It has never really been socially acceptable for men to talk about what it’s like to be a man, much less to discuss what might make a good one.
Steve Biddulph is a UK born Tasmanian resident and a family psychologist, perhaps better known for his books, talks and seminars on parenting and the education of boys, but in Manhood – An Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives he takes a close look at what is wrong with the way men relate to themselves, each other, their families and the broader world today.
Biddulph takes as his starting point the assertion that something has been going slowly wrong with manhood since the Industrial Revolution a couple of hundred years back, and we are only now really starting to hit braking point.
He says every man he has ever met knows another man who has taken his own life, or is in jail, or who hates his marriage, or is hated by his kids.
He uses the advent of the Women’s Liberation Movement as proof that people are capable of looking at its lot, saying “this isn’t good enough” and then actually doing something about it.
Men’s Liberation – From Themselves
While women were seeking to liberate themselves from oppressive stereotyping and inequality, Biddulph argues that men too now need to liberate themselves from similarly dangerous and restrictive stereotypes which they often apply to themselves.
The main problem is that no one shows you how to be a man these days. The rise of Industry took dads out of our homes and put kids in schools, away from uncles & granddads – the result is that many male kids grow up with little or no contact with, or access to, friendly caring older men. You are given no instruction on how to become a man beyond that which is shown on TV – little boys grow up to be bigger little boys, rather than men.
Left alone, a seedling will grow into a tree and a tadpole will turn into a frog. But a human child does not turn into a functioning adult without lots of help. To learn the gender you are, you probably need thousands of hours of interaction with older, more mentally equipped members of your own gender.
Biddulph proposes this goes some way to explaining the fact that:
- men have shorter life expectancy than women – on average 6 years
- men routinely fail at close relationships
- 90% of violent crime will be carried out by men, who will also comprise 70% of its victims
- 90% of kids with behaviour problems in school are boys, as are 80% of kids with learning difficulties
- 1-in-7 boys will experience sexual assault by the age of 18
- In 2000, suicide accounted for 1 in every 36 male deaths.
It’s certainly an interesting idea and one that I found compelling.
There are of course solutions. Most of them involve talking to other blokes, learning what they’ve learned, talking about what you’ve been through, your mistakes, your triumphs, your fears & failures and so on.
There are apparently 7 steps to becoming a man and they are:
- Fixing it with your dad
“you cannot get on with your own life successfully until you have understood your dad, forgiven him, and come in some way, to respect him.”
- Getting ok with sex
Sex can be either sleazy and obsessive, which is bad, or sacred and powerful, which is good. Make sure the sex you have is the latter.
- Meeting your partner on equal terms
“Anyone can get a partner – the trick is keeping them”. How to tread that delicate line between Softy and Bully with the woman you love.
- Engaging actively with your kids
Learn what you are really teaching your kids, what your sons need to know and what you mean to your daughters
- Learning to have real male friends
Learning to accept help from other blokes in all areas of your life, both to pick you up and to keep you level.
- Finding your heart in your work
It isn’t enough just to make a living – what you do should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, change.
- Freeing your wild spirit
The importance of nature, the wilderness, bobbing about in the sea and all that good stuff.
Quite a lot of this book is made up of quotes from Iron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly, and at times I wondered how much of what I was reading was Steve Biddulph and how much spun Bly. It often seemed that barely a page went by without some quote or other from the multi-award winning poet but I take his point, I’m a grown up and I got over it.
Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly switched-on, tuned-in kind of a bloke – I can talk to women, I am starting to get on with my dad after a fairly staggering hiatus, I know my footy, and I’m as much an outdoorsman as the next member of Sydney’s second oldest bushwalking club – so what did the book do for me? Am I now a whole new New Man?
The simple answer is: not yet.
It may be part of my existing “mask” but I think I’m actually doing OK. Sure there are areas I could improve, I’m not so conceited as to think I’m perfect. The book has certainly made me more aware of my responsibilities towards other guys both older and younger, of the importance of honest communication in all directions. I will try to remember to pick the book out again once I have kids, or perhaps the next time I go see my dad. But neither can I honestly say that I found myself saying things like “OMFG I never realised that before”.
That is not to say the points and ideas are not well put or important, because they are. He manages for the most part to write with honest integrity without veering too far into whacky-hippy-dippy territory. His main audience is still blokes after all.
The biggest issue I see with this kind of book is getting the target audience to pick it up and read it. Sure a lot of guys are profoundly unhappy, and very much aware of the gaping holes deep inside them, but actually doing anything about it is still a big step for many guys. Getting blokes to read self-help books is not an easy task, and relying on women, partners or kids to gift the book is still no guarantee that the old fella will actually read it.
Not that that is any kind of reason not to try.
Reading this book will be an important moment in the lives of many men, and of course the lives of those around them. The ideas in “Manhood” are certainly worth a read, even if like Stefan in his review from DIYfather.com you don’t get all of them.
It is also worth noting that the book isn’t intended only to be read by men – it is by no means secret men’s business. Women, girlfriends, wives, mothers, aunties, nieces and daughters will also learn a great deal about those often silent grumpy man-lumps that slump around the house.
To get some idea about the man and his ideas, here is a short demonstration video from gentle-voiced Steve Biddulph himself, taken we presume at a recent Raising Boys seminar.
In the first part he describes his unease at how easily old guys seem to converse with young kids, and the positive co-dependence between men and boys (4min 51sec):http://mattswan.com/books/audio/Steve_Biddulph__Raising_Boys__talk_excerpt_1.flv
In the second part he imagines how life can force a man apart from his kids (2min 08sec):http://mattswan.com/books/audio/Steve_Biddulph__Raising_Boys__talk_excerpt_2.flv
And in the 3rd part he shares an extract from “Manhood” about how little boys can learn to control themselves and their bodies from the simple act of wrestling with dad (4min 09sec):http://mattswan.com/books/audio/Steve_Biddulph__Raising_Boys__talk_excerpt_3.flv
So why would I recommend it for reading in a men’s book club? Well for a start it is under 300 pages long, it is a quick read. Nice.
Secondly, everyone should at least have a personally informed opinion on the book, whether it re-awakens the primal man-spirit laying dormant at your very core, or you just discard it as a load of old sloblock.
Thirdly it may have a radically positive or profound effect on everyone and we’ll ditch the book entirely and form a men’s group instead.