2017-05-18 / Opinions

Dad’s rule: real men accept responsibility but struggle daily with their own inner fool

By KIP BURKE

My father was a wise man and loved me very much, so he was dedicated to helping me understand that boys cannot become men until they accept responsibility for their actions, completely and without excuse.

It couldn’t have been easy.

As I grew, Dad often told me that he wasn’t raising a boy, he was raising a man. Looking back, I imagine he was thinking of the rising urgency of his own mortality. His own father had died when he was 16, and his grandfather had not lived past 40. He probably felt he was well and truly under the gun to at least get me halfway civilized before he followed his fathers.

But he and my mother loved me greatly, and enjoyed me being a boy, and didn’t mind the dirt, grease, noises and smells that went with the gender. Thank God my Dad raised me understanding that we boys tend to learn by doing, and that broken things, for instance, don’t mean we’re destructive, it’s just that we’re constantly testing ourselves against our environment without considering the consequences.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience often comes from using bad judgment,” he’d say, as we cleaned up the debris of something that seemed to me like a good idea. “So, what did we learn here?” he’d say, expecting a thorough and contrite answer.

It was clear he expected me to never make the same fool mistake twice. Once was a teachable moment, but a second infraction always got a more pointed and memorable correction.

I eventually learned what he wanted me to learn: that all of my actions have consequences, and that I alone am responsible for those consequences, and for my reaction to those consequences. Justifications, prevarications, and rationalizations were toys for boys.

I have a strong memory of Dad’s reaction to one of my misdeeds when I was nine or 10 that helped turn me from my foolish ways. I don’t remember my crime or the punishment, but I’ll never forget noticing, for the first time, the tears in Dad’s eyes over what I’d done. I realized I’d disappointed him, and I’d hurt him, and I remember wanting to never, ever do that again.

I’d like to tell you that I manned right up and never let him down again, but you know I’d be lying. The memory of those tears did, however, lead me down a far straighter path than I would have chosen if I’d just followed my inner fool.

So guys, if you’re wondering at what age boys become men, that’s my father’s answer, and it’s mine: independent of age, it’s whenever you accept complete responsibility for your actions. As long and as often as you blame others for your problems, you’re just a kid, no matter how big you are.

The problem is, it’s not a one-time decision. It’s a choice we have to make every day, every hour, in every interaction in our lives, and we don’t always get it right. We don’t always man up and take the heat when we should, or shoulder a burden we’d rather duck, or tell a woman we were wrong and thoughtless. There are always more ways to weasel out than to stand up, more bad choices than right choices.

It’s easy being a guy, but it’s tough to be a man, every day.

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