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What does it mean to be a Man?

August 15, 2006

It's time to draw the line between boys and men.
You girls will likely say, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me.” Oh, but it does! Someday you are going to marry, and you will want to pick out a real man, not half a man. I see a lot of young girls married to thirty-year-old boys who never quite made it to manhood.
So, what is a real man? The answer will differ from one part of the country to the other and from one social group to another. But, to sum it up in a single sentence, a real man is someone who does his duty and doesn’t shun the hard work that is necessary in providing for all the needs of his family.
A real man may never pick up a knife or a gun, or drive a tractor, or operate a chain saw, or do anything that requires being tough and burly. But he is still a real man if he does his duty with grace and fortitude, not crumbling under the load, always getting up when life and circumstances knock him down. That is a real man. A real man may not have tough hands, but he will have a tough spirit that rises to the high calling of duty. It is not about being macho; it is about taking responsibility.
Sometimes a man has to do what is unpleasant. That is the demarcation line. Boys stop and look for sympathy and understanding, while the men keep going into territory where it gets hard, painful, and more than that, boring—sickeningly and painfully boring. But they go resolutely on and do it because it has to be done. Men don’t put it off until tomorrow, that nebulous time where it is certain to never get done; they knuckle down and do their duty today. That is a real man.
Many teenagers think that becoming a man is a matter of chronological age. Those who wait for it to happen find that it never does. Over the years, I have seen young men finish school, having been the president of the class, voted most likely to succeed, being the star player on the football team, the captain of the wrestling club, the guy all the girls wanted to date, and the “man” no one would “mess with” because he could whip any three boys in school. But one year after graduation, he couldn’t whip one week at work. Likewise, I have seen boys who excel in academics, being much smarter than all their teachers, and the envy of every student. Their parents are confident that their sons will achieve great success. But for all their brains and talent, they can’t hold down a job. When they are forty years old, they are still little boys depending on parents or a working wife, or government programs to take care of them and their families. Their smarts are used up on the computer, and they get lost in cyberspace. I see many of their faces as I write. I watched their progress (decline) from eight years of age to fifty. In most cases, you could have observed them at twelve years old and predicted quite accurately that they would not grow up to be real men.
As caring parents, you are concerned that your sons grow up to be men in every sense of the word, and you should be. It is the difference between a successful life, and one of endless excuses and inevitable personal and family shame.

So, what does it take for a teenager to graduate into the ranks of manhood? It takes a will to suffer the pain of doing one’s duty. A French philosopher once said, “All work is pain.” And, so it has been for all boys who ever became men. I would much rather play than work, but even play gets tiresome if it is prolonged. If I have to fish more than four or five hours (two is long enough), I begin to suffer. I like for my hunting trips to last no more than two hours. When a picnic or an outdoor gathering lasts longer than one hour, I get restless and start suffering. To do anything all day long, day after day, is painful. Boredom is far worse than physical or mental exertion, and most work eventually morphs into boredom, especially if you are an employee, repeatedly doing the bidding of another. Endless chores cannot be personally rewarding. It is akin to slavery. There is some work that I enjoy, and I try to arrange my life so most of the work I must do is rewarding and enjoyable to some degree, but life is dotted along the way with miserable work that is my duty to perform. So, it is not the difference between those who love the pain of work and those who don’t; it is the difference between those who do not possess a will to suffer the pain of work and those who do.
We live in a time when society is not producing as many men as it used to. There are a lot of freeloaders, a lot of lazy bums. I know a young male (I couldn’t say man) who lives down the road and has never had a job that lasted more than a few days. He lives in a house that is falling down around him. If the house were in an area that had building codes, it would have been condemned long ago. The floor has fallen through to the ground. He is going to fix it some day…tomorrow maybe…or when he gets the time, or gets enough money to buy the material. Someday he is going to get a job. He is highly intelligent, and he imagines that someday someone is going to realize how smart he is and pay him good money for the use of his brain. Yet, with all his high intellect, he has not acquired the will to suffer the pain—the boredom—of responsible work.
He once told me, “Well, I am going to go down there and ask for a job.”
“You could get there before they close,” I said.
“Well, I am afraid they would close before I got there and the trip would be wasted, so I think I will go tomorrow.”
I said to him, “If I were you, I would live under the bridge next to the plant where I could make it to work every day without fail. So that after two weeks I would have earned enough money to rent a cheap apartment within walking distance. Within a month, I would have enough saved to buy an old car, and within a year, I would have found a better job and have a car good enough to take me back and forth to a better job. And within two years, I would be purchasing a fixer-up home. And with the passing of three years, I would have sold the fixer-upper for a $100,000.00 profit and have purchased two more homes and be fixing them both up for resale. Within ten years, I would own ten houses and would be entirely self-employed and looking for bigger investments.”
But ten years from now, that lazy genius will still be waiting for his ship to come in, and the only thing out of the ordinary in his life that will happen is that the roof of his house will fall on him. He will blame the government and vote Democratic. No, he won’t vote at all. He will just talk about it, and talk, and plan bigger things, and wait until tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow is soon enough for that kind of a “male.”
One’s willingness to do unpleasant daily duties is tied inextricably to his manly character. A dutiful man is a good man. A lazy man who puts off doing his duty over the years experiences an erosion of character, for he must resort to lies and excuses to explain his continual failure to do what is expected of him. He soon develops a propensity to be dishonest, self-centered, lustful, gluttonous, fearful, and insecure.
But, enough of this diatribe against laziness. So, parents, what can you do to assure that your sons grow up to be real men? If your children are still under one year old, or better yet, if they are not yet born, you have the advantage, for manhood begins to develop at twelve months. This morning, I drove past a father and son as they were working in the yard. The little fellow, not more than two years old, was pushing his plastic toy lawnmower alongside his daddy. He was already learning to do a man’s duty as he saw it in his two-year-old mind’s eye. Mother will brag on her little “man,” feeling of his muscles, and telling him how proud she is of his work. As his worldview develops, his perspective as to his role in that world will develop as well.
My daughter, Shalom, exemplifies the right approach. Her daughter, Gracie, thinks that the greatest fun in the world is cleaning up messes and washing dishes. If she gets fussy, toys will not entertain her, but a broom and a dustpan will. Gracie does everything her mother does. Shalom involves her twenty-one-month-old daughter in every aspect of her day. They are inseparable working partners.
In our community is a family of about twelve. The children range from toddlers to older teens. Every one of them has been taught to work and accept responsibility. I am sure that none of them enjoys work any more than I do, but they all accept it as a necessary part of life—as life itself. To them, life is doing one’s duty, working for the good of the family, including the community. The happiest kids I know are the ones whose lives are given meaning by knowing that they are making a significant contribution to not only their own upkeep, but for others as well.
I know why you have failed to involve your children in dutiful chores. It is because they complain so much that you find it easier to just do the work yourself. We all complain about working, just as we complain about the weather, all the while knowing there is nothing we can do about it. Complaining is a way of defining the moment, of sharing our mutual hardship. It is a kind of self-praise for enduring the conditions. But there is another kind of complaining, for which your children may be guilty—a mutinous complaint that protests the injustice of it all. Kids will complain strongly about working when they think (or know from experience) that complaining will surely get them out of it.

strong in spirit
It was an unconscious decision on your part to “just do the work yourself” and avoid all the stress. When you have tried to get them to do their duties, it has produced an adversarial relationship. You experience frustration and anger. But don’t blame the kids. Their attitude is your fault, cultivated by your allowing them to grow up thinking that they are not responsible for performing the chores necessary for maintaining their own existence. Early on, before they were three or four, by not involving them in work “with” you, you led them to believe that their role in life is to enjoy themselves while you do all the work. That is a perfectly fine worldview, one shared by many rich and influential people. Such an attitude is the foundation of hedonism.
Many parents reason that “children should be allowed to be children,” and thus shield their kids from the responsibilities of life, thinking their children will be happy that way. “Let them enjoy life today; they will have to take on the responsibilities of life soon enough.” Sadly, real-life experience proves otherwise. Character grows with attention to duty. A child’s self-image is not based primarily on your words. It is based on his estimation of his worth in regard to his performance. If he is not being productive, he will develop a poor self-image. The best character lesson you can give a two-year-old is to teach him the routine of work.
We are not suggesting that children should be inducted into the work-force so as to generate an income for the family. Nor are we suggesting that their domestic responsibilities should be so demanding as to rob them of needful downtime. I arrange my own day so I don’t have to work all the time. Our children are half grown before they discover that they are working. They think it is play, and they love it.
Work should be proportioned to the child’s age, size, gender, disposition, and temperament. A good rule is that when you are working, they are working, not as part of your employment, but as part of the family maintaining and providing for itself. Another guide is that just as you should not do the child’s work, neither should the child be made to do your work. Don’t work for your kids, and don’t make them work for you. Work together as part of a team that is providing for itself.
Don’t wait until your children are “big enough” to work. When they are too small to be productive, they should still be involved in the work to the extent of their ability. The six-month-old can sit in the sink and stick the bottle washer in a plastic dish while you are washing the dishes. The toddler can put two items in the dishwasher while you are putting the other fifty items in. The four-year-old can sweep the cut grass off the sidewalk while you are trimming the edges. He can help push the lawnmower back to the garage, or he can carry the weed-eater “all by himself.” The six-year-old can actually “help paint the house”.
Don’t give your children all the miserable work and then drive them like slaves. Treat them with respect and consideration. Make the work suitable to their level of endurance. When my boys were six or eight years old, about one or two hours was all they could stand of hard work. We worked together for a reasonable time, and then we took an ice cream break together. Those times when we took a long break and drove down to the old store to get a special treat were wonderful times together. They were proud to be men doing a man’s work and eating a man’s ice cream treat. A Saturday morning of cutting grass and cleaning the yard deserved a Saturday afternoon of swimming and fun.
Observe your children and gauge their level of tolerance. Once you are confident that they accept it as their responsibility to work, you will observe their enthusiasm and energy as they willingly tie into a hard job. But watch them for signs of weariness. When they begin to drag, not with a bad attitude, but from the true weariness that boring, hard work can produce, it is time to change jobs, change pace, take a break, or quit for the day. If you push children (or anybody for that matter) far beyond their endurance point, you will cause them to hate work, and will later hate you for punishing them.
Now, there are exceptions. There may be times when something absolutely must get done before it rains or before the sun goes down. If there is hay in the field, it must be put in the barn today, no matter how tired everyone is. You will all need to work yourselves to the bone. But when the kids can see and understand that it is a special occasion, that you are tired too, and that you are not being unreasonable, they will learn to push on and feel good about it tomorrow. It is important that they always feel that you are fair in your demands, that you work harder than they do, and that you are not avoiding work when you make them work.
Work should be a time of fellowship. It is while working that I did most of the teaching and communicating of my values and culture to my children. Today when I hear my two big sons relating to situations in life, I see those moments of teaching (how insignificant they seemed to be at the time) surfacing as their own ideas and principles, matured through their own experience, tried and tested, and fully ready to pass on to their children. What a blessing it is to hear it from them, and see it effectively implemented in the lives of a brand-new generation of children!
If you have older children who were raised to be served and are offended when you ask them to work, what can you do to turn it around? First, you must be honest with your children. Sit them down and explain that you have been aware that there was a problem, but you just did not know what to do about it. Having now read this article, you better understand the need for their learning to help with the work of the home. Through discussion, cause them to understand one primary reality. Each one of them must make his own way in life. Life is clearly a gift, but quality of life is earned. Reduced to the simplest terms, anyone who eats food must gather and prepare it. Anyone who sleeps under the roof must “gather the thatch” to keep it from leaking. Those who would warm themselves by the fire must bring a log. All who eat at the table must put something into the pot and bring their own bowl and spoon, which they must wash and take care of. Everyone is responsible to play their part in the community and to care for community property as their own. There are no free-loaders and no free lunch. Life is hard enough. No one should have to carry the burden of the lazy and indifferent. This is something that the Amish and Mennonite children around me understand very well. Actually, for them it is a concept somewhat like air. It is so commonly accepted that they do not even think about it. They just live and breathe that reality of the concept of work. “I am needed; I must do my part.” They look upon your soft, petted children as pitiful and weak.
So, convey to your children the concept, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:10-12).

Remember these two words and recall them every day, as long as you have children under your care, or a husband, for that matter. Two words! I have said them many times before—organize and manage. This is the key, and the order is a vital part of the concept.
Organize the family so that everyone knows exactly what is expected and the time frame in which it must be accomplished. Write it all down. Post it on the refrigerator or a family bulletin board. Duplicate copies every week and tape them to the children’s doors. Think of yourself as the manager of a small business—unless you have twelve kids, and then you can think of yourself as the managing CEO of a large, multi-national corporation. Your job is to oversee, prioritize and direct the resources of your corporation. This will keep you from having to nag. It will cease to be a competition with your personality. They will be resisting the law in black and white. This will make you the third party, not the villain.
Organizing and managing will eliminate 99% of the “work-related” problems, but as the manager, you must have some recourse for those who demonstrate an unwillingness to cooperate. You must demonstrate the power and the will to constrain them to work. If you meet with rebellion, continue teaching them the concept of each pulling his load—planting and harvesting his own corn and participating in community (family) endeavors that benefit all (such as cutting the grass or painting the house). Firmly lay down the law, and enforce consequences that will “encourage” the child to pull his share. The best consequences for not working is more work. The child’s goal is to get out of work, so he will work to keep from having to do additional work. In other words, he will learn to suffer a little pain to prevent a greater pain (speaking of the pain of work).
Let’s not leave this subject until we address you fathers who are still children yourselves (lazy procrastinators). Most of us will procrastinate upon occasion, but when your procrastination becomes a way of life that diminishes the quality of life of those around you, you need to learn to be the man. Father, what can you do if you were raised to be a sluggard? You can make a decision to suffer the pain of responsibility. Keep in mind, it is not a matter of there being those who like work and those who don’t. It is the difference between paying the price or taking the selfish, easy road. If you could accept the truth that in the long run, the procrastination path is the more painful path, then working today brings relief from the pain of tomorrow. It is the path to self-respect, honor from others, prosperity, creativity, peace of mind, and the development of character. Only you can decide, and you must decide every day, and day after day, for the rest of your life.
Finally, if you never learned to do your duty in a timely fashion as a child, save your children from the misery it has brought you by teaching them to develop habits that your parents failed to teach you.
Recently, I was asked to speak to a group of teenage boys on the subject of Becoming a Man. It turned out quite well, and so I am making it available to you. It is the kind of message that would be good for your teenagers to hear for themselves, boys and girls alike. It will also prove profitable to many adults who are still struggling with the will to suffer the pain of responsibility.  Purchase the MP3 CD of Becoming a Man here!

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