During the course of any conversation with me you can expect to hear the sentence, “I once read that…” at least three times. If I’m reading a particularly interesting book this may increase to somewhere north of 10 times pch (per conversation hour).
In between parenting, working, dating, writing, and auditioning for first dates, I still find time to read and right now I’m reading one of those books that will be finding its way into just about any conversation with just about any unsuspecting friend or colleague. The book in question is called “Man Disconnected: How the Digital Age is Changing Young Men Forever” by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita D. Coulombe.
I’m under no illusions. Despite my boyish Davy Jones looks I know I’m not a young man anymore. But as the father of a young son, I’m interested in seeing the world through his eyes, in understanding the challenges that modern life may hold for him, and in being able to offer guidance in traversing the potential pitfalls along the path of life in the twenty-teens and beyond.
I’m also interested as the father of a young daughter who, before I know it, will be an object of the affections of these young boys who are being shaped by our digital age. Like any Daddy, I want the very best for my little girl and want her to know how she deserves to be treated and to accept nothing less.
As we get older it’s all too easy to judge what we deem to be the fads and follies of today’s youth. What isn’t so easy is to see the world through their eyes, eyes that have grown up in a smaller, more connected world viewed ever more through the screen of a tablet computer. It’s a far cry from Star Wars figures, Atari, and Ker-Plunk.
As an open-minded fellow I’d like to try and understand the world that my children are growing up in, to shape my perceptions around the world as they see and experience it as well as how I do. And, as is my wont, as I’ve been reading I’ve gotten to thinking, what does being a man mean to me?
First of all let’s dispense with the stereotypes: I’m not driven by the pursuit of money and status; I’m not particularly arsed about football; I recognize that I have, you know, feelings and stuff; cars do little for me beyond getting me from A to B, and there are things that I value about women above and beyond what is inside their underwear.
Reading that you may be wondering what the hell I have to say on the subject of being a man. Well, there’s another side to the Matthew coin. I want to achieve things but I want to achieve them for me and for anybody else that my efforts may help or inspire.
I’ve spent a large part of my life as an active sportsperson and I work in just about the most stereotypically masculine sport you can think of. The feelings that I am “in touch” with are far from all soft and fluffy, and I love seeing a beautiful woman in her underwear as much as the next man, especially when said underwear ends up on the floor.
However, I’m well aware of the problems that can arise when you don’t believe that you’re meeting expectations – whether real or perceived. For young men in particular, being overly-concerned about meeting perceived social expectations of what it means to be a man is potentially extremely damaging.
(Don’t get me wrong here, I know there are huge social pressures on women but there are plenty others more qualified to speak on that subject than I).
I grew up in a generation where men were generally seen as the provider, where working hard to put a roof over their family’s heads and food on the table was their predominant role, where nurturing children and meeting the family’s emotional needs was largely seen as a woman’s role.
Things have changed a lot since those days but one thing that seems stubbornly resistant to change is the willingness of men to be open and honest emotionally. In an age where communication is increasingly done through electronic means it concerns me that the ability to engage with others on an emotional level may actually be regressing.
The need for men to be emotionally honest is greater than ever. We live in a society where the nuclear family of Mom, Dad, and 2.4 children is far from the norm and single-parent families are no longer a rarity. As such it is not good enough for men to sub-contract the emotional support of their children to women.
Furthermore we live in a society with shockingly high levels of young male suicide, many of whom will have struggled to confide in anybody due to the social expectation of men to be tough, strong, and able to cope.
I speak to every man reading this, without exception, when I say that I don’t care who you are and how tough you think you are – there are times when you are not strong, you are not tough, when you fear that you can’t cope. Whatever you present to the outside world, you know it and I know it.
So why can’t society more readily accept it? When can we dispense with the idea that admitting to the struggles that are the realities of life for every single one of us makes us weak in some way and less of a man?
Why can’t “man-up” be used to encourage men to face their emotions and deal with them rather than run and hide from them?
It’s bullshit and I’m calling it out. Because until more of us do, we’ll live with a pretense that does our sons no favors if we wish to nurture them to become the fully-rounded human beings they are capable of being.
Whatever society expects of us, whatever individuals expect of us, whatever we expect of ourselves, we need to have the self-assurance to be able to deal with those expectations and to believe in our ability to meet them.
By denying a fundamental part of what makes us human we can never be fully self-assured as men. I want more than that for my son. I want more than that for yours, too.