Strong. Powerful. Tough and fearless! I had just asked an 11-year-old boy at the facility where I work as a counselor and case manager what he thought made a man "a man." His response was not a surprise. The child has been in several fights since his placement with us. I then asked him what he thought about a man being kind, gentle, and caring. It was also not surprising when he responded, "Those are more what women and sissies are like." We had started our conversation by talking about a public figure who was great at his craft, loved by many, extremely famous, but had often been involved in domestic violence. This child said he liked the famous man because he could dominate his craft, he was strong, could fight, and had a reputation for mistreating women.
It was clear that the child had a misconception of what are manly and womanly qualities. I then asked him, "Don't you like and expect all people to be gentle, kind, and loving to you and to others?" He laughed and said that guys who acted like that were considered sissies. I challenged him to tell me what qualities he thought I had. He started by describing me as "nice, caring, and fair." With that said, I asked him, "Are you calling me a sissy?" He shook his head and said, "No." I then asked him if maybe men who aren't sissies can be kind, caring, and gentle—and still be strong and manly? He wasn't sure.
I showed him an old picture of myself in a football uniform. Initially, he did not think the picture was me. I finally convinced him that I did play football and that I was able to demonstrate strength, speed, aggressiveness, and toughness while on the field. We talked about the fact that when I am off the field, I still can demonstrate those qualities but that I also demonstrate the qualities that he so blatantly referred to as being sissy. I then told him we were going to identify what makes a true man, what he should be and can aspire to be—that he can express his manliness, not only by demonstrating strength, toughness, and courage, but by also being gentle, caring, thoughtful, and considerate of others.
So, this young fellow is now learning that beating up somebody doesn't make you a man, and that walking away instead is actually a very manly thing to do. It's a process, of course, but I can see that he's beginning to understand this new concept of manhood and internalize it. It may take some time to completely turn him around from thinking that violence is manly and to fully respect women, but at least he's taking some firm steps in a more positive direction.
Working individually with kids like this boy has taught me a lot about how to bring into focus the qualities of both fatherhood and motherhood in myself so I can help these young people find those same qualities in their own lives. I know that we all have this balance of qualities because they come from God, our divine Parent—both Father and Mother.
Besides being a counselor and case manager of kids like the 11-year-old I mentioned—I'm officially called a mental health rehabilitation specialist—I facilitate group sessions with kids from the ages of 7 through 13. They're from a lot of different ethnic backgrounds—Hispanic, Caucasian, African-America, Asian-American, and even Native Americans. Many of theses kids I work with are severely disturbed emotionally. In my work, I focus on teaching them life skills—how to resolve conflicts, control anger, treat others with respect, and to change how they think about always needing to be macho.
I was raised by a single mom, and I am so grateful that she expressed both motherhood and fatherhood qualities. She was the one parent, but she had to raise all four of us kids with the strength and discipline of the traditional father role, and also be right there for us with all the tenderness and caring that mothers usually are associated with.
Since these are all actually spiritual qualities, my mom knew that she had all she required to provide us with the fathering and mothering we needed. I remember my mom always emphasized that because we are all made in the image of God, as it says in Genesis 1:27, we all include the balanced qualities of motherhood and fatherhood. Growing up, I didn't have what was considered an active "father figure" in the home—what I had was a mother who understood she could both mother and father us. And it worked out very well for all of us.
From my mother's example and my upbringing, I've been able to see how my fathering characteristics are balanced with my mothering qualities. And this stability definitely carries over into my work. Having been a football player and coach helps to build my credibility with the kids I work with, especially when I'm gently, caringly mothering them. It helps them to see that it is not only OK but right for a strong, athletic man to be also loving, tender, and respectful.
For example, I have a little seven-year-old boy I work with who refers to women with curse words and gets into lots of fights. He was a witness of domestic violence and saw his father beating up his mother quite often. When I asked the boy why he felt he had to fight, he said that his dad told him to handle things this way. So I talk with this child about why it isn't right to handle things that way. I've told him, and I tell other kids, what my mother told me when I was younger—that "only cowards fight." I tell them that I have been in only two fights in my whole life. Most of the time they reply that I must be a sissy, but I tell them, "No, I'm not. Hey—I don't want to be beaten up—do you?" And they have to agree that, no, they definitely don't like being beaten up.
So, I focus on giving lots of love, role modeling good behavior, and setting good examples for them to want to follow. We help them express their feelings, and we use words like happiness, joy, kindness, love— caring words that they may rarely hear elsewhere. We give them hugs when needed, and they sometimes spontaneously hug us, which always puts a smile on all of our faces.
It was clear that the child had misconceptions of what are manly and womanly qualities.
As for my own four children, we share lots of love, hugs, and warm, happy times along with the usual discipline that all kids need. My wife and I feel we can both freely express mothering and fathering attributes with our children. I'm not home as much I'd like to be. My wife works, and she takes the little ones with her to the school where she teaches. My oldest girl is in high school. So when I'm not able to be with our children, my wife obviously has to feel comfortable expressing some of the typical fatherhood qualities.
And she understands, as I do, that there's a spiritual foundation for being able to do this—because we both express all the qualities of our divine Parent, Father-Mother God. And I think that because we've raised our kids this way, they know that they will get motherly comfort and tenderness from me and fatherly strength and guidance from my wife—whatever is needed from either parent in any circumstance.
I can see that this way of thinking and living has had a ripple effect. I learned from my mom how natural it is to both mother and father children, and now my kids are learning it from my wife and me. In turn, I'm sure they will be able to convey this balance of spiritual qualities to their kids. That's also what I hope will be the case for the youngsters I work with. And I know that if they can get even a glimpse of their natural, spiritually based mothering nature, they—and the world—will be better for it.
Isahn Shoemake and his family live in Claremont, California.
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