Toughen up, son

Can you take it? Don’t be soft! Toughen up, son.

These are the mantras we instil in our boys. Our means of education are criticism, banter, fighting and competition.

But all of this “toughening up” is utterly useless.

It’s not teaching boys to be tough. And we need tough men. It’s teaching boys to hide and conform.

Noticing the wound

It’s like we’ve taught men to expect the arrows, but that when the arrows are shot at us, we must not look at them. Look away. Ignore that arrow lodged in your side. Never show the pain. Best of all is when our boys stop noticing the arrow is there at all.

We have a multitude of stereotypes to hide with. We’ll go to our man caves until the throbbing subsides. We’ll go around irritable, intimidating, or firing arrows at everyone else, so nobody looks at our own wounded side. We’ll be self-reliant, independent, productive workers, because then we must be OK. We’ll immerse ourselves in doing, achieving or accomplishing things, running from the wound that is telling us we need to stop a while. We’ll be rational, calm, collected, immovable - anything but connected to our emotions where it hurts.

Yet, when we get to adulthood, we have a whole host of arrows lodged inside, hanging off us. Some have broken off, leaving infected, gaping wounds. We hurt, but cannot admit that we hurt, and so we inflict our pain on others, for our wounds cry out to be felt by someone. We shoot our own arrows at others, so they can feel our pain for us, and we can remain “tough”. We can laugh at them for being so weak.

We’ve created an ideal of “toughness” which is no more than self-delusion. Being tough isn’t to feel no pain, nor is it to feel pain but say nothing, but it’s to look at the arrows that strike us, feel their pain and tend to the wound.

Attending to the wound

If we notice the wound and feel the pain, we know we have to do something about it. Only then will we pull out the arrow that doesn’t belong and cannot stay there, and put on a bandage to tend to our wound before it kills us.

This might mean saying that those arrows are not OK. It might mean feeling our anger at being shot at. It might mean finding a healthy way to make us feel safe again. It might mean compassionately tending to that part of us that still feels a bit small in this world, holding them like we would our own hurting children.

When we acknowledge the pain and find a way to soothe, rather than distract, ourselves, we won’t have to inflict the pain on others. The pain has been felt. Our wounds can heal.

Facing the arrows

Only when we acknowledge where we’ve been hit can we acknowledge that being fired at and firing at others is not OK: only then will we do what we need to do to avoid being shot at again; and only then will we challenge those that shoot.

This might mean expressing our feelings about an unfair comment or action. It might mean doing the things we need to, so that that person, or organisation, won’t do it again. It might mean owning where we’ve shot at others and admitting what’s driven us to do that.

It’s convenient to teach boys that hiding is being tough. Then they never challenge all the ways we shoot arrows at them. Then we never learn to challenge ourselves about how we shoot our arrows at others. A boy who hides doesn’t challenge the brother, teacher or dad who disempowers him; the family who needs him to be fine, safe or, alternatively, needs him to be the bad one; the society that makes him the scapegoat; or the mate who needs to feel better by putting him down.

A man who is still hiding doesn’t need to face himself as a brother, teacher or dad who disempowers, the manager or mate who shoots others down, the man who makes women the scapegoat.

Rethinking toughness

Now, I’m not against toughening up our boys. I want my son to be tough. It’s a tough old world out there. He’ll get shot at. He’ll get wounded. But teaching boys to hide the arrows hanging off them and shoot at others is not the way to toughen them up.

If I toughen up my son like this, he’ll never learn (at least from me) how to be a father who is present, caring and empowering to his children. A partner who is able to love intimately and work at a relationship. A man who can make a difference in society by fiercely refusing to accept - or passively collude - with what is wrong and harmful. A friend others can trust because they rarely hurt us - because they know what hurts and how it hurts - and who will challenge when they see others shooting their arrows.

We need to rethink toughness. We need to rethink our training method. Our relationships, families and society are crying out for men who are really tough: men who feel pain, take out the arrows, tend to wounds, and challenge the shooters. Even if it’s themselves.

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