Our Sons, Their Future, Our Five Dilemmas

By Warren Farrell, Ph.D. warrenfarrell.com

For more depth, see The Myth of Male Power

Before we are able to look seriously at nurturing the passions of our sons; before we are able to consider the need to balance the seven federal offices of women’s health with even one office of men’s health; before President Obama creates a White House Council on Boys to Men to balance his creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls, we need to understand why what it took to raise our sons successfully in the past is in tension with what it will take to raise our sons successfully for their future.

In the past, virtually every society that has survived has done so by training its sons to be disposable. Disposable in war; and disposable at work (from coal mines to construction sites; from oil rigs to “deadliest catches”). And if a man who is a dad dies in war, he is also, in effect, disposable as a dad.

So if we think about it, honoring our soldiers on Veterans Day, our workers on Labor Day or on the upcoming 10th Anniversary of September 11, presents a dilemma for every family who loves their country and loves their children. We are grateful beyond words for the firefighters and policemen who sacrifice their lives for the possibility that others might live. When someone does this for a stranger, and in defense of his or her country, that is the quintessential example of heroism.

The word “hero” derives etymologically in part from the Greek word “serow,” from which we get our words “servant” and “slave.” We think of a hero as someone who has power. In fact, a servant and slave possess the psychology of disposability, not the psychology of power.

What, then, are the dilemmas? The first dilemma: To give a man promotions to risk death, to tell him he’s powerful, he’s a hero, he’s loved, he’s a “real man”—is to teach a man to value himself by dying; it is to “bribe” a man to value himself more by valuing himself less.

How well have men responded to these bribes? For money (usually to support families), very well: think mercenaries, indentured servants, coal miners. But men also respond even when the bribe is the “social bribe” of respect; the emotional bribe of love; the physical bribe of sex: thus virtually 100% of volunteer firefighters are males.

Our second dilemma is that what it has taken to create a healthy society is also what it takes to create an unhealthy son. In the past, this was true of both sexes: so that the society would be “fruitful and multiply,” women were encouraged to risk disposability in childbirth. With feminism’s leadership, women have learned to make this a choice, not a definition of womanhood. That is, during the past half century, we have encouraged our daughters to associate femininity with “control over their lives” rather than reflexive disposability.

The third dilemma involves taking care of country vs. taking care of family. A father who dies carrying the weight of the country on his shoulder can no longer carry his children on his shoulder. If our son or daughter has children at home, is it right to have him or her put the children’s life in jeopardy? For our sons, the dilemma Is intensified by the association of masculinity with both heroism and a willingness to fight and die. These associations recruit our sons to protect our country and homes, but they also create what might be called a “social bribe” for a son who is a dad to jeopardize the well-being of his own family.

A fourth dilemma involves teaching our sons the real meaning of empowerment. Many dads have learned to define power as “feeling obligated to earn money that someone else spends while he dies sooner.” Real power is best defined as “control over our one’s life.” Our daughters are “getting it”? Will our sons “get it” if their dads don’t?

The fifth dilemma is that what it takes to become a hero at work is often the opposite of what it takes to become a loved one at home. For example, to be successful as a hero, it helps to repress feelings, not express feelings. (“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” not “when the going gets tough the tough see a psychologist.”) Repressing feelings helps in war, but to be successful in love, it helps to express feelings, not repress them.

Why have we learned to praise men as heroes when they compete to be disposable? Exactly because virtually all societies that have survived have done so by socializing men to be disposable. This investment in survival embeds in our psyches an unconscious investment in the disposability of our sons.

By questioning their genetic heritage a half-century ahead of men, our daughters are trying to fall in love with a sex that is less-well socialized to love; they are trying to fall in love with a sex that is, psychologically, about a half century behind our daughters.

On the other hand, if we don’t socialize sons to consider themselves heroes by risking disposability, will women take on 50% of the risk by obligation, not by choice: should we require them to share the legal obligation to register for the draft, or expect them to be equally likely to volunteer to save our homes from fires, build bridges and be the truckers, miners, lumberjacks, welders and sheet metal workers who build the Freedom Towers? And if so, will they become the women we want our daughters to be?

There are no perfect answers. But our heroes have left those of us who live the challenge of deciding how much to encourage our sons to risk death so that others may live to praise those who have died. Until we cherish sons who “follow their passion” as much as daughters who follow theirs, we won’t want an office of men’s health or a White House Council on Boys to Men.

Comment on this article here.

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Warren Farrell

Warren Farrell

Warren Farrell, Ph.D. is chair of the Commission to create a White House Council on Boys to Men. He is the author of the international bestsellers, The Myth of Male Power and Why Men Are The Way They Are, as well as Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say and Father and Child Reunion. He has appeared on more than 1,000 TV and radio shows, and is the only man ever elected three times to the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York City. Dr. Farrell has taught in five universities, including the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Warren has two daughters; he and his wife live in Mill Valley, CA. and virtually at http://warrenfarrell.com

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3 Responses to Our Sons, Their Future, Our Five Dilemmas

  1. James says:

    Great article. Never knew that hero and slave had connections Makes plenty of sense. Thank you Dr Farrell for this article and also for all you have done for men and boys.

  2. STEPHEN PAUL DELSOL says:

    This article is very thought provoking, and quite frankly revolutionary! At a conceptual level it creates a paradigm shift in the way we think about boys and men. At a societal level it is a call for a root-and-branch change in our family values, vis-a-vis in the way we rear boys. In addition, it challenges us to revamp our economic and military systems. At a political level it is just too subversive for the President to codify these views in the formation of a White House Council on Boys and Men. These views although they have experiential and statistical validity, are just too politically hot to handle!

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