How To Help Your Teen Boy Become A Young Man
How To Help Your Teen Boy Become A Young Man
One recent afternoon, I took my teen boy up a mountain for a rite of passage, then descended the next morning with a young man.
If you’re curious what I did and said, or have a preteen son and you want to do something similar, give this a read.
First, let me say why I decided to do this for Eli, the oldest of my four sons.
As a teen, I attended the Bar Mitzvah of a Jewish friend. After he read the Torah, gave a speech that started with the words, “Today I am a man,” and broke a glass, his father announced that he was now a man.
More gruelling is the initiation rite most boys in African traditional cultures face. They are taken from their homes by the village elders, who teach them about manhood, circumcise them, and then leave them in the open air to survive the ordeal. Most do survive, and they return wearing a man’s hat.
Both my Jewish and African friends have seemed to stand taller on the other side of these communal initiations. In contrast, I—and most of my friends—received no initiation to manhood at all. On reflection, this left us uncertain about our own manhood. Hence, we felt the need to self-initiate. If others will not grant manhood to us, maybe we must prove it—so we competed with and fought other men, and tried to conquer women. “Look at my muscles … my trophies … my sexual exploits.”
The disservice of not initiating our sons is that they often feel forced to try rise up into some kind of masculinity by their own self-determination. What a burden to bear. All the while, most cultures in history have known that manhood is not something to be achieved. It is meant to be received as significant others bestow it upon us. It’s no wonder, then, so many men in the West, having never received this, live a protracted adolescence into their thirties.
I propose it’s much better to carve out a passage or milestone for our sons to manhood.
Now let me share 1) six tips to create an experience like this for your son, and, 2) what to say before and during this rite of passage.
CREATE THE EXPERIENCE
1. Playfully talk it up in advance.
I told Eli years in advance that I was planning something like this, but also got him just a little nervous by telling him that exactly at midnight we’d circumcise him.
He quickly figured out I was kidding, so I was happy to play another joke with him on the day before we left. I’d messaged the third person in our adventure, Chris, about what else we should bring. He voice noted me back saying we should bring, “boerewors and … cannabis”! Eli’s eyes grew big as he listened to the message, as mine had the first time I heard it.
“Dad, are we going to smoke weed?” What I didn’t tell Eli is that I’d checked with Chris if I had heard correctly, and he’d clarified that we should bring “boerewors and a can of beans.”
Of course, when Eli got a little too nervous, I assured him that he was in safe hands and we’d not break the law, and only give him a great experience.
2. Wait for puberty to hit.
I’d long planned to do this when Eli turned thirteen. But, to be honest, Eli was such a young thirteen year old. So I decided to wait till he actually hit puberty—at age fourteen—and just a little more emotionally mature so he could take it all in.
3. Tailor it to the teen’s personality.
For years I’d imagined I would invite many men to come along to this, but in the end opted for only one other man to join us.
My wife persuaded me to do something that would be more suited to Eli, who is quite a private person, and not at all inclined to be part of a gang of guys.
In the future, for some of my other sons who are more inclined to be part of a pack, I might invite more men to capture the additional sense of being part of a brotherhood.
4. Do something adventurous and strenuous.
Neither Eli nor I are the camping type, but there’s something primal about masculinity, I think, that connects it naturally to the outdoors, and to some physical challenge.
I’m grateful that Chris is more of a mountain man than me—he scouted out a location on a high mountain waterfall a few hours drive from my city that would be our destination.
It took a few hours to hike there, much of the trek involved bundu bashing. I’d been worried whether Eli was strong enough and could carry his own load. But, actually, as a high-schooler he is used to carrying a heavy bag and it was I, not Eli, who straggled at the back.
Without mattresses, we were lucky to set up our tent on waist-high grass that served as natural padding between us and the sloping, uneven ground. None of us slept fantastically that night, but none of us complained. Roughing it, we knew, was part of the experience.
5. Connect with the elements.
On our hike to the waterfall, Chris suggested we walk in complete silence for about an hour. “Just observe the animals, birds, insects, plants, river and scenery all around you. Take it in. Get in the moment. Realise you’re part of it.” Following his orders, I felt again how much of my life I am disconnected from nature, and from the present moment.
Then, when we arrived at our location, Chris and I built the order of events around water and fire. We swam in the freezing plunge pool at the base of the waterfall upon arriving and again early the next morning. And we gathered the firewood to feed the fire that gave us our night time’s light, warmth and cooking.
6. Choose good men to come along.
When I realized that I would take only one man along with us, I chose Chris Swift. The reason for my choice is that 1) Eli and he knew each other fairly well; 2) Chris is a solid and good human being; who 3) inspiringly takes responsibility for his life and his family; 3) is proficient at articulating what he has learnt in life as well as the values he tries to live by; and 4) is masculine without any trace of toxicity that often comes with the fact.
All of this served as a frame for the ideas we’d cover in our time together.
SIX THINGS TO SPEAK ABOUT
1. Do the sex talk beforehand.
Any holistic understanding of manhood should include the sexual dimension. In many traditional cultures, for example, the initiation includes talking about sex (unfortunately, sometimes encouraging men to express their young manhood by having sex). My feeling was that this subject was more suited to a one-on-one conversation, so I made sure that before this trip I’d already had two conversations with Eli.
2. Vulnerably tell him your story in the car.
I had a few hours in the car with Eli en route to the rite of passage location. I decided I’d use it to let Eli get to know me much better.
Julie and I have told our kids about our life together as adults. And Eli and I have been witness of both his life and mine since he has been born. But I realized that Eli didn’t know in depth about the first half of my life.
So, for the car trip, I said: “Eli, I am not trying to make you in my image, for each of us has our own life, and our own story. But I want to take this chance to help you understand your dad much better.” I then slowly talked him, year by year, through my earlier life, covering especially my most wonderful and painful experiences—and how they impacted upon me, both then and in the long term.
The two reasons I did this are, first, so that he will never be able to say to a shrink one day, “I never knew my dad,” and, second, to model to him that anger, sadness, and fear have been part and parcel of my life, so he should not be surprised when they visit him, too. I especially used words to describe the pained feelings I’d experienced. I explained that part of my healing over the years came from finding people to talk with about them. Real men do cry, I clarified.
3. Share life wisdom with him.
After hanging our lamb chops on sticks over the flames, Chris and I transformed into sages. We’d both given thought about what we wanted to teach Eli.
Chris even wrote his list of life wisdom down, and gave a copy of it to Eli as a resource for the future. We shared our prepared messages, then freewheeled from there, sharing whatever other lessons that seemed worthy of our flickering light under the stars.
We explained that, in the words of Jon Tyson in The Intentional Father, “the life of a boy is a life of ease, a life of self in which we try to control everything, and a life spent living in the moment. But the beauty of being a man is that a man embraces difficulty, cares about others, is part of a greater story, is willing to surrender to a greater cause, and lives for the eternal, not the temporary.”
We illustrated our nuggets of wisdom with personal stories. For example, when Chris urged Eli to become known as someone who treats people honourably, he told us he had treated an ex-girlfriend so well that she ended up commending him to the woman who would later became his wife.
Echoing Tyson’s mention of living for the eternal not the temporary, I shared the wisdom of the biblical prophet Jeremiah—words I have held to since I was a teen: “Life’s true prize is not the gaining of wealth, achievement or knowledge—it’s the gaining of a long history of intimate friendship with God.”
4. Tell him which men he should lean on.
Steve Biddulph in Raising Boys reports that boys, ages 0-6, tend to most identify with their moms. Older boys, ages 6-12, tend to most identify with their dads. But teens, ages 13 plus, tend to most identify with men outside their father.
Though I hope Biddulph is not correct in Eli’s case, I was elated when Chris said to him: “So far in your life you have turned to your parents for help. But as you get older you might not want to share everything with them, nor be limited by their perspective alone. So, if you want, please feel free to get hold of me anytime, as well as some other friends of your dad. We pledge ourselves to be there for you.”
5. Call forth the man.
The single most important moment of our fire-lit exchange was the moment we answered Eli’s unspoken question: “Men, do you think that I have what it takes?”
Deep down, every teen son wants to know if he has what it takes to face life’s challenges and roles. It’s a question that a dad especially was made to answer with a resounding ‘yes’! So, I said the words:
“Eli, I am so proud to be your dad. You have what it takes to be a man in this world. I can feel it in my heart of hearts, that you’re going to be a great man. You’ll be a great gift to this world. You have a strength and some gifts that you will bring to this world. And I know it’s far off, but one day you will be a great husband and dad.”
Chris chimed in: “With you in this world, Eli, I feel a little more safe about the future. Thank you for the being who you are, the man you are turning into, and for using your significant talents for good.”
One last thing to say …
6. Tell him that you’ll always be there for him.
A tribe of native Americans, I hear, had a unique practice for training young braves. On the night of a boy’s 13th birthday, the men placed him deep in a dense forest to spend the entire night. All alone.
Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe. Every time a twig snapped, he’d visualize a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked.
After what would seem like an eternity of terror, the first rays of sunlight would enter the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path.
Then, to his utter astonishment, he would behold the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow, bow drawn ready to shoot anything that endangered him.
Who was this archer? It was the boy’s father. He had been there all night long.
That night on the mountain I wanted Eli to never forget, even as life will increasingly have him standing on his own two feet, that I love him, and that all of me is there for him for as long as I live—my arrow is drawn.
I think the whole experience allowed him to feel my love and belief in him in a deeper way, because after the rite of passage he definitely stands a little taller.
Also published on Medium.