Oct 18, 2016

What are Little Boys Made Of?

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

The ancients considered dancing a manly skill. King David, warrior and leader of men, played the harp. In the days of Shakespeare, writing poems about love was a male-dominated activity. Caring for horses once fell largely into the domain of men and boys.

Dancing, playing the harp, writing poetry, and dreaming about horses aren’t considered very masculine pursuits anymore. The male sphere has shrunk.

I have a little boy. He’s adorable and thoughtful; he’s fond of Duplos and Cream of Wheat. Sometimes I wonder how to raise him. Where will the transition come between beautiful toddler and boy? Between boy and teen, then teen and man?

I want my son to have plenty of room in this world. Room to dance and write poems. Room to hold doors for ladies. Room to wrestle and tease. Room to someday find a wife and raise children. Room to be not just a decent human being, but a good and decent man. How will this happen in a world that is obsessed with gender while at the same time treating biological sex as an impediment to progress? Some nations and some U.S. states allow individuals to choose “other” when it comes to sex. My son will grow up in a culture filled with books, movies, and T.V. shows eager to push the envelope of gender-bending, gender-swapping, and gender-erasing values.

We live in a time in which both progressives and conservatives are dissatisfied with the way that America’s men behave. The former speak of rape culture, the glass ceiling, and angry old white men. The latter speak of porn culture, the war on boys, and the increasing number of adult males who choose not to work for a living.

All of this can make me afraid. Sometimes I wonder how I, who have never been male and don’t always understand the attitudes and behavior of guys, will help my son grow into the right kind of man.

Of course my husband is an integral part of raising our son. He’s an amazing dad and role-model. Yet it is I, and not Daddy, who is home all day and whose choices and parenting habits shape the culture of our home. I establish rules and choose picture books. I draw the line between a funny joke I’ll laugh at and a joke that’s sent out of the room. I have enough power to make me nervous.

I find it a tremendous relief to view the issue through the lens of vocation.

Function Over Form

Adam declared of Eve, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man." The sexes are distinct and yet distinctly linked. Mark 10:6-8a tells us, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The reality of the existence of two different sexes is inherently tied to marriage and therefore to procreation. To be a man is to be someone who can become a husband and a father. Being male isn’t about “form”--the many accessories, tastes, or habits in which a consumeristic and wealthy society like ours can afford to indulge--it is about function.

Being a good man (inasmuch as a sinful human being can aspire to goodness) is to fill that role in love instead of selfishness. It is about vocation. A good man uses his masculine characteristics--his height, his strength, his opportunities in life, his emotional and mental tendencies--to serve and protect others. In particular, to serve his family. Even a skinny guy who writes poetry can do that.

Contemporary culture is contradictory in the way it tries to erase gender lines in the sphere of behavior, while simultaneously “gendering” everything from baby merchandise to colors. The odd dichotomy teaches children to define their gender through accessories and consumerism. It’s the curse of material prosperity.

Those who are not so cushioned from the reality of conception, birth, and death find it harder to ignore the human body. In that, they have a certain freedom. Male pioneers darned their own socks without worry over gender identity. Female settlers drove cattle and planted fields without considering gender expression. Nowadays we have become incredibly self-conscious about the meaning of what we do.

Service to Others Should Shape Culture

Culture cannot define what it means to be a man. It is important for my son to know that hating sports and liking fashion doesn’t make him female (or, for that matter, gay) any more than disliking dresses and wanting to be a plumber would make my daughter a boy.

Yet a good culture will be shaped by men and women who live out their unique vocations. A civilized culture acts upon the premise that it is the job of the stronger to guard the more vulnerable. That is why civilized cultures do not abandon handicapped babies or leave old people to die in the forest once their usefulness is gone. That is why civilized cultures recognize that men and women ought not to be forced into the straightjacket of gender-blind roles, and instead have rules about how men treat women.

It is given to women to bear and nurture children. This activity, along with the physical and emotional characteristics which make it possible, leaves women more vulnerable in some ways than men. Thus it is given to men to carry the primary burden of protecting women and children if, say, an invading army marches in.

I want my son to grow into the kind of man who, whether he is tough and fit or studious and slender, would sacrificially tackle a home invader, a terrorist, or an enemy soldier if that’s really what he needed to do to save others. It’s a key concept I want to keep in mind as I make the choices of daily parenting.

Daily Life

I hope that my husband and I can carve out enough space for my son so that he can live his early years secure in his sex and free of worries about gender. Already, he knows that he is a boy, and I tell him that when he grows up he can be a man like Daddy. He’s not entirely sure how these things are defined--when I put him in dress pants for the first time after a summer of wearing shorts to church, he exclaimed, “I wear pants! Like a man!” From his perspective, these things are simple.

Experience with nature will help ground him in physical reality and protect him against modern gnosticism. I let him play in the dirt, run barefoot, and play with bugs. He’s too fastidious to touch slugs, but he watches while his sister touches them. I hope he can raise animals and be aware of their life cycles. I hope he can play sports and be comfortable using and appreciating his body.

I let him go as high as he can climb on the playground. I let him use a real shovel. I let him wave sticks in the air. None of the activities are very dangerous, but sometimes my inner mother-hen would like to follow him around while he does them and shout, “Careful! Remember to be careful!” After all, he’s only a toddler. Yet if I teach him by my example that personal safety is the highest of all values, why would he someday step up and do hard, dangerous, or painful things for the sake of others?

My mother-in-law raised four sons, and she has commented that mothers shouldn’t be too quick to discourage their son’s willingness to take risks. It’s better to help them evaluate the pros and cons intelligently and then cheer them on while they try--or, should they hesitate, to remind them of how a previous risk paid off--than to model constant caution.

She also considers it important not to try to force boys to talk about feelings in the way women do. Sometimes the masculine willingness to take action when women would rather talk for a few more hours is just what the world needs. When I discipline my son, I try to keep the conversation short. It is often better to say, “You were pushing your sister. That’s not OK. Now you must stay out of the game for two minutes,” than to emote all of my feelings in a stream of words and to try to produce the appropriate feelings in him in response. Sometimes, even while remaining firm about our house rules, I need to refrain from acting shocked that he used his body instead of his words to try to get his toy back.

I will give him lots of older books to read. Those stories are important not just because I as a mother am attracted to old-fashioned gender roles, but because the boys in so many of those books feel a special responsibility to look after and help provide for their families. What a great jumping-off point to talk about how my son can serve the people in his life!

I don’t want him to grow up resenting the unfairness of the idea that guys should protect girls. My son is not allowed to hit his sister, but I’m going to rebuke her just as firmly if she hits him. I will try to be attentive enough to notice if she is being manipulative or is instigating the conflict, rather than simply punishing him for “finishing it” with physical action. It should also help with this if he sees me show respect for his father.

I am still without a real conclusion about the question of whether or not it is significantly helpful to boys if they learn to do things like change the oil in a car or lift weights. However, something I do want to provide my son is the opportunity to build skills and to do hard things. Whether he reaches heights of excellence in cake baking, mathematics, or music, whether he conquers his fear on the dance floor, the soccer field, or the stage, he will build confidence that will hopefully protect him from agonizing over his identity. Furthermore, he will be vastly increasing his ability to serve and care for others as he lives out his vocations. After all, that’s what being a good man is all about, isn’t it?

I hope that my husband and I will raise a good man. But of course that goal is foolish if it does not include a recognition that we lived in a broken world filled with deeply flawed sinners. Our son will be one of them. Blessedly, neither I, with all my feeble parenting goals and plans, nor he, with all his natural frailty, must make him good. He is accounted good through the righteousness of Christ. That is where I must find my ultimate hope. The same God who created male and female, the same God who says, “I know the plans I have for you,” is the God who gave life to my son through the waters of Holy Baptism. I pray that God will keep my little boy in his baptismal grace. I also pray that God will grant me the wisdom not to get in the way of His work. Ultimately, my son belongs not to me but to Him, and that is the greatest comfort of all.


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. While I agree mostly with your article, I do find it very nice when I can find a male doctor or something like that to care for my son. As a homeschooling family where mom is the one who is with the kids for the vast majority of the day, it is nice to give an example to him of a way that a man can love and serve his neighbor in his vocation. Before our recent move, my children's doctor was a female, and she was a wonderful physician. In our new location, our children's doctor is a male, and he is also a wonderful physician. And I can enjoy knowing that there is one more male role model for my son to see in a world where he primarily sees women working. I hope that one day my son grows up to care for his family and his neighbors, too, and that he can look to these good, godly men as good examples of how to care his neighbors.

  2. This is another excellent piece, Anna! I raised two girls and no boys and I didn't have the genderless culture to tend with. Yet, I still adhered to many of the approaches you mention here. Let children be children playing in the dirt and taking (supervised) risks. And just because one daughter preferred playing with legos rather than dolls did not mean that she self identifies as a boy. Both girls have grown into wonderful women who take their vocation as wife and mother (or aunt) seriously. They recognize the brokenness of themselves and the world and they, too, find their hope in Christ's righteousness. You write it all very beautifully! Thank you for serving in your vocation as writer!! :D

    1. Thank you, Susan! I appreciate the encouragement. :-)

  3. Beautifully written, Anna! I think all mothers of boys would benefit from your comforting words. My boy is only 1, but already I'm mourning the loss of faithful communities such as the previous Boy Scouts for him as we help him navigate this world.

    1. Yeah, it's rough that there are so few places left where boys can have that kind of "boy social space." Maybe Jonathan could start a boys' running club. :-)


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