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This Is How to Be a Man: What 15 Modern Dads Want to Teach Their Sons

We asked 15 dads "What's the most important lesson you want to teach your son about being a man?" Here's what they said.

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What does it mean to be a man? The answer is changing. We’re reframing expectations around masculinity and it’s for the better. Healthier views on masculinity — in which emotional honesty, admitting weakness, nurturing, and other, once rejected emotions, is okay, leads to healthier men and a healthier, more accepting society in general. But what lessons do today’s fathers hope to teach their boys about “being a man”, to reframe the conversation?

That’s what we asked more than a dozen fathers spread out across the country. They all weighed in on the lessons they’re trying to teach their sons about manhood. From embracing equality, to the value of hard work, these men covered a vibrant spectrum of issues that their children will likely have to face as they grow older. They’re raising the next generation of men, and these are the most important lessons they hope to impart.

That Men Go to the Doctor

“My dad passed away from lung cancer. But, also from stubbornness. For years and years and years, he refused to go to the doctor out of pride. And there’s a good chance that, had he kept up with his health instead of trying to tough everything out, he might still be here. I tell my son that it’s okay to admit when you’re weak, or hurt, because you can’t be the best version of yourself if you’re not in the best possible shape. Going to the doctor is such an easy, simple thing that a lot of guys just don’t do. And it can really end up hurting the people that love them. That’s not something a man would willingly do, in my opinion.” – Nick, 46, California

That Being a Good Person Matters Most of All

“For me, being a man is second in importance to being a good person. There are so many easy definitions of masculinity. Everything from not crying or showing emotion to looking a certain way can preoccupy and distract from what it means to be a good person. And that transcends being a man. If you’re a good person — kind, responsible, and accepting — then you’re a good man. I want my kids to realize that. Not just my son, but my daughter too. When she eventually grows up and meets the man she’s going to love, I want her to know what’s important to look for.” – James, 43, Ohio

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That Men Embrace Their Feelings

“Men can cry. Men can blush. Men can be embarrassed or ashamed. A real man is one who is so strong — so brave and fearless — that he’s not afraid to show his true emotions, no matter what they may be. I think society conflates strength with pride quite frequently, especially when it comes to men and their emotions. Just because a man is too proud or stubborn to cry doesn’t mean he’s strong. It means he’s being untrue, to himself and the people that care about him. I think a real man knows that there are times and places when it’s okay to be vulnerable, and doesn’t hesitate to embrace them. That’s why I never tell my son to stop crying. Instead, I tell him that his sadness is valid, and that I’ll be there to talk about it when he’s ready.” – Al, 40, Montana

That Men Embrace Equality

“I didn’t actually grasp this lesson until a few years ago, when the whole #MeToo thing was blowing up. I had some really productive conversations with friends and coworkers that made me realize how equality benefits everyone. A level playing field is the healthiest, most prolific environment for success, because it really emphasizes skill, talent, and intelligence over privilege. I want my son to have enough confidence to avoid letting any insecurity make him feel threatened. A man thrives on equality, because he knows that real progress – whether its personal, professional, educational, or whatever – can only happen if no one gets a head start.” – Patrick, 35, California

That Men Recognize Love

“This world is full of hate. A real man can recognize and cherish love, no matter where it comes from. My father always had a hard time saying, ‘I love you’ while I was growing up. And I get it, that’s just how he was raised. And I think he’s a real man, for sure. But, I also recognize that he isn’t perfect, and that I want my sons to say, ‘I love you’ whenever they genuinely have a chance to do so. I say it to them all the time now, and they’re at that age where it’s a little embarrassing in front of their friends. But, they’ll grow out of that age. I hope they won’t ever grow out of the capacity to show love.” – Josh, 37, Michigan

That Men Stand Up For Others

“Not long ago, my son —he’s in ninth grade — got suspended from school for fighting. He told me what happened, and it turned out he was defending a fellow student who was getting picked on by bullies. I told him he did the right thing. My wife disagreed, and eventually we landed somewhere commending him for standing up for someone, but challenging whether or not the physicality was really necessary. Bullies are everywhere. There’s a good chance he’ll end up working with — or working for — bullies once he’s grown up. And as he grows into a man, I think it’s important he knows not to be pushed around. In those cases it’s probably best not to throw down and fight, but it’s also important to stand up for the right things.” – Andrew, 43, New Hampshire

That Men Work Hard

“I think a real man knows the value of hard work. Nothing in life is handed to you, or owed to you. If you want something, you earn it. It’s part of the responsibility that goes along with taking care of your family as well. A man provides for his family no matter what. He makes sure his family is fed, even if it means going hungry himself. I’m not a hardass, and I try not to raise my children that way, but I feel very strongly about a man being defined by his willingness to provide for his family, no matter the cost. And I’ve tried to pass that concept along to my sons.” – Jeremy, 46, New York

That Men Make Sacrifices

“In marriage. In parenting. In friendships. Men put others first. I believe that a real man is someone who goes out of his way to help those in need, even if it means making things a little less comfortable for himself. Obviously, there’s a scale of priority ascribed to my theory. I mean, you can’t go sacrificing for someone you barely know if you’re not already providing for your family. They come first. So I guess it’s a ‘great power/great responsibility’ thing. If you’re in a position to help someone, and you have the means to do so, I think a real man does that. Even if it isn’t always the easy thing to do.” – Jason, 38, Rhode Island

That Men Admit Mistakes

“Men make mistakes. Real men admit, accept, and learn from those mistakes. I see a lot of guys who pretend to have it all figured out. Like, everything. From parenting to politics to fixing stuff around the house. And what I’ve come to learn is that most of them are full of shit. They’re good people, with good hearts, but their pride is so overwhelming that they can never admit fault, or be wrong. I’ve seen the type of frustration that can cause, and I don’t want my son ever thinking he has to be right all the time to be a man. That’s just too much pressure. Unnecessary pressure.” – Carson, 36, Tennessee

That Men Make Informed Decisions

“When making decisions, I think a real man does everything in his power to make the best decision possible. I’m not talking about researching lawn mowers or TVs before you buy them. I’m talking about interacting with people, and speaking to those people in a way that respects them. Obviously, it’s impossible to know everything about someone if you’ve just met. And, in our diverse culture, you can’t assume you do. You have to genuinely want to learn about someone, and be as informed as possible during those interactions. Not just so you don’t offend someone, but so you don’t give people reasons to think you’re ignorant or uncaring. Neither of those are traits of a real man.” – David, 33, Nevada

That Men Aren’t Their Possessions

“My sons are too young to see it, but Fight Club is probably my favorite movie. And it’s largely because of this quote: ‘You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.’ I think that’s really important to know, as a man. Social media is just a swamp of people bragging about what they have, and my kids are going to grow up in a world where it’s always existed. I think a real man knows that his worth isn’t tied to possessions or status. It’s about how you treat people, the good you create in the world, and the legacy you leave behind.” – Tom, 38, New Jersey

That Men Don’t Make Excuses

“Men fuck up. Regularly. But what men don’t do is make excuses about those fuck ups. A real man is able to own his mistake, and be disappointed in himself, knowing that he has an opportunity to learn from what he did wrong. And a man is always interested in learning how he can be better. It’s a never ending pursuit, really, and I don’t want my son to think he can’t make and admit mistakes en route to his own betterment. It’s a lesson I’m glad my dad taught me, and I’m excited to pass it on.” – Aaron, 29, Chicago

That Men Acknowledge Their Limitations

“It wasn’t until I was like 35 that I realized I couldn’t do everything. Or, rather, I realized I had to admit I couldn’t do everything. For so long, I thought masculinity was being a jack of all trades. But it’s not. Because, even if you’re good at a lot of things, faking your way through the others out of pride doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it can do more harm than good. If you don’t know something, or know how to do something, it’s okay to ask for help. And, while you’re being helped, try to learn what’s happening. That way, you’ll be able to do it next time or, better yet, help someone else down the road.” – Marc, 45, Ohio

That Men Fail

“Not like, ‘It’s rare for men to fail but, believe it or not, it can happen!’ But rather, it’s okay to fail. Like, you can fail and still do a good job. Or fail and learn. Or fail and get one step closer to your goal. I think a lot of men don’t think that failing is permitted, in terms of masculinity. Not a lot of people — men or women — share their failures these days, so it’s not surprising that everyone is so afraid to admit failure. I don’t want my son to welcome failure, but I want him to be a man who embraces it as an opportunity and a part of life.” – Kirk, 39, Washington, D.C.