As a father, you want your son to grow up to be a healthy, masculine man. You want him to have a successful career and feel a sense of purpose when he goes into work every day. You want him to attract the love of a good partner, and to treat them right when he does. You want him to have strong, healthy friendships; to be tested deeply and rise to the challenges that life throws at all of us; and to live a life of purpose, integrity, and love.
You want him to be a man.
But how? How do you handle this fundamental duty you have as his father?
For the last 50 years, western society has torn down or destroyed most of the traditional institutions that initiated boys into manhood. In the United States, our culture now says the only thing required to become a man is to keep breathing until you turn 18.
In the absence of a clear rite of passage to become a man, many boys try to cobble something together by looking in all the wrong places. They turn to gangs, hoping that the (generally male) gang leaders will show them how to be a man. They turn to social media (God help them). They turn to peers who know little more than the boys they’re “teaching” how to be young men.
They turn to their fathers, but many fathers are absent or don’t have a healthy relationship with their sons.
Maybe that’s why the United States is so overrun with overgrown adolescents. Everywhere we look we see 30- or 40-year-old boys whose balls haven’t dropped yet. They’re doormats, Nice Guys and people-pleasers. Their masculinity has been stifled and now their wife, their kids, their boss walk all over them.
They look successful on the outside, but on the inside they feel dead. Aching for something they can’t even describe, for purpose and a challenge and a quest.
Or we see adult boys who have never learned to overcome their shadow side. They cheat on their wives and lie at work. They drink too much. They never learned to channel the aggression that lives inside every man in a prosocial way, so they dump it on everyone else. They never learned to control their emotions, so they rage at the world and lose their jobs and end up moving back into their parents’ basement and playing video games until 3am.
We can feel pity for the boys who never grew up, because it’s not necessarily their fault. We’re all a product of our culture, and United States culture (whatever its benefits) seems geared to produce perpetual adolescents.
Dr. Brad Blanton, renowned psychotherapist and author of the bestselling book Radical Honesty, puts it bluntly in his book: “In our culture, adolescence lasts from age 11 to about 30 or 35.” He estimates that about 75 percent of the “modern technological world” is still afflicted by the problem of adolescence.
The last thing you want is to raise an overgrown boy. But how can you help your son make the transition from boy to a healthy masculine man?
Step #1: Boys Need Healthy Role Models
As a father, you are your son’s number one role model. From the moment he was born, he began watching you, trying to figure out how he should behave in certain situations and what sort of person he should be. As Robert Fulghum (parent, minister, and author of the international bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten) says, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
Most of us grow up to be like our fathers in more ways than not. Many men report that they want to be, “just like dad.”
Your son sees how you treat your wife—and will treat women the same way.
He sees how you approach work—and will approach it the same way.
He sees how you react to stress—do you handle it well, or do you turn to the bottle? Whichever way you choose, he’ll likely choose the same. There’s strong evidence that the children of alcoholic parents are more likely to develop problems with alcohol than the children of non-alcoholic parents.
What does this mean? It means that if you’re not the man you aspire to be, now’s the time to level up. If you have trouble with anger or women or being a Nice Guy, then you owe it to your son to fix those issues so that he can have the healthy, masculine role model father that he deserves.
If you do think you need to level up, our online men’s groups and 1-on-1 men’s coaching can help you be the man your son needs you to be.
But you’re not the only man in your son’s life, and every child needs other role models besides his father. No matter how healthy you are, you cannot be the sole man mentoring your son into manhood.
Where Can Your Son Find Other Role Models?
Sports leagues are a good place to start: coaches can be excellent role models. They can teach important lessons about hard work, playing to win while respecting the other team, and having honor on and off the field.
Your local church can also be good. Pastors, rabbis, and other spiritual teachers often have real wisdom to impart. More importantly, the good ones model humility, courage, and a genuine give-a-shit for their fellow man.
Martial arts dojos have a long history of teaching children valuable lessons. Senseis and senior students can model discipline (physical and mental) and can show your son how to channel his innate aggression in a prosocial way.
This last is of vital importance. One of the differences between boys and girls is that boys (even young boys) tend to love battle. We males are fascinated by fighting. As John Eldredge, counselor and author of the international bestseller Wild At Heart, says about boys and men: “Every boy knows he is made for battle, and he longs to be the mighty hero. Give him a cape, a sword, a light saber and he comes alive in a world of Jedi knights, superheroes, snowball fights, and “what can we blow up next?””
This fascination with battle can be channeled in prosocial or antisocial ways. Plenty of overgrown boys let their aggression lead them by the balls into fights at bars, assaulting women, and beating children. That’s antisocial as hell.
But not every battle is bad, and it’s your job to make sure your son channels his warrior energy in a healthy way. Defending the people around him from predators. Fighting for what’s right in the workplace. Doing battle against the evil in the world, and leaving the world a better place than he found it.
Healthy role models can show him how to do that.
Whoever you help your son find as role models—be they senseis, pastors, coaches, or other men you know—it’s important that these men embody healthy masculinity. Your son will watch what they do, just like he does with you. Make sure you help him find role models worth watching.
Step #2: Boys Need Mentorship From Good Men
It’s not enough for your son to have role models to look up to. These healthy masculine men (including you) should be actively mentoring him. He needs men who can talk to him about how to attract a good woman, and how to treat women so he can have a healthy relationship (both when dating, and when married). He needs men who can educate him about how to avoid becoming a Nice Guy, a doormat, or a people-pleaser; how to find his calling and live into it; and how to treat the people around him with honor and respect whether they’re a CEO or a waitress.
These men (again, including you) should also talk to him about what it means to be a man. He needs to understand why he thinks and feels the way he does, why he’s drawn to intense challenges, why he and his male friends punch each other to show affection when the girls he knows (generally) do not. He needs to understand how to handle his emotions, how to tackle the challenges of life and not be beaten by them, and how to keep a calm and steady hand on the rudder.
I’m not saying that all men are the same—clearly, we’re not. But generally speaking, most of us have a lot in common. It’s important for your son to have healthy men around to help educate him on those commonalities.
Female role models can teach your son a lot, and he should have strong and healthy women in his life who he looks up to and admires. But a society of all men would struggle to raise healthy daughters, because men aren’t great at teaching girls how to be women. Girls need healthy women to teach them about womanhood. In the same way, boys need healthy men to teach them about masculinity.
Step #3: Boys Need to Overcome Challenges
In their bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Greg Lukianoff argue that children are antifragile.
What does it mean to be antifragile? It means that children thrive and grow stronger when they overcome challenges.
- Fragile things break when you apply pressure to them (ex. A glass cup)
- Resilient things survive when you apply pressure to them (ex. A plastic cup)
- Antifragile things (including people) become stronger when you apply pressure to them.
Children respond to stress the same way that muscles or bones do. If you never lifted weights, your muscles would atrophy; they need the pressure to become stronger. But when you do lift weights, your muscles grow and you can turn into this guy.
When children never have the chance to overcome challenges, they atrophy. They become weak and prone to breaking down when faced with simple obstacles. This is heartbreaking to see, and Haidt and Lukianoff document many examples in their book.
But when children overcome challenges, they grow strong. That’s true of physical and emotional challenges both.
Both genders are equally antifragile, but there’s something inherent in boys that loves a challenge. As John Eldredge writes in Wild At Heart about men and boys, “Adventure requires something of us, puts us to the test. Though we may fear the test, at the same time we yearn to be tested, to discover that we have what it takes. That’s why we set off down the Snake River against all sound judgment, why a buddy and I pressed on through grizzly country to find good fishing, why I went off to Washington, D.C., as a young man to see if I could make it in those shark-infested waters.”
Your boy will probably naturally seek out challenges. Let him. Encourage him to. Whether he’s a young boy or a teenager, let him test himself against the world.
Let him date as a teenager—and get his heart broken.
Let him climb trees—and fall out.
Let him pick up martial arts—and go for his black belt.
Let him seek out and overcome challenges. With every challenge he overcomes (whether picking himself up after a broken heart, or pushing through white water rapids and coming out the other side) he’ll grow stronger. Physically and emotionally.
Why Overcoming Challenges Matters
Here’s the truth: the world will test your son. He will face hardship and difficulty as an adult. This is a universal fact of life.
One useful distinction between an overgrown adolescent and a man is this: the man guides his ship with a calm and steady hand through the shoals and storms of life. The adolescent runs around like everything is on fire, constantly jumping from reaction to reaction.
The adolescent’s way of life is good for no-one.
Your job is to help your son grow into a man who can guide his ship through storms with a calm, grounded strength. The best way to do that is to let him navigate some storms as a child.
Step #4: An Initiation Ceremony
Initiation ceremonies have been a powerful way to transform a boy into a man since time immemorial. Tribes across geography and across time have used these rites of passage to help boys grow into strong, healthy masculine men.
Unfortunately, in recent times these vital rituals have gone the way of the Model T.
However, there are still some organizations that offer powerful initiation ceremonies. Once your son is in high school, it is a good idea to give your son the gift of a ceremonial rite of passage.
Here’s what an initiation ceremony should include:
- Healthy, evolving, and wise men (including you) actually put your son through a series of rituals that allow him to be tested.
- These rituals will test his limits of self-perception and help him push past his comfort zone.
- In these rituals, he will be guided and mentored by yourself and the other men.
- As he passes through these rituals, he will be ceremonially blessed into the “Community of Men” by all the men initiating him.
- He will be coached into how to integrate what he learns about himself by some or all of the men who initiate him.
- You and his mother will also be coached in how to best support your son to deeply integrate what he learns in the ceremony.
At the Evolving Man, we offer initiation ceremonies to young men to help them grow into strong, integrous men. Here’s what one young man said about his recent initiation:
Conclusion: It Takes A Village
How do boys become men? It truly does take a village (or “tribe”) of men to facilitate that growth. It takes multiple strong role models and guidance from wise men to help a boy learn more of who he really is so that he moves into manhood with strength, resilience, and emotional intelligence.
At The Evolving Man, we are proud to be one resource that can serve parents and sons in offering avenues to manhood that are powerful and time-tested. If you would like to discuss an initiation ceremony or rite of passage for your teenage son, reach out today.