As more fathers and coaches attend my presentations, many of them are sharing how difficult it is for them to reflect on their own adolescence. As you will read below, if they were humiliated or bullied when they were young, it’s often overwhelming as an adult to suddenly realize how deeply those experiences affected them.
A father who came to one of my presentations allowed me to share the following letter he sent me about just such an awakening. I’ve edited it down and removed some of the more personal and heartbreaking parts, but hope you’ll still be as moved as I was when I read it. This is what courage truly looks like and a show of how hopeful people can be—despite destructive experiences—to make the world a better place.
"I am a father of two sons and a daughter. During your talk, you said, 'Locker rooms are tough situations...Those moments are seared into people’s memories.' You caught me with my guard down that evening because, before I could stop myself, I was remembering locker room horrors of when I was on the football team as a freshman in high school. That was 39 years ago. While you were talking, I became self-conscious and embarrassed because tears were welling up in my eyes.
"I attended a Catholic school that was so small they combined the varsity and B-squad in the same practices. Since we practiced together, we used the locker room at the same time. The verbal, psychological and physical abuse showered on us in the locker room was a routine part of our school day.
"This was only one layer of the trauma. The team had two coaches—men who were also our teachers. One taught us science and the other taught us English. I had grown to respect and trust them, but when they put on their coaching hats I didn’t recognize them. After the second or third practice, I made the mistake of going to my English teacher for support and comfort. It turned out to be a most painful and humiliating experience: His tough-guy rebuff left me feeling hurt and deeply betrayed. I think that was the point in my life when I vowed to NEVER ask for help again—especially from men. (It's a vow that I was to keep for the next 36 years.) That was also the day that I stopped trusting or respecting either one of those men.
"All this happened in a private school setting. A big selling point to the parents was that their children were getting an education superior to anything that the public schools could offer: how to live a good, moral life and treat everyone with dignity. Our parents paid and entrusted these two coaches to be upstanding leaders and Christian role models to us. And yet these same two men fed us to the wolves. Looking back, I realize that even an explicitly religious environment is not influential enough to supersede the 'man code.'
"Every single day of the season I wanted to quit, but the fear of public shame and humiliation always stopped me. I remember the massive feeling of relief after we played our last game and turned in our jerseys and equipment.
"For me to admit to him that I was scared, shamed and intimidated into joining the team—and then staying on the team—was taboo. To have a wimp for a son was intolerable. My father was a man of high standing in our community and county. The last thing he was going to do was use his influence to ask the coaches to protect his oldest son from a little horseplay in the locker room.
"I would have rather chopped off one of my hands than to let my mother know what was going on. She was a member of the Catholic School Board and she would have raised holy hell. If that happened, my life would have been over. I probably would have had to attend a school in a different county or state where no one knew me. I am not exaggerating.
"Over the years I was to find out that the intense social pressure to prove that I am a man NEVER lets up. In college I joined a social fraternity and went through a semester of hazing to be accepted into the brotherhood. I joined the U.S. Marine Corps and proved I was a man by surviving their boot camp and being promoted to sergeant in an infantry company.
"The man code of constantly proving oneself kept right on going when I joined the business world. So many times it is portrayed as healthy competition that keeps our economy vibrant and strong. I don’t agree. I say it is destructive and dysfunctional. It fosters distrust, enormous stress and superficial relationships, and leaves men feeling exhausted and intensely lonely.
"By the time I was in my 40s I'd had enough and began tentatively searching out other men who might feel the same. I eventually found them, but there were many years when it felt like I was searching for a needle in a haystack. My persistence has paid off because I am now actually starting to trust some of the men in my life and consider them to be true friends. This is something brand-new to me.
"I think that the man code is deeply embedded in our culture and has been for centuries—if not millennia. But I believe that if enough men become aware of how destructive it is, we can create a systems shift. I think it’s crucial that men model this empowering way of life to other men and boys. Words are important, but actions are even more powerful."
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well asQueen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.