My son’s question was pivotal. Possibly life-changing. It demanded a carefully-considered, intelligent answer . . . but I didn’t have one.

In his usual straightforward manner, my 17-year-old son, David, had suddenly redirected our post- movie conversation by asking, "How do I know when I’m a man? Who decides when I’m not a kid anymore?"

Caught unprepared, my husband and I offered somewhat clumsy affirmations of our son, highlighting clear evidence we had seen of his maturation over recent months. But we could see that David found our response disappointing, and the inadequacy of our answer haunted us. For starters, we had failed to answer the key question, When? When does a boy become a man?

When does manhood begin?

Our culture offers some paltry milestones: reaching puberty, attaining a driver’s license, high school graduation, casting their first ballot, reaching legal drinking age, the first sexual encounter, the first full-time job. But these make poor waypoints for the journey to manhood. Most males will reach these celebrated moments eventually. It’s just a matter of time, not maturity. Authorisation to drink or to drive does not guarantee that a teen will "act like a man" and use these privileges responsibly.

Even social scientists are struggling to flag the point of entry into manhood. In his 2008 book Guyland, secular sociologist Michael Kimmel writes:

"Demographers typically cite five life-stage events to mark the transition to adulthood: leaving home, completing one’s education, starting work, getting married, and becoming a parent. . . . In 1950, when social scientists first identified these markers of adulthood, they all clicked in at almost exactly the same time. . . . In 2000, 46 percent of [US] women and 31 percent of [US] men had reached those markers by age 30. . . . The passage between adolescence and adulthood has morphed from a transitional moment to a separate life stage. . . . "adultolescence," or "young adulthood" – now encompasses up to two full decades . . ."

At the same time, society is mired in uncertainty around the definition of manliness. In a generation where more women are driving trucks and earning six-figure incomes while dads stay home to care for the kids, men no longer know what’s expected of them.

Does it matter that the route to manliness, and even masculinity itself, are not clearly defined? Yes, absolutely – for every adolescent male. Assurance that he is "manly" in the eyes of others is foundational to nearly every male’s self-esteem. Although your teen may not have voiced this thought aloud, I assure you he is searching for answers to the deeply personal question, Am I man enough? The answers you provide, or that he arrives at for himself, will echo down the hallway of the remainder of his life, informing his self-perception, his relationship with his wife and his attitude toward his career.

Consequences of insecurity

When a teen emerges from high school with wavering self-esteem and an ill-defined or inaccurate vision of true manliness, trouble can follow. His new-found independence coupled with his desperate need to prove himself to "the guys at work" or on campus can entice him to make reckless and disturbing choices.

In Guyland, Kimmel exposes this mismanaged drive to be accepted as "a man among men" as the force that sustains a shocking subculture of debauchery in campuses across the United States – a subculture of binge drinking, sexual predation and sadistic bullying thinly disguised as hazing rituals. Kimmel writes, "In an effort to prove their masculinity, with little guidance and no real understanding of what manhood is, they engage in behaviours and activities that are ill-conceived and irresponsibly carried out. . . . It’s the fear of other men – that other men will perceive you as a failure, as a fraud. It’s a fear that others will see you as weak, unmanly, frightened."

For others, a counterfeit vision of manliness can have a more insidious effect. Confused young men may emerge from adolescence choosing bravado over courage, cockiness over confidence, defiance over resolve, emotional detachment over engagement. According to writers like Gordon Dalbey, Paul Coughlin, Rick Johnson and others, scores of Christian men are no less confused as they struggle to emulate a whip-wielding, table-turning Saviour who also urges them to turn the other cheek. Too many have exchanged passion for passivity – a betrayal of all they were created to be.

Passing the mantle

By the age of 15, most adolescents are beginning to detach from their parents and spend more time with friends. But don’t be deceived; your son still needs you, now more than ever, to help him grasp an exciting vision of godly masculinity. Are you ready to step up to the plate? Dads are ideally qualified, but mums who understand masculine motivations and needs can make a valuable contribution as well.

As a first step, you may want to explore your son’s preconceptions. Who springs to mind when you ask him to identify a model of manliness? Does he understand that true manliness is an internal characteristic, not something acquired at a tattoo parlour or by hitting the road on a Harley? In his eyes, what traits does a "real man" possess? What is his view of Jesus? Does he consider Jesus an inspiring role model for manhood? Where would your son place himself on a scale between wimp and world changer?

How you proceed from this point is up to you, but here are some suggestions you may want to incorporate into your own game plan:

  • Search the Scriptures together and help your son see a new Jesus – the one who was powerful, courageous, protective and clever, and who never hesitated to confront falsehood. Pray together, and individually, that Jesus would guide your son to godly manhood.

  • Help your son gain an accurate understanding of his personal strengths and weaknesses. Build his confidence by regularly affirming his strengths and by helping him find opportunities to both demonstrate and develop them. Help him learn to recognise and appreciate strengths in others.

  • Formulate your own list of "measures of manliness," and memorise Bible verses together that celebrate each of these traits. Some good traits to include are responsibility, accountability, discipline, honour, integrity, courage, compassion, determination to do what is right, and the ability to withstand temptation.

  • Consider other men who might come alongside your son as positive role models. Select novels, biographies and DVDs portraying heroic characters. Read or view the materials together and discuss the characters’ decisions and actions.

  • Review incidents in news reports with your son. Identify noble choices and choices that indicate immaturity.

We still don’t have a solid answer to our son’s question, When does a boy become a man?, but our ongoing discussions have assured us that he’s well on the way. Some of our conversations have been revealing, and this comment in particular: "Mum, I have to admit, I wasn’t really serious about Christianity until I realised that Christian men don’t have to be wimps."

Do start this conversation with your son soon. It’s important to know where he’s at.

© 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

Catherine Wilson

Associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

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