is at the mercy of his environment and his passions; he is ultimately controlled by others and is enslaved. I’ll give some examples of self-control. Learn how to control your tongue–swearing is wrong. It drives away the Spirit of the Lord. It means you either don’t know how to express yourself other than with vulgarity, or lack the self-control to do so. If you tell this to someone who cusses frequently and they say they can stop anytime, ask them not to cuss at all for one week. They won’t be able to. It used to be the case that swearing was something people didn’t do all the time, believe it or not. Others will notice if you refrain from swearing and will respect it–you’ll be surprised, I have been. Controlling your tongue also means curbing how you speak to others. Do not insult or demean others, ever. Don’t call other people names, do not be vulgar in how you talk to others, especially women.
Learn how to control your drinking. This can be difficult as drinking is so widely accepted today–indeed, it’s a cultural norm. Best is not to drink at all; if you must drink do so sparingly on special occasions, and never drink to drunkenness. Domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape and of course drunk driving are all strongly correlated with alcohol use. It destroys your judgment and can destroy your life also. Surround yourself with friends who have similar values and you will find it easier.
Learn how to control your anger. A sad sight is one where a man lets his anger rule him and not the other way around. He can lose his job, his wife, and even his life. Anger is a choice and can become a habit. The next time you find yourself getting angry, try laughing instead. It sounds simplistic but it is very effective, and is a much better habit to be in. There are many good ways to deal with anger, learn what they are.
Learn how to delay gratification. This means putting off the receipt of an immediate reward in order to gain a better reward later. Some examples: owning a “beater” car because it is paid for and requires only liability insurance; putting what’s left of your paycheck in the bank to fund something that is meaningful and worthwhile, even if you have no idea what that might be; renting a modest apartment for now and saving for a down payment on a house vs. a really nice apartment now and not saving for a down payment. You will avoid debt and lead a more stress-free and satisfying life by delaying gratification.
Control your sex drive. You should be in control of it, not it in control of you. Don’t put yourself in situations where your self-control will be tested, such as a strip club or a party where there will be vulnerable drunk women. Women do not exist just to be sexual playthings for men, and that applies later when you are married too. A man who has that kind of weakness for women is still a boy, not a man. Some women don’t treat themselves with respect–treat her with respect even if she does not. This leads to my next point:
Real men always treat others with respect. This is part of self-control as well. The golden rule is one that should often be in your mind. Would I want someone else treating me like this? If the answer is no, then don’t do it yourself. Be trustworthy. Don’t steal. Don’t use others that are vulnerable–animals do this because they don’t know any better, not men. Treating folks with respect gets harder when others treat us disrespectfully. Think about it though: if you lower your conduct to match others’, then you demean yourself–you’ve let that person manipulate you. The goal is not to change your standards to meet other people’s, but to be true to yourself and invite others raise their standards to meet yours. Treating others with respect also includes always returning things you borrow, or replacing them if you cannot. Self-control is rewarding and one of the keys to being a man; those around you, especially your family, will be influenced for the better as a result. Being respectful does not mean censoring your own opinion, however. Always speak your mind, but try to be tactful in doing so.
A man provides for himself and his family. You have the responsibility to provide for and to nurture the family with your wife. This means holding a steady job that results in financial stability. This is not the most important role a husband or a father has (contrary to popular belief) but it is one of the most important ones. In the competitive climate in which we live this typically means going to college or a trade/vocational school. Get your education and find a career that you enjoy and that will enable your family to live in security. Do not bounce from job to job chasing glory, money or anything else. Sometimes in a family your wife will also work, but it’s possible to provide so that she can if she chooses to, not because she has to. Occasionally we get laid off from work or circumstances beyond our control result in us being temporarily jobless–there is nothing shameful in this. Don’t beat yourself up for things you don’t have control over, it’s a waste of energy. If you find yourself in a pattern of being without a job though, you need to start making changes in your life. Don’t be afraid to seek help to do so.
A man is selfless. He thinks of others before himself. The majority of the trouble in marriages is due to one or both of the spouses being selfish. I’ve seen it a lot in my profession as a psychotherapist and it’s another sad sight. Marriage, for example, is not one in which each partner contributes 50%. Marriage is where each partner contributes 100% to their spouse. Anything less is not true commitment. A man thinks of his spouse’s welfare and his children’s welfare ahead of his own. Whether or not you are in a relationship be generous in your praise of others, and always be ready to help. Always look for opportunities to find what others are doing well and let them know it. This does not diminish you; rather it shows you are confident in yourself. Do not excessively praise yourself–let others praise you instead. Always express gratitude. Don’t take credit for others’ work, but in general don’t allow others to take credit for yours either.
A man is not afraid to ask others for help. A man who thinks accepting or asking help from others is a weakness doesn’t understand what it means to be a man. It’s impossible in this life to never need help from someone else; nobody ever succeeds all on their own. That stuff only happens in works of fiction. Your strength increases a thousand fold when you have the humility to ask others for help. Pride is not a good thing, which is why it’s referred to as one of the seven deadly sins. If you have learned to help others you have learned much, but if you cannot accept help or ask it from others when needed, you still have more to learn. Allowing others to help you also gives them the opportunity to grow as well–in this way by being helped you are also helping them. Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Socrates was one of the wisest men that ever lived, and he became so by continuously asking others for their knowledge of things until eventually his own knowledge surpassed theirs. If we don’t ask for help, we miss the opportunity for growth and bettering ourselves. One of the easiest ways to lose respect for someone is to listen to them try to talk about something about which they obviously have no idea. He becomes a laughingstock.
A man is not a follower. A few caveats before I begin: this does not mean a man doesn’t listen to what others have to say or does not examine all sides of an issue before reaching a conclusion. These should generally be done. It is not also saying it is always bad to follow others. If another leads and for any number of good reasons you decide to follow, it’s entirely appropriate to follow. However, if there is one truth about humanity that nobody can deny, it’s that people are sheep. They tend to go where the group goes, believe what the group believes and do what the group does all the while believing they are making their own decisions. The chief reason for this is fear. A man is a follower if he does not have the confidence to express his opinion, to question, or to diverge from the group or a peer when he disagrees. Instead he goes along anyway. You have a duty to follow your conscience, don’t shrink from it. This is often a difficult thing, whether we refer to something your friends or co-workers are doing and want you to join in with, or being led by public opinion when you are not sure if it’s right. Fear of being wrong or being alone is the common denominator, and it leads to groupthink. Groupthink is when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. It’s always bad. What most men don’t realize is that it’s perfectly acceptable to be wrong. Being wrong is how we learn, and being alone is a temporary condition. If you take a position on something and discover you are wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that; don’t let it stop you from doing so again later on. Fear is the enemy, not embarrassment.
A man realizes he is ultimately incomplete without a partner. This may be the most difficult of all these precepts to accept in our “modern” society. The ideal that we are sold in America as men is that any long-term relationship is a prison, and men should be promiscuous with as many women as he can get away with. This also leads to some comedians stating that men are about as loyal as their options. These are not men, merely males. A man without a long-term, stable partner in a healthy relationship is much more likely to be self-centered, to be less stable and more impulsive, and to rationalize the lowering of his conduct because he doesn’t have someone else to rely on for help. Men grow much more and become greater in the context of a long-term healthy relationship than they ever will on their own. Married men tend to live longer, be happier, and yes, have more sex than those who aren’t. Do not seek to be with woman after woman, but rather to find the right one and settle down with her. The idea of “sowing your wild oats” is a false one and always leads to regret later on.
In selecting a partner too often men rush into sex, this is also a mistake. Here’s something guys your age won’t tell you: sex by itself is incapable of making you happy. The most you can get is pleasure, which by its very nature is temporary. Instead seek joy, which is lasting happiness. Put off sex as long as possible, preferably until marriage so you get to know the good the bad and the ugly about her first. You need to be able to accept everything about her, and can picture her as your wife and as a good mother. Marriage is ordained of God for our happiness. Those who reject marriage as an institution are those who are ultimately unwilling to make a true commitment to one another. Do not be one of those people; you will not be nearly as happy as you can be otherwise.
A man has positive role models to measure himself against. Ideally this will be your father, but sometimes this is not the case. One of the most difficult things a man has to do is to recognize the faults his father has and to commit not to adopt those as his own. Since none of us are perfect we all need to do this eventually. Rest assured every good parent wants their child to grow up to be better than they. Select the traits you admire and replicate these as best you can, select others in other individuals and make them a part of you, too. If you do not have a father-figure, seek one out that best represents the kind of man you would like to be, keeping the qualities in this article in mind. The ultimate role model for a man is Jesus Christ. Read and study the scriptures regularly on your own to learn about Him and how He conducted himself. In no other way can you find a truer path to becoming a man.
A man is a good husband and a good father. This is the last precept and is much more likely to occur if you are doing your best to be a man and not just a male. Husbands and wives are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Compromise is the lubricant that keeps you from rubbing each other the wrong way too often, and is one of the cornerstones of any marriage. In my relationships with others and in my sometime role as a marital counselor I’ve found this to be the healthiest way to make a marriage work. Your wife, however, will look to you for leadership in the home. This does not mean being perfect nor does it necessarily mean making all the decisions, but it does include devoting yourself to her and your children. If you believe a man’s home is his castle, then remember the greatest in a family is the person who serves the others most. Your children are most likely to grow up to be good and responsible adults if they grow up in a home with a mother and father who are devoted to each other and to them.
Make your home a refuge from the world for your family; be careful what you allow to enter it. Always set aside time to spend with your wife alone, regardless of the demands of your life. Always treat your wife with respect, as this is how your daughters will grow up expecting to be treated and how your sons will most likely treat their wives. Do not be afraid of your wife’s (or girlfriend’s) anger; be calm and patient with her just as you would expect her to be when you’re angry. If she yells at you do not yell back, however you are not obligated to let her trample all over you. If you feel yourself starting to lose it get out of there, say you need a break and take at least 20-30 mins to yourself to calm down, then come back and try again. Above all, regularly tell her that she is beautiful and that you love her.
Always set aside time to be with your children, regardless of the demands of your life. Your children will value spending time with you more than any gift you ever buy them. Above all else children need to know and feel they are loved, wanted and appreciated. Regularly tell your children you love them. Remember being a father means more than being a friend. If your children are not angry at you sometimes, you are not doing your job correctly. Always be consistent in your discipline and never discipline your children when you are angry at them. Do not yell at your spouse or your children, rather tell them the source of your anger or sorrow or fear so they understand it. Never raise your hand to your spouse or your children. Here is a related video I found that is pretty cool.
There are other things that can be mentioned (if you receive a compliment, the best response is a simple and sincere thank you; it is better to have a smaller modest house than a larger extravagant one: in this way you have more money to spend, less debt and can afford to do more things as a family; staying away from gambling, obeying the law to name a few), but always remember that your own actions are what determine your happiness and fulfillment in life. Also remember how you act is always being observed by others, and we have an influence on others whether we want to or not. Being a man rather than just male gives you more freedom, not less. You have the freedom to not be enslaved to one vice or another, you will not lose the confidence of your family and you can look back on a life well-lived. Please do not read this and think it is too hard. Simply begin applying one principle at a time, then later apply another. It will take work, but everything in life that is worthwhile does, and the rewards are so much greater than the work! There are not enough real men–please choose to be one of them.