TODAY, International Men’s Day, four of us will be addressing the Oxford Men’s Group. The question is: ‘What makes a man?’
My answer will be a man is a person who would make a good father. It makes sense that we have been shaped by our reproductive role.
However, fatherhood means so much more than biology. The Fatherhood of God reminds us of that. But neither is fatherhood restricted to the spiritual realm. The general who cares about his young soldiers, the craftsman who takes on a new apprentice, the men who mentor fatherless – they are all demonstrating the qualities of fatherhood. As were the founding fathers who established a new political realm.
What are the qualities of fatherhood we should be inculcating in our boys? Firstly, a father is a provider. If you explore the dawn of our human existence, male provisioning was built into our DNA. The process of becoming upright caused our foremothers to give birth early.
Compared to other primates, humans are born 12 months premature. The only reason we were able to survive, and to have the extended childhoods which allowed for the acquisition of language and culture, was because of our fathers’ consistent care.
For while feminists are fond of drawing attention to the role of ‘alloparents’ – the grandmothers, aunties, siblings and so on – in ensuring survival, it required specifically the role of the father to survive and evolve.
Research on other species has shown that brain size is a function of the constancy of the father’s provisioning. Furthermore, alloparents were only effective contributors if the offspring’s father was around.
Whether this was because the father prevented an alloparent turning poacher when she got hungry, or whether it was by skilfully harnessing others’ capacities, in the absence of the father alloparents did not play a fruitful role.
The importance attached to male provisioning persists for both men and women till the present day. Where men have lower wages, women are significantly less likely to marry them. And when they do get married, they are much more likely to get divorced.
Provisioning is about much more than bringing home the bacon. Men provide shelter, whether this is through renovation or building houses. They provide social education for their children with a particularly important role in relation to their sons.
Men provide social networks through friends, family and employment. Men play a particular role in the transmission of religious faith.
Fathers also provide protection. Traditionally, this was done by protecting the household against intruders or through defence of the society which cocooned the family, by going to war.
But protection means so much more. Fathers provide a sense of security which gives children the confidence to navigate the world. This is so deeply embedded in our evolutionary history you can see it manifest here in the greatest of apes.
Fathers have an inbuilt radar for protecting their daughters from men who do them harm. A BBC children’s series I am fond of watching with my daughter, So Awkward, shows boys subtly steering the girls away from sabotaging relationships with their best friend.
While men may be violent with each other, when it comes to the management of broader human relationships, they have a knack for the avoidance of harm.
Just as mothers present a strong front to their children, thus protecting them from the emotional turbulence of human existence, when men hide their emotions and are strong and silent, this is not, as the feminists tell us, ‘toxic masculinity’. It is men doing the same.
As this beautiful extract from The Grapes of Wrath shows us, when men hide their emotions, everyone feels safe. The scene from John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel, set in dust-bowl Oklahoma during the Depression, is the aftermath of a disastrous dust storm which has destroyed farmers’ crops …
‘The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men – to feel whether this time the men would break.
‘The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood nearby, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break.
‘After a while, the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and there was no break. Then they asked, “What’ll we do?” And the men replied, “I don’t know”.
‘But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.’
All these roles involve a competency and a mastery of the public realm, the world beyond the home. Provisioning requires the skills to garner resources whether hunting, managing livestock, or earning a wage.
Protection involves being able to recognise danger before it gets too close to home. For example, those who had sufficient understanding of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies were able to get their families out of Germany before the Second World War.
A young girl was able to protect a beach full of people from a tsunami – because her geography lesson had given her an understanding of the operation of the natural world. For those who are Christian, being able to identify and understand the cunning of Satan plays a crucial protective role.
Being proficient and competent in the public realm enables fathers to act as a bridge for their children, so they can move between the security of the family and take on the challenges of, and delight in, the fulfilment provided by the outside world.
This bridging role starts early. Research suggests that even when fathers are engaged in primary caring, they do this in a different way from the mother. They are much more likely to take their children on trips and adventures to explore the outside world.
They focus much more than mothers on playing, which, in its interaction with objects, people, rules or social interaction. can be seen as preparation for the world of work.
Engaging in ball games and other sports introduces children to a rule-bound universe and the competition of the outside world. Fathers encourage risk-taking through exploration and rough-and-tumble play. Fathers allow intellectual failure in challenging games.
When dealing with a child’s problems, men dwell less on how the child feels and more with how to solve the problem. This moves the child from a focus on himself to the outside world. Perhaps this is why children who spend more time with fathers have higher levels of empathy.
They have a greater awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people because they are less focused on themselves.
Fathers encourage a child’s independence. In all they do, fathers are involved in knitting their children into society and helping them to carve a place in the outside world.
Tomorrow I will look at the process by which boys become the men who would make good fathers.