How do you help a boy transition to manhood? Some modern dads think a trip to Hooters does the trick, but they’re hindering their sons from becoming real men.
When does a boy become a man?
Rituals and rites of passage have nearly disappeared in Western society, and the only formal “manhood milestone” many of us know is the Bar Mitzvah. When a Jewish boy comes of age at 13-years-old, he has the same rights as a full-grown man and is morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions.
Whoa, being a man means that you’re responsible for your decisions and actions? And it’s tied to religion? Many in the modern world would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Other cultures tie bravery and protection of others into their rites of passage. The transition from boy to man often involves a more dangerous and painful path for some tribal groups. The men and boys of the island of Vanuatu dive from high towers with vine ropes tied around their ankles. When a boy climbs up to make his first dive, his mother holds an item representing his childhood and throws the item away when he jumps. In Africa’s Maasai culture, a boy must first be circumcised (without crying or flinching) to be considered a man, warrior, and protector of his village. They spend the next 10 years learning more man stuff by living in all-male warrior village.
Boys are supposed to learn how to be protectors? Nah, that’s primitive stuff. Why can’t these teens prove their manhood by getting drunk and having sex with a random girl at a party?
Comparatively speaking, American boys have easier rites of passage. We really don’t have a challenging “Today, you are a man” process for our sons. Many people believe he becomes a man when puberty ends. Others believe the 18th birthday bestows magical manhood status. Some add “manly experiences” such as hunting, fishing, shaving and physical labor to the equation. A few consider sexual conquest or violence to be the primary indicators that their boy has arrived.
Do our boys really have it easier, or are they at a disadvantage? To successfully transition from boy to man, our sons need mature men who are invested in their lives, and in an era of absentee fathers and keep-to-yourself communities, there are few mentors that are capable of taking them down this road.
An effective male mentor teaches boys to value hard work and accept responsibility for their actions. They also teach them how to treat others, especially women, with respect. Unfortunately, too many boys and teens learn about manhood at the feet of gangbangers, over-aged frat boys or their peers. The results can be disastrous.
Mentorless males and elephants
A few years ago, the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-profit organization created to end father absence and help men be the best dads they can be, released an article and public service announcement about the dangers of juvenile males growing up without fathers or mature male mentors. The items focused on a real case about young male elephants from South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
The herd had grown too large, and officials made the decision to transport some of the females and juvenile bulls to another park. The mature males were too large to move, so they remained behind.
A few years later, rangers at the elephants’ new home began finding the dead bodies of endangered white rhinoceros. Poachers were ruled out as the killers because the animals did not have gunshot wounds nor were their valuable horns taken. The cause of death was violent assault teamed with deep puncture wounds.
The rangers set up hidden cameras in the park and soon discovered that aggressive juvenile male elephants, the same young males relocated from Kruger, were chasing down the rhinos, raping them, and stomping and goring them to death with their tusks and trunks. The young bulls had gone into a testosterone-frenzy when mating season began, and there were no mature dominant males to model behavior or discipline the adolescents. Rangers arranged to have some of Kruger’s mature bulls brought to the new park, and within a few weeks, the young males’ aggressive and violent behavior stopped.
Does the story imply that teen boys are like juvenile male elephants? Not at all, unless you consider the amount of food a teenage boy eats. However, the story does provide a very real life lesson about what can happen when teen boys (of any species) grow up without mature male guidance.
Modern rites of passage
I’ve got a stake in manhood today because I’m the mother of a tween boy. Feminists may scream for my head, but there is no way I can teach my son to be a man. I can teach him how to treat women, but I can’t model those behaviors. I will never be able to understand how his hormones influence his body and behavior, and frankly, I’d probably freak out if I knew.
Fortunately, my boy is surrounded by a good community of men, led by his dad and grandfather. Thanks to these men, he learned how to safely operate firearms, worked on a farm, picked up a few things about auto repair, developed a passion for protecting those who can’t protect themselves, and practiced what it means to be a gentleman. (To be fair, my son has also learned a few things from me as well.) Yup, we’ve totally brainwashed him with all our repressive morality and outdated gender roles.
A boy learns how to be a man based on the actions of the men around him. If the men demonstrate loyalty and responsibility, the boy will model them. If the men demonstrate chauvinism or hate, the boy will model that as well. If the men are complete tools, well, the kid doesn’t have a chance.
We’ve seen far too many men drop the ball with their sons. Too many boys learn that men are free to leave without consequence. Move on when you’re bored with your partner. Stop supporting your kids when you get tired of the responsibility. Be the “fun guy” every weekend, and leave the discipline up to their mother.
We’ve also seen too many men equating manhood with sexuality. Rather than telling their boys they’re too young for sex, they’re buying condoms for their 7th grade sons. They’re taking their 11-year-olds to Hooters so their sons can look a woman straight in the …. boobs. These aren’t even “don’t tell your mother about this” occurrences; the dads are posting this stuff on Facebook and getting “likes” from their peers. A former neighbor repeatedly brought his tween son to Hooters and other breastaurants and shared their exploits on Facebook. When I told him he was teaching his son to disrespect women and view them as sexual objects, he adamantly proclaimed he and his son treat women with the utmost respect – and they tip the girls well.
A mother’s plea
Guys, please raise your boys to be real men; don’t abandon them or set bad examples. The lessons of the Bar Mitzvah, Vanuatu divers and Maasai warriors are critically important, even in our so-called modern enlightened world. Teach your sons to be responsible, loyal, brave and protective. Honor God. Discipline them when it’s needed. Make them do hard work so they don’t grow up thinking it’s beneath them. Let them see you treat women with the utmost respect and honor them for their minds and spirits rather than for their push-up bras, tight shorts and platter of chicken wings.
I ask you to do these things because I also have a daughter. She deserves an honorable young man, not a selfish juvenile.
As fair warning, my daughter also has a father who takes this real man thing seriously. If your son tries to use her as a rite of passage or fails to treat her with the respect she deserves, her dad and brother will make him wish he tried to prove his manhood with a few vines and a tall tower.
** Flickr, M. Dorausch. He was witnessed the party; these aren’t his kids.