On a recent evening, I wrestled with my two sons for an hour. Although I dominated at first through superior size and strength, they eventually wore me down and smothered me with a series of flying leaps and barbaric yelps.
I often find my boys randomly hitting things with other things, climbing, punching and rolling in mud. They aren’t angry. They’re just being boys.
The same boys fiercely love their mother, hugging her tightly and letting her kiss them. They’re tender and loving with their baby sister. When they play lion, they often pretend that they’re protecting her by fighting off enemy hyenas.
I encourage my sons to express both of these types of masculinity — roughhousing and emotional sensitivity. A boy shouldn’t feel forced to choose one or the other. Neither should be seen as a defect in masculinity. Boys who roughhouse are not destined to grow into insensitive alpha males, and boys who show their emotions are not weak. Healthy masculinity includes both.
Perhaps our best example of healthy masculinity is St. John Bosco, who encouraged boys in his care to play games, climb trees, do manual labor and form semi-militaristic sodalities. He also showed them how to kneel before the altar and pray, serve the community and dedicate themselves to the service of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So, how do we help our boys grow into healthy young men?
First, understand that roughhousing, swordplay and playing war are all ways for boys to explore their environment. Boys seek adventure and find purpose in life by engaging in heroism. They must be encouraged — by fathers especially — to courageously confront chaos and grapple with the unknown. Boys learn to become men by confronting evil and conquering. They can challenge their bodies through sports, discipline their interior life by cultivating virtue and overcoming vice, and discover their responsibility to defend the truth, the weak and the vulnerable in all situations. All of these are ways for boys to become heroes.
Second, once boys are allowed the freedom to be strong, they’ll be less likely to have an identity crisis about being sensitive. A strong man is a gentle man. A confident man is an emotionally sensitive man. I talk to my boys about emotions and teach them to love beautiful things like singing and playing the piano. I hug them a lot. I also want them to see me hug their mother and their sisters and how I’m gentle with them. I pray with my sons and go to Mass with them because men go to church with their families.
Life is a call to adventure, and boys are excited to set out on their heroic path. With just a little encouragement, they can learn to be strong but sensitive, warriors but also poets, confident in their self-identity and ready to set forth into the great unknown.
Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.