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Does a Male Role Model Actually Have to be a Man?

Male role models are constructed of stronger stuff than chromosomes.

"Who will be my role model, now that my role model is gone?" —Paul Simon

These are tough times for role models.

I'm not a football fan, and I haven't spent a lot of time in Arkansas. A week ago, you could have told me that Bobby Petrino was a Las Vegas lounge singer.

But there he was: the hugely successful Arkansas football coach, married father of four, braced and battered from the motorcycle accident that brought his downfall, confessing to an "inappropriate relationship" with his tall blond assistant and promising to (bring in the chorus) dedicate himself to "repairing the damage I've done to my family."

This is the same man—the role model—who sat in countless living rooms telling mothers and fathers that he can help mold their son into all that he can be.

It's the same sad and sordid events that have played out from sports to entertainment to politics to religion. Public Falls from grace are not exclusively a male prerogative, but they seem to dominate the category.

As media gleefully unwrap glittery celebrity packaging to reveal damaged goods, it's increasingly clear that we can't rely on public figures to provide the trail-makers that young boys can follow to manhood.

Pile these disappointments on the steaming heap of anti-role models—who make millions by being precisely the kind of men we would hope our sons will never be.

The undependability of heroes comes at a bad time in the lives of boys—when the very definitions of manhood are in play, and more and more are being raised in homes without a male-in-residence.

I got to know many single mother and two-mother families in the course of writing Raising Boys Without Men. Virtually all of these mothers understood the importance of men in the lives of their sons. They turned to family, school, sports and other places where male influence resided.

Some found, however, that it's not always easy to find a man you trust enough and who is available enough to show your son how to be one.

Family members are wonderful—if you have them. Coaches are fine—if your son cares about sports. Schools should be a source of male guidance, but with increasing female domination of teaching, a boy can be in seventh or eighth grade before he even encounters a male teacher. Plus: there is no real research that says male teachers improve a boys academic performance or masculine social development.

The increasing fallibility and uncertain availability of XY-chromosome role models combines with the blurring of gender roles to raise a question: Does a male role model actually have to be a man?

Gender roles have always been subject to society's expectations, and society's expectations have disassembled the testosterone fueled male archetype. Tony Porter caused an Internet stir with a call for male engagement and self-examination in a TED presentation called: "Don't Act Like a Man." Whether all this is gratuitous male bashing or a reasoned call for recalibrating the historic markers of masculinity depends on whether you think 21st century men are being ruined or updated.

Either way, the once-direct line between what men are and what boys copy is subject to diversion by forces we may not understand for a generation.

In my research, I found women worked very hard to bring men into their sons' lives. But most were happy to take on the role themselves—even the basics.

Watching the strong women in their lives, they can learn how to respond to challenges without aggression. They can learn the power of reliability and the importance of respect. They can learn determination, decision-making and independence.

Boys can learn how to treat women by watching men. But they can just as easily learn it from watching how women demand to be treated.

The term role model was first used in a study of the socialization of medical students—a reference to our tendency to compare ourselves to those in social groups we would like to join. Another definition says that role models affect us in ways that make us want to be better people.

In joining the society of strong and caring men—and in learning how to be better men—having a male worthy of respect and emulation is a wonderful and powerful thing in a boy's life.

But heroes are fallible, fathers leave, and stand-ins won't always be there. For single and two-mother families, none of that means the lessons of manhood can't be passed on.

Male role models are constructed of stronger stuff than chromosomes.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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