This adapted extract from Rob Pluke’s new book considers how we associate effort with masculinity and how we go wrong when we try to force this on our sons.
Inwardly Okonkwo knew that the boys were still too young to understand fully the difficulty of preparing seed-yams. But he thought that one could not begin too early. Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed. Okonkwo wanted his son to be a great farmer and a great man. He would stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness which he thought he already saw in him.
(Things Fall Apart. Chinua Achebe)
The excerpt above shows how effort is often linked to masculinity. For Okonkwo, working hard, and becoming a successful farmer of yams, equals being “a very great man”. Okonkwo desires this for his son, which makes him hyper-vigilant to ‘laziness’, and determined to press his son towards ‘effort’.
A ‘manly’ effort?
As such, ‘effort’ becomes a loaded term. It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about demonstrating the kind of masculinity the father wants. This can place a particular tension on the issue of effort, and it can cause serious father-son problems. The extract below is typical of what Dads say when they talk to me about effort and their son. This is real example from a man we will call John:
I mean he’s a brilliant – he could be a brilliant rugby player. And I don’t push him. It’s just not in my nature to push-push-push. Anyway, he’s in the A team so…But… like, I’ve noticed that he lacks that animal instinct. And so, yes, I mean, then you wanna like, kick him up the backside and say “Just don’t waste this beautiful God-given talent! You’re a big kid! You’re strong! Look at these other little kids, they’re outperforming you!” Anyway, I said this to him the one day, and gee man, the little guy just started to cry. I felt awful. I mean, I wouldn’t wanna, you know, like kill his spirit for it. But I mean you get disappointed! I mean, what do I do? How do I…?
A lack of effort is perhaps hardest to stomach when we can see our sons’ potential, yet they just won’t use it. John is captivated by his son’s potential to be a ‘brilliant’ rugby player which, because of its social currency, offers high status. Through force of words, John tries to pour this attitude into his son. He wants to inject testosterone into his boy.
John is choked by disappointment. He has to act. But by comparing his son with other boys, John makes his son feel inadequate, less-than. In his shame, the son bursts into tears. At the same time John is also protective of his son. He doesn’t want to ‘kill’ his son’s spirit. It’s as though the loving part of John has to reign in the spitting and cursing, ‘real man’ part of John.
This leaves John in a dilemma: how to get his son to change without causing damage. He is left asking “What do I do? How do I…?” The question left hanging, for John and all of us, is “How do I instill the right kind of masculinity into my son?”
Can we inject masculinity?
When a father talks to his son about effort, there are some significant underlying complications. A son can end up feeling terribly ashamed. He could think that he hasn’t done enough, that he likes the wrong things, and that there’s something deeply wrong with him as a boy.
In the above two extracts, we see Okonkwo trying to “stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness” he sees in his son, and John trying to instill “that killer instinct”. So, both fathers worry that there’s something inherently wrong with their sons which they, as fathers, need to change. More so than mothers, fathers tend to encourage risk-taking and independence in their sons. In this way, fathers help sons feel confident about themselves as emerging males.
All this can be good. Our sons need to know how to steel themselves, find their power, and use it. Yet what if our sons don’t respond? What if there’s no resonance, no sparkle in the eye? Fathers can panic and so try to force it – to infuse aggression into their boys. However, then you have too much of dad, and too little of son.
The threat of shame
Masculinity is often enforced through the threat of shame. In challenging our sons, we don’t want to give our sons the feeling they’re inherently deficient. In effect, a ‘go for it’ speech can be received by our sons as “I want you to be or do something that you’re not”. This is less than a stone’s throw away from saying “you are a disappointment”, and it can leave our sons with a lot of self-doubt in the gut.
We need to avoid promoting a masculinity that’s based on shame and denial. Okonkwo wants his son to ignore fatigue, and John wants his son to push past his fears and child-like hesitancies. One problem with this route is that fathers risk losing touch with their sons’ true feelings. Another is that sons come to live with a deep-down sense of inadequacy. As such, they must cover up and pretend. This plants the seed of inauthentic masculinity in the boy.
How do you help boys make an effort?
As a father and family therapist, I can’t think of a time I’ve been able to get young people to make an effort. Normally I just end up upsetting them, or putting them on the defensive. It can lead to years of frustration and fall-out between father and son, without any clear benefits. So what do we do? After all, effort is important.
Continued in Part 2…
Rob Pluke’s new book, ‘A Son to be proud of‘‘ is available on Amazon