Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” The statement is true as can be. And yet we as a society and as families neglect the building, facilitate the breaking and balk at the cost and commitment of the repair.
Last week, President Barack Obama took a step toward righting that wrong in regard to young men of color by announcing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of our most at-risk young men.
It is a noble ambition to begin to draw resources together to address stubborn issues, but this will not be easy. The issues facing many of these men are complicated and layered with pain. There is a deficit of hope and a surplus of hurdles — familial, cultural, behavioral and structural. But as the saying goes, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”
Programs like this usually focus on the easier part of the problem, the personal, rather than the harder part, the structural. Youth Guidance, whose Becoming a Man group the president highlighted, says that its “participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.”
These are important character traits that ideally would be transferred from parents — particularly fathers — to sons. That’s why I was encouraged that the president spent quite a bit of time discussing the role of fathers in boys’ lives.
When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. The void creates in a child an injury that the child is often unable to recognize. And what children miss at home, they will often seek in the street, to ill effect.
But sometimes fathers don’t know how to be good fathers. Sometimes they engage in an intergenerational transference of pain and need. It’s sometimes hard to give what you yourself have not received.
For instance, according to Child Trends, black fathers are substantially less likely than white or Hispanic fathers to hug their children or show them physical affection, or to tell them that they love them.
I understand, on a most personal level, that conditioning. Sometimes men don’t see that masculinity is as much about tenderness as about toughness. Sometimes they don’t know how to manage emotions. Sometimes the world has so beaten them and so hardened them that expressing any vulnerability feels like providing an opening for an enemy.
But I also know that being an engaged father can be a reparative therapy — healing your hurt as you protect your progeny. Our children provide a reservoir of the deepest, truest love in a harsh and unforgiving world. They are our respite from the battlefield.
We must change our perspective when considering these boys and men, and more fully engage our empathy. We must break these cycles of pain, building better boys and repairing broken men.
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.