It seems that men aren’t very popular these days. There are books o’plenty on the shortcomings and irrelevancy of men. There are songs, and websites, and fabricated stories about bad, bad men. We’re in the midst of a gender war, and men are squarely in the crosshairs of a few tetchy man-scolders.
Despite the ruckus, most people seem disinterested in quarreling with the opposite sex. There are very few gender warriors outside academia and a few circles of the media. I think that’s because most people simply want to have fun and enjoy good relationships. If so, that strikes me as the wiser way to live.
Still, something important gets obscured in the steady stream of anti-male sentiment: the fact that most men actually strive to be good.
I know this because my job allows me to witness the inner workings of people’s lives and relationships. It is a humbling privilege, and I’m frequently struck by how important it is for people—men and women—to do good deeds and treat each other with kindness.
For men, that includes teaching boys about character. We don’t talk about it much. We should probably talk about it more. Regardless, I can assure you that the impulse to mentor is alive and well in men.
Here, then, are fourteen uplifting traits that fathers, coaches, teachers, and bosses pass from one generation of men to the next.
- Respect. Admiring others is a skill, and so is deferring to those with superior judgment. Observe any two-year-old and you’ll see that these skills are not inborn. Men teach boys how to respect others so that all of us may avoid a society filled with hairy, 200-pound children who throw tantrums and can’t take direction. Observe any wispy Canadian pop singer and you will notice what happens when men fail to cultivate respect in a boy.
- Persistence. This is one of the most basic character traits that fathers, coaches, teachers, role models, and even competitors teach to young men: don’t walk away before the job is done. What would have happened if Lincoln had given up? Or Churchill, or Gandhi? I’ll tell you what: we’d all be speaking German, that’s what. Or English. Probably English. Possibly Hindi, but that seems unlikely. I digress. The point is, good men teach young men to stick to it. All those grueling football practices and karate tournaments offer an important lesson: don’t give up.
- Impulse control. For readers of the female persuasion, let me describe what it’s like to wake up one day during adolescence and discover that you possess testosterone, muscles, and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex: it’s like driving a 1972 VW Bug all your life, then suddenly finding yourself behind the wheel of a Corvette Z06. You’ll wrap it around a tree if you don’t learn how to modulate the impulse to redline the engine and pop the clutch. It’s the job of men to teach boys how to manage impulses, keeping themselves and others out of the morgue. How do we do it? By engaging boys in activities of delayed gratification. Think of hunting or fishing, with their hours of preparation and restraint. The payoff is big—as long as impulses are properly managed.
- Competitiveness. When I wrote The Women’s Guide to How Men Think, I surveyed men and women to find out what baffles each gender about the other. One consistent theme from women was their curiosity about the male ability to clash, then shake hands and move on. Men understand that competition doesn’t mean war. Competition improves everyone, and good men teach young men to be grateful for competitors. This is why pee-wee football coaches instruct their teams to shake hands after each game.
- Cooperation. Here’s another point of discussion from The Women’s Guide to How Men Think: contrary to what you might believe, men are highly cooperative with one another—more so than women in some contexts. But like respect, this trait must be cultivated. Competition and cooperation are two sides of the same coin in the male world. That’s why it is why it’s terribly short-sighted and destructive when adults forbid activities like dodgeball, or prevent children from keeping score during soccer games. It deprives boys of experiences that make them better men.
- Loyalty. Whether it’s the team a man plays for, the country he fights for, or the family he lives for, good men teach young men how to be loyal to others. Here’s the most important lesson about loyalty: disagreements don’t need to end relationships. Even Archie Bunker understood that, and Meathead was the better for it.
- Discipline: Every young man should master one vital fact before venturing into the grown-up world: sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you feel like doing a job. Get your ass moving and your heart will follow. Or it won’t. Either way, get to work. Good men teach young men how to overcome inertia. How? Basically, by ensuring that they get their asses moving. With practice, it becomes a reliable skill.
- Heritage. Men thrive best when they understand their heritage. It doesn’t matter if it’s old money, or a long line of hard-working truck drivers. Sometimes men even find their heritage by rejecting a disappointing inheritance and replacing it with one of their choosing. The specifics matter not. A man who understands the actions of his forefathers has the benefit of their guidance even after they’re gone. Good men tell the stories that carry that guidance.
- Values. Good men teach young men how to think about what’s important, and how to do the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable. The specific values matter less than the knowledge that doing the right thing isn’t always easy—like ‘fessing up when you forgot to do your homework, or standing up for the unpopular kid who needs an ally.
- Impeccability. Good men teach young men that “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t cut it when people are depending on you. Do what you say you’re going to do, and do it on time. Excuses steal other people’s time. Excuses give people headaches they don’t deserve. This knowledge doesn’t come naturally to young men. Fortunately, older men are always willing to lend a hand in this department by offering the necessary but sometimes harsh correction. I, myself, was on the receiving end of a few, and I’m thankful for it.
- Stoicism. Boys are reckless critters. When they inevitably get hurt, men are more prone than women to say “walk it off” or “rub some dirt on it.” There’s an important message about character in this: discomfort shouldn’t rule how we respond to the world, and distancing oneself from emotional pain is a vital skill. Yes, fortitude and bravery can go too far, but so can meekness and emotionality.
- Perspective-taking. Following close on the heels of stoicism is the ability to see the world from another’s point of view. Good men teach young men that they can’t be useful to others until they can grasp their needs and motives. Or to put it in manlier terms: sometimes you’re right; sometimes you’re acting like a jackass. You won’t know the difference until you can see things from another point of view.
- Resourcefulness. Good men know how to fix things. That doesn’t mean that every man must know how to properly seat a head gasket or hang drywall. It simply means that a good man has problem-solving strategies for life’s difficulties, and that includes relationship problems. Good men teach young men that problems exist to be solved. Plus, problems are a great excuse to buy new tools.
- Flexibility. Do you know the most important day in a young man’s life? It’s the day he realizes that he can be wrong; that he can take correction, change course, and be stronger for it. That’s the day he becomes a good man; it’s the day he can begin teaching the next generation how to become men.
These are a few of the character traits that help men succeed in life, work, and relationships. Whatever else might be happening in society, plenty of good men are still quietly teaching boys about virtue. That’s something to celebrate.
P.S. Do you want to know more about the quiet, positive side of men? Check out The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think! It’s chock full of solid research, good stories, and helpful relationship tips.