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Toughness for the Adolescent Boy

Reclaiming Toughness

A good man must be tough. In recent years, or probably decades now, the virtue of manly ‘toughness’ has come under heavy fire. Whether it come from news or entertainment media or national health and professional organizations, there are forces working to dramatically alter, if not outright destroy this foundational principle of authentic masculinity. Readers and listeners of The Forum are likely well aware of this crisis and can point out numerous instances of this undermining going on in our culture.

You may have even noticed that the definition and use of the word “tough” has changed in the vocabulary of your son and his friends. Nowadays, “tough” means something closer to what “cool” has meant for past generations, and I’ve even heard the term used to describe the pink jersey of an opposing goalkeeper during a pre-game warm-up before a soccer match. In my literature and history classes, boys encountering feats of great fortitude and heroism have mockingly commented “Now that’s tough!”, with smirks and sarcastic gestures to classmates. Like so many other goods, toughness is under attack and in danger of being re-defined as something it’s not.

Training Toughness

So, what is authentic toughness and how can a boy practice it? Toughness, classically called fortitude, is simply choosing to do the right and the good thing in spite of any discomfort or inconvenience that the right and the good may entail. One reason why this virtue is attacked could be because people too narrowly define what it means to be tough. Real toughness is not machismo or self-interest, regardless of how many voices want to say so. But it is also not the insincere, disinterested, sarcastic by-standing that many young “tough guys” pretend it is. Finally, toughness isn’t reserved for soldiers or firefighters or professional athletes; it is a habit that all of us need to strive to live. It is a habit that all of our boys need to work to establish. We see toughness every day, and have numerous opportunities to practice it regularly. Here are some examples of what toughness looks like in the life of our boys.

In Sport

Perhaps one of the more orthodox areas for boys to practice their grit is in physical training, often in competition with comrades. In fact, it is often easier to be tough in other aspects of life if you are first physically tough. In sport, a boy can practice his toughness by:

  • Hustling back on defense when others are ‘cherry-picking’
  • In soccer, putting your whole foot into a tackle, or, in rugby, your whole body
  • Defensively, in lacrosse, soccer, and hockey, not moving to avoid being hit by a shot, but, when necessary, using your body to block it
  • Knowing the difference between soreness or a knock, and a true injury, and playing through it
  • Carrying equipment before and cleaning up after practice—service and humility are hallmarks of real toughness

In The Great Outdoors

Nature is another traditional arena for training a boy’s fortitude. Spending time in ‘the Wild’ exposes him to the elements, challenges his ability to withstand discomfort, and can force him to fend for himself and others in a number of ways. Along with Sport, Nature can be a particularly effective teacher of toughness because it trains through fun. Without knowing it, boys will become tougher through these activities:

  • Hiking; running; biking; paddling; swimming—endurance sports build physical and mental grit.
  • Camping: In a tent, in a lean-to, or under the stars. (And leave the air mattress at home!)
  • Outdoor chores are great as well. Clean the gutters; rake leaves; mulch the beds; shovel snow; cut the grass—don’t just do it for the allowance, but because it is a service to the family.

In Studies

Toughness is not only a habit of the body, it is also a habit of mind; it is the proper exercise of the developed/developing will. A boy’s desk is a great proving ground for tenacity. He can exercise that toughness when he:

  • Prioritizes school work over video games or playtime
  • Reads every chapter or completes every assignment thoroughly and on time
  • Maintains a schedule not only for homework assignments, but also for reading and studying

In Family Life

Let’s face it, maintaining a cheerful and healthy home life is challenging for everyone. This can be especially true for adolescents who are trying to walk the fine line between filial obedience and youthful independence while simultaneously surrounded by siblings performing more or less the same tight-rope walk. Family life provides tons of opportunities for boys to choose the good, and practice their toughness, such as:

  • Doing chores on time, or right away when asked.
  • Putting personal belongings away where they belong, not throwing them on the floor.
  • Waking up on time every day; they don’t call it the “heroic minute” for nothing.
  • Looking for ways to help, instead of looking for ways to avoid helping.
  • Gentleness and patience with siblings—sometimes, nothing seems more difficult for our boys than to practice these virtues with a brother or sister. As St. Francis de Sales said, “There is nothing so strong as gentleness, and nothing so gentle as real strength.”

In Social Life

Depending on what kind of guys are in a boy’s social circle, consistently choosing to do what’s right and good in front of his peers can be particularly challenging. “Courage is” according to C.S. Lewis, “…the form of every virtue at the testing point.” So, our boys can choose. When his principles are challenged in front of his peers, will he be courageous or cowardly? Here are some ways he can train for courage:

  • Defend the weak. Don’t jump on the bandwagon of those picking on or ridiculing a classmate. Come to his defense, even if he’s not there.
  • Stand up for yourself. Yes, turning the other cheek is best, but sometimes it is a matter of justice that our boys not back down from the attacks of others.
  • Avoid bad conversations, particularly conversations that offend against purity. Removing yourself from these situations is tough. Instructing others out of such talk takes real guts, but it can be as simple as saying, “Hey, we don’t do that,” and changing the subject.

In Moral Life

There may be nothing tougher for a boy to do, or for that matter for anyone to do, than to admit when he is wrong. I see it a couple of times a year, but every time I do I am blown away by the fortitude that it takes for a young man to sincerely own up to his mistakes, with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. Everyone messes up from time to time. Not everyone comes clean and takes responsibility. There’s toughness in contrition. There’s also toughness in forgiving injury. Man up. Fess up. Bury the hatchet.

And a couple of final ideas:

  • Choose to give up the phone/computer/game console/television. Do it for Sunday, for a weekend, or a whole week! If you can’t make it, you might need to toughen up, and you might be seriously addicted.
  • Stop snacking. It’s tough not to indulge every time you pass the fridge or pantry. Be the master of your appetites; not the other way around. Self-control and self-mastery are key components of manly toughness.
  • Take cold showers. Do it because it’s uncomfortable. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “The World offers you comfort. But you weren’t made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Toughness is an essential trait of authentic masculinity; you can’t be a good man without it. Especially in this day and age, it is tested time and again in our professional, spiritual, family, and social lives. We need to prepare our young men for this reality. The good news is this: fortitude and grit are not trained into boys through extraordinary feats of endurance or physical strength. Rather, they are forged through small, every day acts of self-denial, sacrifice, and service. Every boy wants to become a man. Every boy should work to grow in toughness.


About the Author

Kyle Blackmer

Seventh Grade Core, History
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