Masculinity & strength – what the world tells our boys

Dear Kāhu and Huhana,

As we were driving from Otaki a few months back, a swarm of Mongrel Mob bikers roared past us. Kāhu, you stared wide-eyed as you do at every motorbike. I watched because I’ve been told all my life that the physical power they carry is strength – wide shoulders, tough fists, and leather – and that I should look up to strength.

Society tells boys like you especially, Kāhu, that being a man means being strong: don’t cry, be brave, fight, never back down. 

There was a survey asking 10-19 year olds what they thought was expected of them when they were angry. More than anything else, the boys said fight, punch or be aggressive. The top answer for girls was cry. That’s what te ao tells our tamariki is normal. 

As a boy, I’d hear stories of my mate’s jailed brother beating other inmates in fights. He was the man. Tough. 

My uncle in the police had the same gun rappers sung about. Strong. 

Taipari was a black belt. Moko could bench press more than anyone I knew. 

The ability to hurt was what made them men. And that’s before I even turned on the TV.

So I spent my Otaki College lunchtimes in the gym trying to build muscles as big as Moko’s. Another guy used to headbutt the medicine ball, practicing for scraps I imagined.

As a man, I still look up to Taipari and Moko, but because I see the strength of love they give their whānau.

I look up to Tainui Stephens because he’s brave enough to tell the world how much he loves his wife Libby, his “darling”, “honey” or “babe”.

I look up to my sister, your aunty, fierce enough to decide how she wants to live, feeding her family and her wairua (spirit) at the same time.

I cried listening to my mate’s wedding speech about his mum a couple of months back. He didn’t back down from his vulnerability or try to hide it. Strength.

That’s what strength is. I hope you learn earlier than I did that ‘being a man’ also means having the strength to show love and compassion, knowing how to flex your emotions, not your biceps. Physical strength is healthy, and I’ll keep doing those pushups with you on my back just like Koko did with me and your uncle Manaaki. There are times when physical muscles and fists are what you need, but that’s a tiny sliver of strength.

Your mum and I are more impressed by the kindness and empathy you and your sister give each other when you’re hurt than we ever will be with any sporting or school success. Kāhu, I hope you’re brave enough to face down the ‘normal’ expectations of masculinity. I’ll be there beside you if you need me. 

Your ability to talk it out is tougher than any soldier or warrior winning a fight. Knowing how to ask for help can be harder than any boxing bag combo, but like all routines, it gets easier the more you practice. Confidence is being comfortable enough to tell your mates you love them and that they’re needed, without it being a drunk conversation, meaningless and forgotten the next day.

Huhana, that’s what you should expect from the men in your life. I’m not that yet, but I’m trying. 

Love you,


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