The definition of masculinity is fairly straightforward -- the possession of qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man. However, society has shifted its collective perception of what it means to be masculine. Nowadays, there's no ennobling, culturally accepted role for men; males are cast as either historical villains or self-abasing sinners begging for the collective forgiveness of their gender.
The notion that men must atone for the sins of their forefathers leaves them with little room for a socially acceptable alternative. Essential, formerly valued masculine traits have now -- mostly -- become unacceptable and discouraged outside the entertainment industry.
The male archetypes depicted in mainstream media are well-established: a triumphant hero who saves the day, despite overwhelming odds; a devil-may-care rogue; an evil overlord on a quest for world domination.
These images fuel the fantasies of many frustrated young men who not only lack guidance from healthy role models, but are also occasionally chastised for their natural exuberance. Instead of being appreciated for their male qualities, boys and men are asked to swap their natural gender traits for a watered-down, more politically correct version of masculinity.
Pop culture has crafted the perception that men gain significance through violence, force, and a break-the-rules philosophy. Ironically, many schools now have a zero-tolerance policy regarding exuberant and boyish behavior. For example, a 7-year-old boy was suspended from school for nibbling his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.
This policy attempts to suppress the natural tendencies of boys who are developmentally wired to push boundaries and discover the ways of the world. But their heroes are rewarded for the exact opposite: breaking the rules and quenching natural desires in an unhealthy way without consequences.
Unfortunately, the lesson ends up being a flawed one for men: Conform to a standard of behavior contradictory to their true nature or rebel, break the rules, and refuse personal accountability. Those who choose the latter embody the stereotype that paints men as greedy, selfish, chauvinist individuals who abandon children.
Boys have a natural and unique role in society; how can they come to understand it in a world rife with unhealthy male role models and the subtle dissuading of important masculine traits?
Try these three options:
1. Provide outlets. It's important, even from a young age, that males walk a path that utilizes their natural masculine strengths. Athletics and other activities nurture and encourage character traits, such as discipline, self-restraint, courage, and generosity. Additionally, those undertakings teach boys to govern themselves and empower others.
2. Celebrate masculinity. Show young men healthy, constructive ways to embrace their gender. Letting them flex their muscles and be competitive is a start, but don't stop there. Encourage their natural instinct to protect and defend others, which is a form of manly compassion, according to Dr. Emma Seppälä. Let them connect with other male role models; if you're a father, a grandfather, or an uncle, schedule quality time with your young man; don't be afraid to include rough play. Current studies show that rough play with their fathers doesn't increase aggression in kids; rather, it helps sons develop a higher sense of empathy.
3. Be and/or point to positive role models. On that same note, if you're an influential figure in a young man's life, take that responsibility seriously. Show him a socially acceptable path to significance. Counteract the media's sensationalized male images by exposing him to attainable, grounded male role models.
The 21st-century depiction of masculinity is complicated and convoluted. But there are ways to untangle it for young boys who are still growing and maturing into men. Drown out the potentially hazardous examples by highlighting male role models who are equal parts masculine and honorable.
Brook Price is president and co-founder of Forte Strong, a failure-to-launch program that gives young men the skills and character traits they need to tackle the challenges of life. Brook has more than 16 years of experience working for some of the most prestigious leadership programs in the nation, most notably Outward Bound and the U.S. Marine Corps.