Fathers and sons

Turning Little Boys into Superheroes

Gender is a funny thing.

On the one hand, we as humans have taken long strides in legal and political equality for women, and on the other hand, we as men have lost some of our true nature at the same time.

By that I mean, I can see the beauty and power of the amazing transformational experience that pregnancy and childbirth brings to women. Throughout that time, as her body has grown another human being inside it, with no conscious effort on her part, it’s obvious that there is a good deal of primal or body wisdom involved. Something that is hardwired into to the female genotype that just knows what to do.  The mother doesn’t have to ‘grow’ a tiny kidney, or hand, or anything. It just happens – a miracle, we think.

If we looked at the role of a female of our species with a scientific view, we’d no doubt find that the object is to produce the next generation and care for them. (Now, don’t get offended, I’m just taking a macro view of our genders as if we were what we call animals. Humor me. I’m most definitely not saying that women should just have babies and take care of them as their only activity.)

Our baby girls are born with their eggs already present – their contribution to the species – and so I say in an oversimplified way, that girls have babies, so we can continue with the human race.

And when the mother births the baby, her body has this intricate interplay, or dance, between her natural birthing hormones and her muscles and organs, between her uterus and the universe. It certainly seems like magic to me. Grace, more likely.

Having several daughters, I have noticed that they are almost always girly by nature, and that boys are pretty boyish by nature.  I’ve seen that the needs to experience the world through the body, or the pull to nurture something, are right there, instinctively, before we think they’re old enough to have absorbed our ideas of what boys and girls should be.

So if I’m willing to believe that my daughters are born with some sort of womanliness, and am ready to support and nurture that in them, what ought I be willing to believe for my son?

If being a boy also means that there is a biological manliness in our code, so to speak, then we as men need to begin nurturing it in our sons and nephews. What boyish behavior are we willing to believe has a biological or primitive purpose and should be encouraged, not denied?

What is the male version of childbearing? Where is our primal or body wisdom?

In a general manner, it has been interpreted that protection is the role men play, so is it war or conflict that is the equivalent for us? I’d rather take the side of the bigger picture, in that protection falls under caretaking or providing for the family. We go outside the family and bring back what it needs to survive, whether it is actual goods or the currency to purchase them. That may also include protecting the family from anything outside it, but choosing conflict or war as an aggressive act isn’t part of our nature. Much less energy is needed to continue a peaceful existence than to wage war, in my opinion.

Perhaps the male version of childbearing is child-giving (impregnating)?

That seems too simplistic to me, as when we compare the roles of animal males to humans, most animal males don’t have anything else to do with the mother or children after mating. With humans, and our much longer infant and dependent phase, the male also plays a long-term role in providing for his partner and offspring, so anything that would benefit the family might be counted as a biological trait of manliness.

And that role as provider of food, shelter, and protection tends to lead men outside the house, outside the family, to be on the outskirts. Out-from-behind-the-skirts. On the fringes, so to speak, not in the core of the family unit at all times. Sometimes independently and sometimes with a group, boys will run off and explore, perhaps expressing those ‘outlier’ traits. And at the end of the day, they all return home, back to the family. Hardwired? or learned behavior?

We might say that acting as an explorer or scout or prospector could be a useful biological manliness trait.

We don’t go out into the wild and hunt and gather for food or home anymore, but we still go out into the world and ‘hunt’ money and ‘gather’ groceries. (Again, I know that mothers also do this these days, but I’m generalizing here.)

As boys, we ran and jumped and played a lot more than we do now, and we used our voices to call to each other and to express joy and excitement and disappointment. We don’t do that enough as men. We also naturally formed into groups with a clear leader, and worked together to achieve a common goal, collaborating and sharing our ideas. Yet now, we are mostly placed involuntarily under a boss or told what the goal is, not really pursuing a ‘common’ goal. Kind of like the difference between playing on a school team and playing a pick-up game.

Those boyish skills, though, are important to a scout – to move the physical body through space and to perform work with it, to stay in contact with others and coordinate the work as a team, and to work through all possible solutions to challenges (such as game playing – we always want to play another game of soccer or baseball, because it’s different every time). It’s something we might watch in our boys, and figure out how to bring in some of these influences if they aren’t school sport types of kids or joiners in general.

Perhaps we’ve also confused the idea of hunting with the role of being the hunter.

The hunting might have to happen due to nature, but the hunter can choose the best time and place for him, can learn from his mistakes, and can work through the possible scenarios to be most effective each time – the hunter can adjust. Too often, our ‘hunting’ is after what’s easily available, such as the generic j-o-b, instead of pursuing something more filling or fulfilling to us.

One of the stereotypes of men is that we are our jobs. We over-identify with our work, and our self-worth depends on how fulfilling it is, either financially or emotionally. And if we are indeed ‘hunting’, and we’re always bringing home the smallest of the catches, barely enough to go around, then it’s got to affect how we see ourselves. Is it possible to instill some different values in our young men, such as the idea that we aren’t what we earn, and we aren’t the things we own, and that it’s important for a man to figure out what he’s really ‘born’ to do, not just follow along?

Guiding these little explorers is a father’s work.

We ought to be giving them the benefit of learning from our mistakes, not just our victories. We do them a disservice when we gloss over our mistakes and merely instruct them. For a boy to see his father truly, in relation to the world and to other men, not just an infallible person that we put on a pedestal, is to help him to imagine his manliness, and his true nature.

Guiding them is also a community’s work.

I think that another biological manliness trait we don’t see much of is the act of voluntarily gathering together to share ideas and knowledge, in participatory ‘councils’ and meetings. We gather for things which are expected of us, but not often for things which excite us or move us, and that others could learn (or teach) from. Learning from the ones who have gone before us, and communicating those experiences to others, is a part of the education process. We might think about bringing our boys with us into groups of men – our peer groups, and those older than us, simply to observe and learn.

Here’s my big thought: If we took these biological manliness traits and directed and inspired them in our boys, wouldn’t they be the modern supermen?

The liberated man, the evolved man, the primal man, and the modern man, existing and working in synergy within this new superhero – a giant among men, able to feel and think and act without hesitation because he’s at peace with all the parts of himself – father, warrior, and sage.

So tell me, what do you think are the ‘hardwired’ parts of maleness or masculinity? How can we better accept and nurture those in our boys?

[And please forgive the amateur anthropology/sociology/gender observations and generalizations.]

Oh yeah –> If you like this, you might want to also follow me on Twitter.

Image: malias at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

17 thoughts on “Turning Little Boys into Superheroes

  • I preface my response with the same disclaimer of gender equality that you have in your post. 🙂

    This is beautiful, and something I’ve been thinking about lately. We don’t know the sex of our unborn child (and won’t until it enters the world), but we’ve already bought a pink onesie. Is this a problem? I, manly me, have a pink shirt. It’s a color. And often a good looking one.

    I’ve been thinking of the male’s Biological/Primitive/Instinctive/Nature role as protector. Through this, my wife’s first pregnancy, I find myself to be ridiculously protective. My responses to sudden noises or movements are more visceral and (compared to my norm), a bit extreme. I’m the same ol’ me, but with slightly more check-yourself-before-you-wreck-yourself.

    And if men weren’t the instinctive protector, then why are women so often instinctively attracted to strength? Provider, to me, is just a means of protection. Protection from the elements, starvation, and harm.

    I love your suggestion of child-giver. I think I will combine the two.

    As a follow-up to the initial disclaimer, I would like to point out that I am very much attracted to my wife’s obvious strength, and she, in turn, is attracted to my nurturing sensitivity. There is always balance…
    .-= Terry´s last blog ..The New Age of Privacy =-.

    • Derek Markham

      Terry –

      It’s hard to write about gender these days without a disclaimer… haha.

      Per your last sentence – it’s a beautiful thing to be able to see those qualities in your partner. Kudos to you for expressing it!


  • John Pattok

    I believe nurture is hardwired in males. The stoic man began with Zeno, a third century Greek philosopher, and is, I believe, unnatural. My son has always loved “Papa cuddles” (his term). Part of being a “man” is demonstrating by example the importance of affection – for our children, our spouses, and our community.

    I also think endurance and perseverance are part of our hardwired code. A hunter must continue his quest until he is successful, and cannot let a setback derail him, or his clan will not eat. I notice that the most successful men in our society are those who push on, despite adversity.

    I agree with you about the importance of gathering and sharing information. It also helps us to learn what constitutes a leader, and helps us define our own role within the community, whether as leader or helper. This teaches cooperative effort, an essential survival trait.

    • Derek Markham

      John – Great thoughts. The drive to push on is an important one – I also agree with your point about nurture being hardwired into us, and it’s great to hear another dad say so.

    • I definitely agree as well. Often society pushes us towards stereotypes of “manliness” and loses focus on the big picture of fatherhood. The constant war between society and our natural impulses has led to many extremes of masculinity, men being superior to women at one end, and masculinity being demonized on the other.

      When we’re at peace with our natural roles and familial responsibilities, true “manhood” can come to us allowing us to provide and protect without being overpowering and selfish, and allowing us to nurture and love, without being weak and insecure.
      .-= Danny´s last blog ..The Season =-.

      • Derek Markham


        So true – those stereotypes of manliness are everywhere in the media and our culture. I’d love to see some alternative messages and images portraying this different idea of manliness.

  • Interesting concepts. Oddly enough, those traits that are mentioned as hard-wired are also traits that women seek to create within themselves, or at least i do, and so do most of the women I know. I am a grandmother of 3, have 4 sons and 1 daughter, all adults.

    To this day, I don’t know if the differences in them were hard-wired or culturally imposed. The biggest difference I noticed was when I first opened my daughter’s diaper (my last child) and found all of those folds to clean! Terrifying.

    I strongly disagree with the suggestion that women just have babies. Although it’s true we don’t actively and consciously grow body parts, we do (or don’t) consciously research what to do for maximum health for ourselves and our children. Pregnancy was hard work. Also, it is important to note: a child is a gift to the man that we love. Or should be.

    I would like to propose this: the traits that all of you mentioned above are traits that humanity is working to cultivate in order to better society as a whole.

    • Derek Markham

      Susan – sorry if I made it sound as if women just have babies. That wasn’t my intent – I was merely trying show an obvious feminine biological trait in order to try to find the corresponding masculine ones.

    • Derek Markham

      Daryl – Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out!

  • Wonderful post and discussion. After working with hundreds of children of all ages, I have come to the realization that the genetic code of “the hunter” in boys from ages 8-12 has been strategically capitalized on with video games. These games satisfy a portion of the primal urges that young boys used to need to learn to hunt without compassion getting in the way.
    Now, however, the need is not there in most of the world, though the genetic urge still is.

    Unfortunately, video games are counter-productive for many reasons that I am sure you all agree with. They train our children to kill, to be desensitized to violence, and to lie dormant the physical needs that these games do not satisfy.

    Learning a healthy respect for nature and life through outdoor experiences and building survival skills is a wonderful way to exercise some of that genetic code. Physical activity combined with outdoor skills and even competitive sports can satisfy the needs of young boys today. Outdoor activity compared to video games, reduces aggressive tendencies and behavioral challenges because children need to be much more physical than they are today; at least 2 more hours of physical activity is needed for our children these days to balance their physical, emotional, and behavioral needs.

    In the future, even though the WII has smitten some parents and educators into believing this is enough, hopefully our young boys will have parents that are more knowlegable about their needs to be outdoors and to channel some of these Super Hero qualities into daily life, which can also become nurturing in the care of younger siblings, animals, gardening, building, exploring, cooking, etc.. There is nothing wrong with recognizing the strength in each respective gender without isolating the other.

    As fathers today become caregivers, this is a beautiful evolution, however the physical needs of the child still remain and boys have more need to be physical than girls to utilize their testosterone appropriately. I love that a gentler father is emerging in our culture. To merge this gentler father with the natural world seems to be a win-win for all!

    • Derek Markham

      Interesting thought about video games – it certainly seems to fit, and I’m in agreement with you on the idea of outdoor experiences being a way to use some of that ‘inborn’ code. I was a Boy Scout, and I took a lot from those experiences that still serve me. Cheers!

  • Derek, I applaud you for tackling this kind of topic.

    One thing I’ve observed is that a boy and his dad don’t necessarily share interests, but if the dad works to find a common ground, a hobby or activity they can do together, that can be a wonderful thing for their relationship. Something active is best!

    • Derek Markham

      Thanks, Alison.

      The common ground is indeed the place for great relationships to flourish – great point. I certainly don’t want a little mini-me (which I sometimes encourage by doing the things I want to do, rather than what they want to do). We need to let them be different from us, and that’s difficult sometimes. I sometimes joke that our kids are going to turn out how we least expect it, and may ‘rebel’ against us, the people who vowed to be the best parents ever… After all, we certainly turned out differently than our parents expected.

      It has been interesting to connect with so many other dads recently about this and other fatherhood questions – men are either exploring their masculinity for themselves, or their son is coming of age and they wish to give them the best possible guidance. I hadn’t really considered writing about it here on Natural Papa when I began, but after a couple of posts that were well received, I see a need for more men to talk about it, and think it’s a natural fit here.


  • While I know that hormonal and biological differences do make men and women predisposed to certain activities or personality traits, I don’t know why we should be expected to just go along with them. For instance, I know women are biologically programmed to seek a reliable, safe mate for the long-term, but to cheat with a man who looks like he has good genes when she’s ovulating. Should I nurture that proclivity in my daughters? I don’t think so.

    I think that as rational, thinking beings, we have both the ability and a responsibility to teach our children that the gender roles of our ancestors were a matter of necessity and survival, but that we are free to explore our identity without any reference to what sort of genitalia we have.

    I am reminded of the fact that gender and sexuality are not binary. It’s a spectrum. So I think attempting to engender any sort of “manliness” can only hurt male children, because more likely than not, they won’t fit into any designated gender role we imagine the primal human needed to fit into in order to survive, and they will feel rejected and confused if we try to tell them they should be something other than what they feel they are.

  • Crystal

    “One of the stereotypes of men is that we are our jobs. We over-identify with our work, and our self-worth depends on how fulfilling it is, either financially or emotionally. And if we are indeed ‘hunting’, and we’re always bringing home the smallest of the catches, barely enough to go around, then it’s got to affect how we see ourselves. Is it possible to instill some different values in our young men, such as the idea that we aren’t what we earn, and we aren’t the things we own, and that it’s important for a man to figure out what he’s really ‘born’ to do, not just follow along?”
    ^ this really resonates with me. Thought I’d share. 🙂

  • Thanks Derek for your writing, I’m really enjoying what you write and how you write, being quite the rambler myself, I really admire your ability to discuss such a huge topic and keep it so clear and concise.

    This is such an important topic I think. Your post brings up lots of rich and important connections for me and I’m grateful for that. I grew up as one of 9 kids, in a family with an excessively dominant and violent father, I have four sisters and four brothers! There was a lot of testosterone and a lot of aggression in the family. My husband and my teenage son (my eldest) have inch by inch brought me in to a place of accepting, trusting and loving their maleness and the huge big male energy, the powerful stuff that can achieve anything, but was so intimidating to me as a child growing up, because I didn’t have the positive modelling of it.

    I’ve been with my husband 15 years, 15 amazing years, lots of tough stuff with us both bringing our unresolved childhood issues forward. I thought I’d sorted all that out before I met him, but hmmm not quite ha!!! My oldest child is a boy, he’s now a teenager and my journey of mothering him has been a journey of learning a new model of interacting with the male (sounds so something but you know what I mean – the male energy). From the day my boy was born, I could just see and hear and feel what he needed me to be. I felt empowered and committed to this newer healthier model of male female relating and have overall managed to accept him and be with him in all his hugely vibrant maleness. It’s been a journey that’s required me to be really really conscious of all this stuff, I knew I couldn’t just go on autopilot and ignore my own triggers.

    He and my husband are definitely very manly men but both also incredibly affectionate. They’re both males who have a really good balance. Today my son will no doubt walk in from school and give me the hugest smile and look me in the eye and say “I looove YOU mum!” and give me a big bear hug. When his little sister gets hurt during their rough and tumble, I hear her cry and can feel pretty confident that the next thing I hear is “oh Ayesha, did you get hurt, aaah, big hug”, although if it’s a tiff, he’ll be angry they’ll both be angry but he manages to still express it non-violently, really healthy communication.


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