Tough Enough

Soldiers, of course, are required to be tough. Strong and tough like Rambo. No-one must be able to get the better of them physically. As if we were still fighting hand-to-hand combat, and did not rely nowadays on sophisticated weapons. And so – all boys must be trained towards being tough men. But this doesn’t only mean tough in the sense of being well able to do physical work. It means being able and willing to beat up any other man who challenges you. A toughness hardly desirable in the office or home or shopping mall.

Boys are not born tough. Nor do they feel tough during their early years. Many never feel tough. But most learn to act tough as best they can. Those who can’t, the more academic or gentle, may be targeted for their lack of ‘toughness’.

Young boys are pushed too soon into this pretence of toughness, often against their natural personalities. Sometimes society and parents succeed, sometimes we break their spirit, and sometimes we just cause insecurity or shame.

Parents reject or criticise their sons’ natural characteristics by making it shameful and unnatural to feel fear or vulnerability. Realising this, boys try to hide their feelings of fear and act out the toughness society requires of them. How awful – that we make our sons feel guilty and afraid that they are not tough enough. We force our sons to betray, deny or hide their reality, their sensitivity and their gentleness.

Fathers remember (or still experience) their own feelings of insecurity, and don’t want their sons to suffer from the same sense of vulnerability – and the guilt and fear that comes with ‘feeling’ weak. Society says that the truly masculine man is a tough man. So it is often the father who insists that his son must toughen up. Perhaps the father has good intentions. He wants his son to withstand the brutal masculine system that uses bullying, rejection and terror as its way of keeping every boy and man in line. He fears his son will be seen as a sissy and that other boys will bully him.

The father passes on the tactics he was forced to use as a boy, thinking they are the only ones available. ‘Try to make other boys afraid of you first.’ ‘Don’t ever show that you are scared.’ ‘Be the first to challenge.’ ‘Fight and win.’ He knows that his son will also be forced to consistently project an image of toughness to all other boys, his friends included. It is a tiring pretence of toughness and fearlessness, of ‘real’ boy behaviour.

As part of the training, the father acts tough with his son, hiding his soft side, and reducing his physical and verbal display of love. The child is kept at a distance, craving contact that is not possible for the father to give. Of course he does not explain that toughness often comes with foolhardiness and stubbornness. Nor that it is often used to deal with a problem in place of more rational, intelligent solutions.

Why do we expect all boys to be tough? Why do we force them into a pattern of behaviour that is not natural to many of them?

The answer is that war needs tough men who can withstand the hardship and pain of war. So – to induce men into the war-machine – society says ‘true’ masculinity is tough. Weak men are not ‘true’ men. Tough masculinity is a socially-constructed ‘acting-out’ – so that men can be ready to offer themselves as fodder for war.

In my next post, I tackle the issue of competitiveness.…no-matter-what/


2 Responses to Tough Enough

  1. Anonymous says:

    My husband is very adamant about raising a tough boy, but mostly in the sense of if he is challenged to a fight. My husband is very loving and displays love in healthy ways (more than myself even as his mother at times). Although we believe in being honest and genuine about our feelings, we agree that during a fight or a challenge, showing now fear can be the key to winning/overcoming a challenge. Not only does this sometimes cause a challenger to second guess themselves, but the body can respond to the mind as well. We hope to raise a loving boy who is tough when he finds the situation may require it.

    • caygin says:

      Hi Anonymous,
      I don’t see any conflict between having the ability to express anxiety or fear to chosen people, and the decision not to show fear when faced with an opponent. These two abilities can exist side-by-side. What I do think is problematic is when boys & men are taught that they must NEVER express fear or even acknowledge it to themselves. No-one lives without being afraid at some time or other. A boy or man PRETENDING to those close to him that he is never afraid is living a lie. But many boys are taught that it is un-masculine to show fear at any time.

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