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On Masculinity, Manliness and Manhood

 I’m teaching a kids class tomorrow morning. It’s a lot of fun, especially since it’s not my usual job to teach the younger ones. I get to be the new guy with all the surprises. The regular guy can’t compete with me, they see him too often.


My son will be there, as he has been for pretty much every week for the last year. Like the rest of them, he’ll either have to be forced to come or run in the front door depending on the week that’s in it. Some weeks he wants to come and some he doesn’t. Based on the conversation we had when I was putting him to bed, it’ll be a bit of a struggle to get him there tomorrow. At 5 and a half, there’s always something you’re missing out on when you’re taken somewhere. But I’ll force him to go. I’ll cajole him, bribe him, chide him and if all else fails, I’ll drag him. He enjoys it when he gets there; sometimes it’s just getting there that’s the problem. If you’re a parent, you’ll recognise this instantly of course.


On and off, I’ve been coaching young children for the guts of ten years, and as this decade draws to a close, I see no signs of some of the things I noticed from my first coaching gig improving. No I’m not going to go off on one about “kids these days” or the like, I’m not quite old enough for that. I don’t think kids, or their parents, are necessarily to blame for what I’m going to write about today.


I am a man. Since this is a blog on martial arts, there’s a good chance you are too, but please don’t be dissuaded from reading on if you’re not. I grew up in a female dominated environment with a strong Irish mother and 4 older sisters. The amateur-psychologists among you can now begin reading into that whatever way you want. In our house my Dad and I were outnumbered 5-2, yet I would still say I had a more masculine upbringing than most kids I meet today. This is not because their parents molly coddle them or style their hair anymore than mothers did when I was growing up. Instead it’s to do with the way in which we are now told we should deal with each other.


Let me ask you this; how many times this week have you been told that you “have to respect” something? How many people’s beliefs and ideas have you been told you have to take on board? How many times have you been told someone is entitled to their opinion? If you can remember, fair play to you, but you’re probably struggling for specific incidents, and that’s because this culture of respect no matter what has been internalised by most of us to the extent that we no longer even notice how much we’re keeping our mouth shut. When you’re not in this loop, people notice very quickly- believe me.


This has crept into the way in which we’re told we should parent. We are told we have to respect our children’s attitudes and beliefs and listen to them. Now hey, don’t get me wrong, I listen to my boys all the time. In fact, I would say it’s extremely hard in my house NOT to listen to them. But if I’m a parent of a young child, I’m supposed to be shaping those attitudes and beliefs. I’m supposed to be reinforcing, and occasionally enforcing, good behavior. Much like the way people consult self help books to help them get along with others, we’re Supernannying our way through rearing kids, ignoring every single instinct that millions of years of evolution have shaped in us in favour of some abstract notion of developing self esteem and respect in our children. Were we really so disrespectful 30 years ago? Are we really so lost that we need others to tell us how to raise our young?


We may just be. And through no fault of our own either. You may not buy into all that, but society already well and truly has. Maybe we do need a road map to guide us through the PC maze of respecting each other’s thoughts and opinions. Our culture is so immersed in caring for each other’s feelings that we’re now in a situation where young kids can no longer lose. Have you ever been to a medal ceremony where everyone got the gold? No it’s not a joke, it happens all the time. I know that the idea behind it is to ensure no child feels left out, and on some cases it’s enforced because the organizers want the skills and game play to take primacy over winning. But isn’t winning a game the whole point of a game? Isn’t the idea to make sure your skills are applied properly? Yes fun is important. Yes developing skill is important. But surely participation is its own award. Isn’t that a better lesson for kids? Try hard, work well and at the end of the day there’s a better chance your medal will be the right colour. To me, the alternative is to teach kids that trying hard to succeed isn’t important. Didn’t run fast enough? Never mind, here’s a gold. Came 9th? Never mind, here’s a gold. Didn’t even take off from the starting line? Never mind, here’s a gold. Who am I kidding? This is the norm. It’s real, fun competition where there’s only one winner that’s the alternative.


Of course people, and by people I mean the grown-ups, screw that up too. Parents living vicariously through their children are a common feature in parks all around Ireland at the weekends. But that’s not the kids. The kids deal with defeat surprisingly well. Last summer I went to my first ever sports day for my son’s school. He goes to a traditional, all boys primary. A member of staff, in confidence, once told me there’s a positive discrimination policy when hiring. If you’re a man, you have a much better chance of being hired in this school than if you’re a woman. But this doesn’t make much of a difference as the vast majority of teachers in primary schools are women in any case. I didn’t know what to expect and I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by the races for my son’s junior infants class. Let me state for the record that my boy is a little rocket. I’m not just saying that. He’s long and lean like his oul lad and if there’s something at stake in a race he goes like shit off a shovel. But he’s not as fast as some of the other boys in his class. In fact, he’s 3rd fastest. When it came to medal time, he got a bronze. And the 4th place lad got… nothing. They did the egg and spoon and sack races next. (4th and 7th in case you’re wondering) The medals were the same. Gold, silver and bronze. 4th place gets the pleasure of having raced. I didn’t see one kid cry or moan. In fact they were having great fun being outdoors for once and laughing when they fell over in their potato sacks.


Yet this is not the norm. This is the other way. Many call this way cruel and thoughtless. Let me tell you something anyone who spends time around children will know- kids are not stupid. They know well who has won the race and who hasn’t. They know they didn’t cross the line first. So what’s the lesson? Rewards come to those who… just show up?


We’re left with very little for young boys to do that hasn’t been taken over by these soft ideas. Look, I haven’t been reading Nietzsche, and I’m not going to invade Poland. I’m just concerned that there are going to be no healthy manly pursuits left for my sons to participate in when they’re older that haven’t been infested by quasi-feminist notions. Already, culture is polarising and activities that are deemed more “male” are becoming more and more extreme and chauvanistic (and downright demeaning to women too, but that’s another essay). I’m just laying my cards on the table and saying that my children’s class will be for kids who want to wrestle, grab, jump, throw and win. We’ll keep them safe, and we’ll make sure they shake hands at the end and they smile win or lose. That’s real respect. It will be for boys and yes, girls, whose parents believe they should learn how to defend themselves, learn a sport, respect each other and themselves through their efforts and get real confidence based on those efforts. Effort is always rewarded.


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