(Don’t) Toughen Up

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Max is a gentle soul, a lover not a fighter and wears his heart on his sleeve. He needs scratches to be kissed better, no matter where they are; bum scratches are the worst kind.  He runs up to ‘big boys’ in the park and requests a hug – he is yet to have had his offer taken up. He is bemused by other boys’ fascination with their balls, the sporty balls that is. When he does find himself on the wrong end of a kick, he looks at them with bemused eyes and then looks at me and asks “why?” – I don’t really know what to tell him.


In recent times I’ve found myself wanting to ‘toughen’ him up, only I don’t really want to toughen him up, I love him just the way he is. What I’m actually doing is pre-empting the concerns I have for him when he one day turns up at school and his gentle ways are seen as a weakness. I see a lot of my own personality in his, I was the same gentle soul, still am and it didn’t take the schoolyard bullies long to work out that I was an easy target. How do you toughen a 2 year old anyhow? Less sympathy when they hurt themself? Less cuddles before bed? No reprimands when they show aggression towards others? Martial Arts films before bed?

Last week I was eves dropping on a conversation between two parents, one was telling the other that he’s pleased his 2 year old boy “plays rough” and that he goes out of his way to encourage it. Reading between the lines the Dad in question was what you might call an alpha male, he certainly viewed himself in that way, I think his definition of what it is to be male is about being louder, tougher and stronger than the next one – you know the type? He gave every impression that he would be ashamed if his son didn’t fit into that narrow definition.


I’ve come to the conclusion that Max is just fine the way he is. I don’t want to teach him to “play rough”. If being male is about being tougher, stronger, louder then I’d prefer to concentrate on redefining it, in my own house at least. I’d prefer to teach him that the virtues he has are every bit as valuable. He’ll come a cropper here and there, everyone does, and that’s when we will be there to pick up the pieces and put him back together.

That’s the parent I aspire to be. One who lets him be who he is, whatever that turns out to be.  To support him whenever he needs it but not to restrict him, not to make decisions for him and eradicate all potential for mistakes.  He seems to be doing a very good job at steering his own ship and with a bit of support and guidance when necessary he’ll arrive at the right destination, his right destination. Hold your line Max, you’re doing just fine.

2013-03-09 11.13.45


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  • Neets

    Great post Matt. I have the very same concerns about my boy & I fear that he will be an easy target at school. It worries me. He is the sweetest, gentle, little kid who throws on cuddles, kisses & I love you’s from me. All I’m hoping is his feisty, fearless 2 year old sister will be there for him to scare all those bullies away :) she’s the complete opposite! :)

    • daddownunder

      We’d better have a daughter quick smart. I’m sure we’re both not giving them enough credit, parents are always trying to foresee possible difficulties – best to take each day as it comes I guess rather than pre-empt things we cant control. Thanks Neets.

  • Lisa Berriman

    I think it is a great way to raise a child. Life will toughen our kids up anyway. I think it is best to let kids know that they can come to their parents and family and be vulnerable and know that they will get the comfort they need. I think “toughening them up” has the potential to weaken the important family bonds they need to fall back on when life is hard.

    • daddownunder

      Couldn’t agree more Lisa, there’s no point trying to foresee what might happen, best to enjoy each day and be there for them.

  • FastLaneDad

    With the Martial arts movies, Chuck Norris is probably the best for that as he rarely uses bad language and also he’s still going at 73 so a great role model too. Much like yourself of course Matt 😉

    Wise words and with 3 boys that are older, you’re spot on with your outlook.


    • daddownunder

      Chuck it is, I’ll blame you when he starts putting other kids in choke holds. Apparently Chuck can slam a revolving door

  • http://lilybettandboy.blogspot.com/ Lilybett and Boy

    TED talk about this very issue – redefining the phrase “Be a Man” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws

    • daddownunder

      Thanks Elizabeth (do you prefer Liz?), I’ll check it out, promise I didn’t plagiarise ; )

  • rick_farrar

    A great post Matt. You, I and many others appear to have had similar experiences. When Max experiences something unpleasant, I hope that you’ll be there to show him that he can be biter or better and then help him to be better. He will toughen up in his own good time. I hoe that he will maintain his sweet nature. You managed that so there is no reason why he shouldn’t. As parents, the best we can do is to be there as a sounding board to help our children to make sense of what has happened and to support their efforts. I wish you well in this task.

  • Jemma

    My son is 5 now, and while some of his gentler aspects have worn away after playing with other children at pre-school and now school, he’s still at heart a very sensitive child. I know there are people out there who think boys need to be “tougher” than girls, but I’m in agreement – there’s nothing at all wrong with boys who are gentle, boys who play with girls, or boys who get upset and need a hug.

    More and more, schools seem to be latching onto this as well, and my fears that he would be picked on have (so far) turned out to be unfounded. Long may it last, for my son and all the other boys out there who don’t want to be “tough”.

    • daddownunder

      Well said Jemma, its probably me in protective, slightly paranoid parent mode, I wouldn’t change a thing

  • Dita James

    He sounds like a lovely lad.

    When hes a little older, you could enrol him a judo class or something similar to build confidence and fittness.
    Its not about aggression as such, more about control and defense.

    With a loving dad like you, I think he will be fine.

    • daddownunder

      Thanks Dita, I’m banking on making a happy, smiley boy that is too damned amazing to get any negative attention

  • Gina Caro

    Our boy is exactly the same, very kind and gentle. I do worry about bullies sometimes as he is starting school in September but hopefully he will be okay :-)

    • daddownunder

      You can’t really change kids, they seem to have so much of their personalities at such a young age, better I think to focus on rounding him and keeping him happy

  • http://iliska-dreams.blogspot.com.au/ Julie

    I thought all men were soft and loving like my Dad. Then I went out into the real world and became disillusioned. It took me until my late 30s to find another gentle man. Now that man is the father to my own gentle soul. Jarvis may be a dare devil, but he is the same cuddle loving type that all the men I want in my life to be.
    Do your best to never toughen Max up

    • daddownunder

      Your comments are in danger of being better than the posts Julie : ) Love having you around the place

    • Maxabella

      We are raising our boy to be a gentle man and a gentleman. That’s all he’ll ever need, I hope! x

  • Wendy

    Couldn’t agree more! It takes all kinds and they are born with a certain amount of personality from nature – you get the nurture input! I think teaching resilience and persistence are better values than toughness – whatever that is anyway… I want our kids to know that you have to try more than once to achieve some things but if they fail then at least they have had a go!

    • daddownunder

      Yep resilience and persistence is my preferred kind of ‘toughness’

  • http://www.yTravelBlog.com/ yTravelBlog

    Oh what a lovely post Matt. You are a wonderful father and are doing everything just right. In following this path, Max will grow to be a man comfortable and at peace with who is with a strong and kind heart. This is exactly what the world needs

    • daddownunder

      Aw thanks Caz, what you’re doing with your kids is amazing, you can’t put a price on the benefits of experiencing travel.

  • Maxabella

    God I loved this post, Matt. My husband and I feel the same way about our own Max. I don’t think ‘tough’ is really what cuts it for a man in our society any more. At least, not the society that we want it to be. x

    • daddownunder

      I’m with you Maxabella, can we come and live in your society?

  • Em Callaghan

    Bravo Matt, the world needs more parents with the same attitude as yours! Cheers Em

    • daddownunder

      Ah shucks Em, thank you : )

  • Seang-Lim Tan

    The world needs more dads like you.

    I think “toughening up” a child, especially a boy takes them emotionally further away from you. It will give him an expectation that he has to be a certain way to be a boy, and we all know that’s not true and that if he is not the sort to be “rough” or “macho” then he is not a boy or will not become a man. It might even make him disappointed in himself if he cannot fulfil that expectation.

    There will always be people who cannot see children for who they are, and will always believe that stereotypes define genders. These people can’t be educated otherwise, but what we can do is make sure that OUR children do not have these stereotypes, and value people for who they are

    • daddownunder

      Thanks Seang-Lim, you hit the nail on the head, what we should all be focusing on is raising our children the ‘right’ way for us and not to compromise

  • jessikart

    Beautiful, beautiful piece, made me a little weepy! I had the same fears for my 8yo when he started school, but if anything, he’s softer now than he was before! His school report made me tear up – it said that his kindness, consideration and loyalty made him very popular with both boys & girls, and they hope he never changes. Shameless self promotion alert – I wrote about him here: http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/slipping-through-my-fingers.html

    It’s so important that we raise our sons to just be themselves, not to ‘be a man’. The important bit is that they have the belief and inner strength to stay the person they are, and ignore what people say they ‘should’ be.

    • daddownunder

      Thanks Jessi, we’ll keep doing things the way we want to do them and hopefully one day we get to read a report card like your little boys

  • http://awesomelyunprepared.com/ KezUnprepared

    Yes yes yes! I love this post so much. I have a very loving, sensitive almost 2 year old and I never want him to lose his sweetness. I’m passionate about teaching him to communicate with his words, not just his body. I want him to be in touch with what he’s feeling – to avoid the pain and frustration I know many men feel as they conform to an old stereotype of masculinity. I have seen what it does to now adult men, when as children they were taught to fight and to be ‘tough’. The kind of toughness I want my son to have isn’t about hitting and kicking back. It’s a resilience that comes from within. A confidence that no amount of muscle can fake. I know that allowing him to be himself (and be there to pick up the pieces when not everyone understands) is so important and will hold him in good stead with his friendships, and future romantic relationships. I think children are born knowing how to love, but sadly many are taught over time to ignore that beautiful instinct. To fight instead. I think we are the new age of parents who can change it, family by family :)

    • daddownunder

      Beautifully written, we’re on the same page

  • Jane Bloomfield

    My son was like Max as a toddler. Always hugging other men (total strangers in public could get a bit disconcerting). Would never fight back if another kid lashed out over toy possession. He’s know 10 and such a sweet boy. Likes to rough and tumble with his mates at school (as he has older sisters). But he’s empathetic to others, confident and competitive. Plus he’s very loving and cuddly – long may it last! I’m sure Max will be the same.

    • daddownunder

      Congrats on your little man Jane, he sounds like a cracker and I love my boys gentle ways, I wouldn’t want anything else.

  • MissMandy

    My son (in prep) kisses me each morning and all the parents smile as he blows me kisses, repeatedly tells me how much he loves me and will miss me and wishes me a good day. As for the kids, they’re yet to bat an eyelid, no teasing etc at this point. I’ll make the most of it whilst I can. They’ll work it out themselves I’m sure.

    • daddownunder

      I want the kisses at the gates, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Your right kids come in all varieties and every class I ever came across as a teacher had something of everything.

  • bmcws

    I dearly wish I could agree with you, and I’m facing a similar dilemma with my sweet and gentle two year old!

    Unfortunately, our society still rewards ‘alpha male’ mentality – no matter your innate abilities, add an ‘alpha male’ mentality and you’ll do far better. I’m not condoning this behaviour, it’s utterly ridiculous, but, in my experience, it’s prevalent throughout society – even on the playground (or perhaps more so)! When my little boy’s toys get snatched from him, or when he gets hit from aggressive play, understandably, he gets upset and, of course you can’t assign any blame the other kid (quite rightly)- but the attitude of the other kid’s parents is astounding – you _might_ get a half-hearted apology, but even so, I get a sense of pride from these parents – and also the impression that it’s my fault that my boy is bullied (i.e. I haven’t taught him to toughen up)!

    This stupid attitude starts in the playground and goes on throughout life.

    Perhaps a more subtle approach is to ‘act tough’ not ‘be tough’. Yes, be kind and gentle – but when bullied, a measured reaction is required (perhaps just appear nonchalant, or even show good will, but do let those who love you know how you feel).

    It’s a dilemma – would be good to hear opinions.

    • daddownunder

      I know exactly what you’re saying but I just think children have personalities and traits from such a young age and essentially that is who they are. We have sensitive boys and I suspect they will retain an element of that and that’s fine by me. I’m no expert but I think you can’t really alter a child’s personality too much and its far better to celebrate what and who they are. I agree that alpha behaviour dominates society but there is still a place for people who are more gentle…..I hope.

  • http://dadsthewayilikeit.wordpress.com/ Jonathan

    I really thing you’re spot on with your attitude to your son. A lot of traditional stuff about what it means to ‘be a man’ and the concept of ‘manning up’ is quite conservative, stereotypical, sexist and / or rooted in the past. I think it’s really important for there to be a dialogue about what it means to be a man (and indeed a ‘woman’, ‘parent’ or just ‘good person’) and to tell boys that it’s OK to show emotions and that they don’t have to love sports and rough play if that isn’t their thing.