Mothers of Men

One of the key places where modernity went wrong was in its belief that education is a gender-neutral activity. Boys in particular suffer from this error.

There’s a story about the greatest of all heroes, Achilles. His mother, Thetis, terrified that her son will meet an early death at Troy, forced him into hiding, dressed up as a woman in the crowd of daughters of King Lycomedes of Skyros. Clever Odysseus, tasked with collecting heroes for the war, brought a trunk of gifts for the princesses, with a sword hidden in the pile of dresses and jewelry. As the real princesses delighted over the contents of that chest, the false princess half-heartedly stood by until the glint of cold steel caught his eye. Springing forward, Achilles seized the sword and roared, “and this, this is for me!”

I was reminded of this rather obscure tale the other day as I watched my two-year-old son pick through the frilly pink piles of his sisters’ dress-up clothes strewn across the playroom floor. He was in search of his cap gun. At the age of two, his maleness is just beginning to dawn on him. For a brief moment, babies are all basically alike—little smiling balls of fat and spit-up who stare in wide-eyed awe at the world around them. By two, however, most little girls desire princess dresses while most boys seek their swords. 

I am, I admit, a bit green at mothering: I have not yet navigated the choppy waters of puberty and the teenage search for selfhood. But helping our children discover their God-given gendered natures must begin quite early, especially in a world that would usurp our parental roles and bend our children’s identities to the point of breaking. It is not enough, however, to instill the truth that boys are boys and girls are girls. The modern era has utterly confused the whole way that boys and girls are brought up, and even conservatives must reevaluate our assumptions if we would craft adults who will not only weather the storms but flourish.

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One of the key places where modernity went wrong was in its belief that education is a gender-neutral activity. The whole of education must be directed to an end: and boys and girls really do not flourish when they swallow the idea that, as adults, they can lead satisfying lives in pursuit of the same exact social and financial ends. Long gone are the days where girls had home economics courses while boys took shop class. In fact, as education has become more “inclusive” and “equitable,” it has become less useful. The result has been that millennials and zoomers often struggle with “adulting,” alongside their inability to feel comfortable in their own gendered natures.

Thus, modern education primed children for today’s shallow “choose your own identity” game: the man-envying feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped dull our understanding of gendered natures. Only once we were numb to the fundamental divide between male and female could we embrace the idea of “penis-havers” and “people who menstruate,” who might be men or women based on their choice of clothes and hair length—or simply a twitter profile pronoun selection.

Modern education’s goal is to produce what the elementary school near my childhood home proudly termed “future producers”—essentially cogs in a mechanized society where it is beneficial to reduce gendered human nature to mere fashion. When you are educating producers, you want them all to be essentially of the same shape and size, so that they are easily fitted, like pegs, into prefabricated slots. Gender, in this scenario, is only the gratuitous paint job on each peg. And this is modern success: to rid ourselves of our masculinity and our femininity in service to an inhuman state that—as the past two years have more than demonstrated—does not care about us.

But I do not want my little Achilles to fit in. I do not want to hide him from the wars, for that would be denying him his divine destiny to become a man. However, for mothers, it is at times difficult to face the reality of our little sons discovering maleness. Toddler girls, in discovering that they are little women, lean in to embrace a shared identity with their mothers; little boys push back, seeking a difference they sense instinctively. 

Don’t mistake me: this does not mean that little girls get along with their mothers by necessity while little boys do not. But what it does mean is that mothers and daughters find themselves on a common path: in helping my two little princesses blossom into women, I can both rely upon my own experience as a woman as well as contemplate areas where I, too, must grow to fully embrace the divine design of my feminine identity.

By contrast, to help my sons become men—and not simply modern, socially neutered pantomimes of men—I have to battle the temptation to give into my fears the way Thetis gave into hers. I need to steel myself to be more like the Spartan mother who famously sent her young son off to war with his father’s shield and the admonition to return “with this shield or upon it.” The difference between those two mothers is that one of them did not really respect her son’s male nature while the other one respected it so much that she could conquer her desire for control.

Of course, my husband, as a man, is my sons’ primary teacher for what it means to be a man. But mothers have two important tasks in raising men. First, we must avoid the urge to baby, to smother, to control a nature wildly different from our own. Second, we must consistently and lovingly hold our sons up to a masculine standard that is alien to our own feminine one. (For the record, masculine does not mean better, nor does feminine. Nor does it have much to do with their math skills!)

Many young men vent their frustration that society has become womanized and that healthy masculine impulses have been curtailed by prim organization. Again, a lot of this finds its source in modern education, which has virtually eliminated every aspect of traditional masculine virtue (and male space) in favor of compliance and equality. It is not for nothing that modern educators (typically women), fed up with young boys’ inability to sit still for hours on end, have diagnosed them with attention deficit disorder at rates double that of young girls. 

Men and boys can be organized and can absolutely focus. They invented military drills, after all. But this was accomplished by acknowledging and appealing to the masculine nature, rather than by demanding it be laid aside in pursuit of a gender-neutral, one-size-fits-all system. Thus, in raising boys, we must seek that which harmonizes and strengthens their sense of maleness rather than deadens it. 

The same holds true of girls. It is in teaching girls to delight in their early impulse toward beauty and desirability, to cultivate the budding desire to create and nurture, that we mold girls who are proud to be women—neither envious of men nor lost neutrals attempting to cover their genderless nakedness with the latest freakishness.

This is not to say that we must raise boys and girls as cliches, which is just about as destructive as raising them as gray, gender neutrals. Premodern man had a healthier sense of what was masculine and feminine and did not call the huntress a tomboy nor the tailor a sissy. Pioneer women hewed logs and hoed the fields of their homes with their babies on their backs. Virile men have composed music that makes you weep to hear it. The modern progressive element would have us believe that this was because the past’s sense of gender was more fluid. In reality, it is because our ancestors’ conception of gender was more solid than our own. 

Because of this, premodern mothers and fathers focused their children’s educations around their gendered natures and often celebrated their sons’ and daughters’ achievement of manhood or womanhood with ritualized rites-of-passage that have all but disappeared from modern society, replaced by corny graduation ceremonies that are neutral and drab to the core. To solve the problem, we cannot simply go back to old-fashioned education: all good education arises out of the needs of its own cultural moment. But we should reemphasize our children’s gendered needs and natures as we craft their education. We are, after all, not interested in producers. We seek heroes for the war.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]


  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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