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  • Paul Cumbo

Toughness Is Not a Bad Thing

There are a lot of stories in the papers these days about well-intentioned programs designed to get boys to act less like boys and more like girls. These are misguided at best and harmful at worst. We do not need to make boys more feminine. That will not prevent bad things from happening. Instead, we need them to more fully understand the complexity of masculinity. That's enough of a challenge.

And, for God's sake, we shouldn't be telling them not to be tough. The world needs tough men. And to survive adolescence (let alone young adulthood), guys need to realize they are, in fact, stronger than most of what life will throw at them. You know what prevents bad things from happening, most of the time? Tough people who care deeply about other people. Toughness and violence are not the same thing. The former is the best counter to the latter, in fact.

The right approach is to foster toughness integrated with emotional fluency and appropriate expression. We need boys to understand that being emotional and being tough are not mutually exclusive. In fact, to be most effective, each depends upon the other. Genuine toughness requires a healthy emotional life. And developing a healthy emotional life requires some gut checks—a genuine kind of toughness.

My grandfather—well, the only one I got to know, anyway—was tough as hell. But talk about emotional fluency. Nuance, kindness, and gentleness beyond measure. But not at the cost of toughness. Talk about the full landscape of emotional life. There was a man. I think many of us can think of such an example.

"Safe spaces" are okay—but everyone in them should understand safe spaces are only safe because someone tough is keeping them safe, and that the default in life is not safe space. Again, nothing wrong with a safe space from time to time, intentionally built and entered into willingly—but by the time they're old enough to know better, let's not fool boys (or girls) for a minute into expecting to find one whenever they feel uncomfortable. I fear some of the social engineering driven by well-intentioned but misguided educators and sociologists is creating confusion there.

As I say to my students: No, everything is not going to be okay. Some of it is going to be absolutely excruciating. But most things are going to be okay, most of the time. You are so much tougher than most of what you're going to encounter. Keep being tough enough to push back against the bad stuff, so you can be part of keeping it that way. So you can keep the spaces reasonably safe.


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