Tom Heuerman: Abuse a symptom of how we raise boys


The Adrian Peterson switching case led to a broad discussion of corporal punishment in America. The Ray Rice case led to greater awareness of domestic abuse. The recent story of hazing and sexual abuse in the locker room of the Sayreville, NJ boy’s high school football team shocked a community and led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

This is a Community Voices submission and is moderated but not edited. The opinions expressed by Community Voices contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the TC Daily Planet.

A deeper common theme resides below the surface in each of these stories: How we raise boys in America.

Joe Ehrmann, minister and former Baltimore Colts football star wrote, “All these problems I’ve been trying to deal with, they’re not just problems, they’re also symptoms. They’re symptoms of the single biggest failure of our society: We simply don’t do a good enough job of teaching boys how to be men.”

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, a typical middle class American boy: Sports mostly, school less so, buddies, and later girls. I learned from family, coaches, teachers, neighbors, and older boys the rules of masculinity and how to create the false and unhealthy facade Joe Ehrmann wrote about in his book, Inside Out Coaching: Strength, silence, stoicism, and emotional denial and disconnection—warmth withheld, hearts disconnected from heads, and failure not allowed. Terrence Real wrote in How Can I Get Through to You: “I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization. Disconnection is masculinity.” Boys who resist the rules of masculinity get belittled, bullied, and beat up.

I began to drink in college and the disease of alcoholism moved fast for me. My dad got me into a tough alcoholic treatment center and saved my life. The counselors broke down my defenses. Staff and patients gave me painful feedback all day, every day, for a month. I explored my values, thought about my purpose in life, and shared my personal inventory with a priest.

I began to learn to be emotionally self-aware, how to experience and understand my feelings, and how to connect with others. I felt the power of love and a sense of community in treatment that I’d never felt before. I wanted to live and to feel alive and left the treatment center scared and committed to a value-driven life. Treatment rescued me from a false self and the unhealthy rules of manhood, and I began the life-long journey to greater authenticity.

I’ve spent the past 40 years on a quest to learn and evolve not as a man but as a human being. On this journey, I’ve wrestled with the beliefs I was taught—mostly subtle and unconscious–about money, career, success, control, conformity, competition, masculinity, and relationships. I realized that most of what I had learned about masculinity and being a man is wrong. Moral courage, excellence, authenticity, human connection, and personal responsibility became important values I strive to live my life by—always imperfectly.

Ehrmann wrote that life is about relationships and purpose. He encourages boys to ask, “What is the core purpose of my life, why am I here?” and to think about the kind of son, brother, husband, father, friend, and neighbor they want to be.

American is in dire need of mature and healthy men who can put violence aside: Men who know what they feel and are able to express their emotions appropriately. We need men of strength—even ruthlessness in honesty and decision-making at times–who can also be caring and compassionate. We need kind and gentle men with empathy who can lead with tough-love and hold others accountable. We need men of great moral courage who can tell the truth and stand up to the evil and dysfunction around them.

To raise boys differently, we must become aware of the unwritten rules of masculinity and change them and the ways we engage with young boys. Grown men who find the old rules insufficient for a meaningful life must embark on a journey of personal introspection and transformation. Personal evolution to become a more complete human being is difficult. Those who deny the journey as “touchy–feely” are saying, “This stuff scares me.” Courage is required.

The goal isn’t to turn men into women but for men to become more alive and whole.