Those over age 70 can remember the time in America when every man was expected to aspire to the goal of being a gentleman. But because no one can give what he does not have, and thanks to three generations of fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers rejecting each other, the ethos of gentlemanliness has eroded. Millennial fathers raising young sons now must invent out of whole cloth what family, school, college, and media have failed to give them.
Cardinal John Henry Newman defined for all time the ideal of the gentleman as he set about the task of being the first rector of Ireland’s new university (now University College Dublin, my alma mater). For him, training gentlemen was the central measure of a university’s capacity to contribute to society.
Newman’s gentleman is habitually considerate of the physical, emotional, and even the intellectual safety and comfort of those around him, doing so with a degree of self-control so practiced and relaxed it goes unnoticed. Though he is most reasonable, he knows that, in relationships, kindness is more powerful than reason, and therefore seeks to understand others, most especially his opponents, while remaining a man of principle in his own actions. Because he is reticent to draw attention to himself, he is attentive to the temperament of others, which makes it easier for him to give them the benefit of the doubt. His habit of making others look good leads to ease in leadership. Though all this is a tall bill, it is one worth aspiring to. It is achievable. It has been done by many, repeatedly.
Because we are all imitators, any father who aspires to form such greatness in his sons must first set the same bar for himself. If his own father was a gentleman, he has a great head start, but if, as for so many today, his father was not around or was not a gentleman, he seeks his own role models, knowing it is easier to imitate than to invent what he was not given.
He understands that if his son is totally confident that he is liked by his father, then he will imitate him. Therefore, he invests heavily in playtime when his son is small because this can bind his son’s heart to his with an ease that quickly recedes, and which is totally gone by adolescence when this closeness will be most needed. If the boy’s mother simultaneously conveys her delight in his father, then their son is a boy without conflicts who will absorb everything he can about being a gentleman.
But how does a man evoke such a response from the mother for his sons? By dint of constant effort, starting in earnest when his son is still in the womb. During courtship, it is easy to be a gentleman because the woman is so desirable, and the man is seeking to win her. However, marriage “up close and frequent,” especially during pregnancy, tests men in ways beyond anything most expect: having to think first of the wife’s needs and desires, physically, emotionally and even intellectually; overlooking her mistakes; giving her the benefit of the doubt when he is about to criticize; learning the limitations of her temperament, that temperament that attracted him before marriage but did not show its accompanying weaknesses till the intimacy of married life unmasked them. (The wife is simultaneously learning the same about him.)
With his son’s birth, this father passed from being a "rookie gentleman" of the minor leagues to major league status as each new stage in family life pushed him to the next level of his own development, just in time for his ever-growing son to have new dimensions to imitate. Somewhere along the way, he begins to see how inter-dependent are his and his son’s growth.
When his boy is around age 7 to 9 (today, puberty is way too late), this father makes sure that he alone, and no one else—and most especially not pornography—is the one to induct his son into the knowledge of male and female sexuality, an induction he began covertly years earlier when he taught him to respect the modesty of his sister and mother by giving them an inviolable privacy in their bedrooms and the bathroom.
Over the next eight years or so, in well-timed talks, he imparts to his son his deepest knowledge of the physical, emotional and intellectual aspects of male sexuality and makes sure he is the first one to reveal the beautiful mystery of how it complements female sexuality. He takes great care to tutor him in how to gain the sexual self-control that both permits chastity while single and endows sexual prowess when married. In this phase of induction more than anywhere else, his son senses the depth of the private prayer life of his father without which this mode of controlled sexuality is most unlikely and virtually impossible. And he takes special care to tutor him on the effects of pornography, which can quickly deprive men of ideals, heart, and sexual potency—turning them into slaves of the figments of a corrupted imagination. He lets his son in on his own ways of resisting these temptations, and his ways of avoiding them in the first place—keeping the battle far away from the gates of his heart, preserving always his love for his son’s mother and his daughters.
A young man so tutored in sexuality and love by his father will have what it takes to win the woman he wants to give his heart to—a cultivated heart given as a whole and not in left-over pieces. Should his mother also convey how much she has thrived on the love of his father, that son is virtually guaranteed to be a most powerful lover in his own time, and a generation from now, his future wife will be conveying the same message to their son.
Should the women of #MetToo get this vision for the men of America, we well could begin our next Great Awakening. In the meantime, real men must begin the most important and challenging work of their lives: being the gentlemen their sons can imitate, as they form their boys into men that mothers will want their daughters to marry.
Patrick Fagan, Ph.D., from Dublin, Ireland, is Director of MARRI at the Catholic University of America, and publisher of Faith and Family Findings. He has been a teacher, family therapist, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Family and Community Policy at HHS for President George H. Bush, after which he was Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and at The Family Research Council.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.