The measure of a man

In a new essay, David Brooks explores the role early childhood nurturance in forging masculine personalities, as well as the abilities of some men to evolve and change later in life.

In seeking explanations for why so many men have trouble with intimacy, empathy, and sometimes even friendship itself, Brooks draws in part on what is termed “attachment” theory. Reproduced below are the opening paragraphs of “The Heart Grows Smarter,” which can be found in full at the New York Times.

“First, many more families suffered the loss of a child, which had a devastating and historically underappreciated impact on their overall worldviews. Second, and maybe related, many more children grew up in cold and emotionally distant homes, where fathers, in particular, barely knew their children and found it impossible to express their love for them. It wasn’t only parents who were emotionally diffident; it was the people who studied them. In 1938, a group of researchers began an intensive study of 268 students at Harvard University. The plan was to track them through their entire lives, measuring, testing and interviewing them every few years to see how lives develop.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the researchers didn’t pay much attention to the men’s relationships. Instead, following the intellectual fashions of the day, they paid a lot of attention to the men’s physiognomy. Did they have a “masculine” body type? Did they show signs of vigorous genetic endowments? But as this study — the Grant Study — progressed, the power of relationships became clear. The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

“Body type was useless as a predictor of how the men would fare in life. So was birth order or political affiliation. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. As George Vaillant, the study director, sums it up in ‘Triumphs of Experience,’ his most recent summary of the research, ‘It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.’ Of the 31 men in the study incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four are still alive. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third are living. It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen.

“In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.”

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