Why telling our sons to 'be a man' is the worst thing we can say

Boys and girls cry equal amounts growing up, but boys are ultimately told to 'man up'.
Boys and girls cry equal amounts growing up, but boys are ultimately told to 'man up'. Photo: iStock

There's a three-word lie whispered to every little boy, over and over again, that's ruining society, trashing lives and can be blamed for everything from domestic violence, to rape culture, casual sexism and the rise of the hilarious-but-dangerous men's rights movement.

The insidious lie we all believe by the time we can walk and talk is we have to "be a man". That's it.


These three tiny words pack a mean punch, which rings through the heads of boys and young men every day as they try to navigate the path to manhood.

There's something wrong when 'be a man' simply means a list of things you can't be.
There's something wrong when 'be a man' simply means a list of things you can't be. Photo: AleksandarNakic

Here's what it is to "be a man."

Don't cry, don't express any emotion – except anger – don't be a pussy, don't be a "girl", don't be gay. Don't show any weakness. Be aggressive, dominant, be big, tough, athletic and courageous. Be decisive. Don't ask for help. Be good at "getting chicks" but remember women are lesser, objects, especially sex objects. Oh, and be relentlessly heterosexual.

Baggage passed down

To this day I personally struggle with the power "be a man" has wielded in my life and see, more and more clearly, the massive impact it has had on our collective male psyche.

It comes from our fathers, uncles, brothers, schoolmates, cool older guys, sports coaches, and of course, in every element of the media we're bombarded with every day.

Emotional scar tissue

Here's a few shameful examples from my own life.

As coach of my daughter's under-six mixed soccer team, I accepted the girls picking flowers and choreographing dance routines when they were supposed to be defending goal, but found myself hissing at a five-year-old boy that he didn't have any "self-respect" for being scared of the ball. He cried. I was disgusted. At him.


At 16, in a senior rugby team in New Zealand, where how to "be a man" is expressly outlined at every practice session, I sat on a bench, after a game, with my friend and team-mate, Don. He was almost 2-metres tall, already covered in lean muscle and a hard man, feared by the opposition, respected by his peers. He was "going far".

In the dying winter afternoon light, sheltered from a freezing wind, his eyes filled with tears as he confessed he "didn't like" playing rugby. It hurt. It was boring. He hated it. But he had absolutely no choice in the matter. His father, his coach and us, his mates, just wouldn't allow … quitting.

Fear of being vulnerable

I was mystified, horrified, and couldn't get away from him fast enough, lest some of the "pussy" somehow attach itself to me. I have never forgotten the shocking, unexpected depth of emotion, and only now understand how desperately he was reaching out.

'Be a man' glorifies some of the worst  behaviours displayed by males, including agression and misogyny.
'Be a man' glorifies some of the worst behaviours displayed by males, including agression and misogyny. Photo: iStock

"You have nothing to fear but fear itself," my fit, extreme-sports loving brother, once told me gravely. This is from a man who thought running with the bulls at Pamplona was a good idea.

The danger of difference

A friend's son's favourite colour is pink and he wants to be a flower arranger when he grows up. He loves dressing up in girl's clothes and plays predominantly with dolls.

"What about being a fireman, or a cop?" I ask him helpfully.

"No, only flowers," he says firmly.

"See," says my friend, "little gay man!" We laugh and talk about how "life isn't going to be easy for him" and agree that, on the face of it, he seems quite gay.

"Oh well, at least I won't have to worry about teaching him how to be a man," said my friend.

Yep, a little boy, deeply loved, had already broken the rules so was going to be treated differently for the rest of his life. He was and still is.

We're lying to ourselves

At my school of 800 boys, no-one was gay and no-one was a virgin. Statistics may suggest this was manifestly not true but making sure we were seen as "men" was by far the most important thing in our lives, too easy to lie for.

Here's the problem. To "be a man" is the polar opposite of what is actually important to successful manhood – meaningful relationships and the ability to love and be loved.

On our deathbeds, our abs and BMWs and all the hot chicks we banged are going to be exposed as the meaningless things they are. All that will really matter is the connections we've made with the people we love and who love us.

Worse, domestic violence – one woman a week dying at the hands of a partner in Australia – flows directly from the inability to communicate properly, the view of women as lesser objects and anger being the only emotion men are able to express.

Redefine who we are

All men are part of the solution. It's our job, our duty, to redefine what it means to be a man in our own lives and those we influence.

Being brave enough to not "be a man" might be the most "manly" thing we can do.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher New Holland. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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Do you think it's time to redefine what it means to be a man? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.