Ask any 11-year-old boy if he wants to grow up to be a man and he will emphatically say, “Yes.” Ask him when and how that happens, and 9 times out of 10, he’ll look away silently, as if searching for a fleeting answer that he’s never been able to catch. It’s like he is saying, “Deep down in my soul, I know I want to be that, but I don’t even know what ‘that’ is.” The disconnect, verbalized well by Terrence Moore, is that “Manhood is not simply a matter of being male and reaching a certain age. These are acts of nature; manhood is a sustained act of character.”
As fathers and elders, our responsibility to younger men is to define, model and mark the path to manhood. We must teach and train our sons how to measure up to this character and provide them with arenas to test themselves to see if they measure up or need more time to mature.
Arena of Masculinity
The clearest and most effective way to mark and track progress along the path to manhood is through tests and trials. We know them as a rite of passage, and many cultures regularly practice them today as a means to define and mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.
After reading about a few, my favorite is the Australian Aborigine walkabout. In order to prove their manhood and be accepted by elders as having “arrived,” young Aborigine males must survive alone in the outback for a period of six months. Upon their return, they are welcomed into the community as a man with the rights, responsibilities and privileges of manhood.
What are the proving and testing grounds of manhood for young boys in our culture? I would argue that they are few and far between – there is little opportunity for “battle” and testing. Organized sports are perhaps the only arena left for boys to be tried and tested. Now I don’t believe physical strength is the only measure of manhood, but I do believe that sports provide a young man the opportunity to push himself and carry the weight of responsibility.
That’s the key: responsibility. John Piper strongly believes that responsibility plays a keystone role in manhood. In his book What’s the Difference?, Piper defines it like this: “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.”
If we put all of these thoughts together, we can help our young men by giving them a clearly defined rite of passage with mile markers along their path to manhood.
Men Are Like Trucks
Mark Driscoll says that men are like trucks – they drive smoother and straighter with a load. Thus, we must create age-appropriate ways for boys to take on this load – responsibilities. It starts by teaching them that work comes before play.
I have a friend who makes his 3 year old pick up ten twigs from the backyard and stack them before he can play. I remember when my grandfather gave me my first pocketknife. I was 8 or 9. The way he handed it to me and showed me how to properly use it – you’d have thought he was giving me a broadsword. That responsibility, the fact that he trusted me to use it correctly, was a rite of passage. I had to run to the mirror just to make sure I hadn’t started growing a beard overnight. It made me feel like a man.
Every boy is different so every boy needs his own “rite of passage,” which means fathers need to be proactive in this. Here are a few questions to help you mark the path of manhood for your son.
- At what age do I want my son to have the full rights, privileges and responsibilities of manhood bestowed upon him?
- How am I teaching and training him in manhood so that when he reaches this age he will have all the knowledge and skills necessary to make it?
- What markers am I setting up for him along the way? What responsibilities do I feel are necessary for him to carry at particular ages and stages of his childhood and youth?
- How am I teaching him that his job is to protect and serve women and giving him opportunities to practice that?