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How to Have a Conversation with Your Son about What It Means to Be a Man

Having a conversation with your son about healthy manhood can be challenging, but it is very rewarding. Healthy masculinity is not something that is developed in isolation. Boys without any male role models hardly ever become good men, because they have no model to emulate. Healthy masculinity is developed when boys have male role models to look up to who are demonstrating healthy behavior. That is why fathers are so important. Fathers are the natural male mentor that boys need.

Modeling behavior as a man is not always enough; sometimes, we also have to use our words and talk to our sons about healthy masculinity. That doesn’t always come easy for most guys. It can make for an awkward conservation.

A ‘What It Means to Be a Man’ discussion is meant to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next. It is meant to give your son genuine advice on what it means to be a man, and also what it does not mean. The does not part might be things that he has already picked up from his friends, the media, and the culture at large. Simply put, you want to get to him before the rest of the world does. You want him to have the ability to recognize bad advice so when he encounters it in the future, he can see it coming from a mile away. As the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

It may be helpful to have a ‘What It Means to Be a Man’ discussion during a Rite of Passage ceremony for your son (essentially, a ceremony involving a group of men to formally welcoming your son into manhood). As fathers, we do have to use our words to prepare our sons for manhood. Sending him into the wilderness alone for 3 months like an Aboriginal Walkabout might sound cool, but it doesn’t impart on him any wisdom or knowledge from older male mentors. It is crucial that your son gets meaningful, tangible advice from the most important male mentors in his life – his father included.

A ‘What It Means to Be a Man’ discussion is really a discussion about how to be a good man. One of the men in the group will start the discussion by sharing his own advice. When he finished, the other men follow one at a time.

It’s a good idea for each man to start his reflection by sharing a story. My grandfather Bobo would talk about what it was like to be a father of four young girls while working as a policeman in San Francisco. Uncle Dan would talk about growing up on a ranch and going to night school to get his degree. My dad would talk about what it was like growing up without a father figure in his life and about being a small business owner.

The purpose of sharing a story is that it will help him realize that you were a teenager once too and you can relate to what he might be going through. The challenges that he is facing as a thirteen-year-old are universal challenges that every young man faces. He is not alone in his problems.

So, what does it mean to be a man? That question is about as open ended as it gets, and is going to depend on who you ask. Some advice that has been shared at previous Rite of Passage ceremonies include:

  • A good man maintains a close relationship with God, because life is best lived when you are in touch with your Creator.

  • A good man treats women with respect, including not looking at pornography.

  • A good man admits when he is wrong and tries to make things right when possible.

  • A good man apologizes, because everybody makes mistakes.

  • A good man thinks BIG and avoids Chicken Little syndrome.

  • A good man seeks help when he needs it, especially if that means fighting a bad habit or addiction.

  • A good man is not afraid to open up or to be in touch with his emotions. Showing emotion allows other people to open up, too. A good man knows how to share but does not overshare.

  • A good man does not give up easily. He is not a pushover.

  • A good man does not lose his childhood spirit. He does not allow himself to become battle-hardened and calloused, weary, emotionally distant, or jaded with life.

  • A good man has a positive attitude and welcomes others with a smile. Attitude is a choice.

  • A good man takes care of himself so he can take care of others. This includes his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

  • A good man is not afraid to fail,

  • A good man knows how to manage his fear and anger.

  • A good man is open to life and is not afraid of children but instead sees them as a gift

  • Becoming a man is a process and does not happen overnight. It is one thing to know these concepts intellectually, but it takes a lifetime to learn how to practice them in your day-to-day life. “Growing up” does not happen in a weekend. It takes a lifetime.

Is all of this advice going to stick? No, of course not. Your son will forget a lot of this advice as time goes on. But you are impressing on him what real masculinity means. You are forming him as he is becoming a man himself. You are giving him a standard to live up to in the future.


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