At what point in a boy’s life does he become a man? How does his community, his father and uncles and grandpas, acknowledge that transition and begin the initiation and mentoring process of bringing him into the brotherhood of men?
With our daughters, we can acknowledge their ascent to young womanhood when they start their moon cycle, as it’s an obvious physical sign – my wife is already planning our oldest daughter’s first moon ritual – but in our modern culture, we have lost any traditions and rites of manhood we may have once had.
For the last ten years or so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the relationship between fatherhood and manhood. I’ve done some serious work on myself in the areas of fatherhood, self-growth, and interpersonal relationships, but I still can’t quite get a handle on the subject of what it means to be a man.
When I was a teenager, I wasn’t taught ‘how to be a man,’ or shown any special treatment from the men that I knew with regards to the journey from boy to man, and I believe this had a lot to do with my aimlessness and angst during those years. I didn’t respect my elders (at least as far as their knowledge and experience went), and I made many mistakes in relationships with women, with substance abuse, with ego-driven acts meant to artificially inflate my importance to myself and to the world.
I believe that it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t have a relationship with mentor or a “heroic man” to show me the ropes and to teach me about manhood and responsibility and maturity. That’s not to say that my father didn’t try to teach me in his own way, but due to the emotional distance between us, I was often too busy rebelling against what I perceived as his undue authority over me. I also believe that his relationship with his own father wasn’t very close or supportive, and that transferred to our relationship. I can’t say that for sure, as I only saw glimpses of his relationship with his father when they interacted (not very often, as we lived far away from my grandparents), but now that I look back, it sure seems that way to me.
Recently, I’ve been trying to imagine how I could avoid that same mistake in my own life, as I have a son who will be 15 soon. He lives with his mother, so I don’t get to see him very often due to the physical distance between us, but I very much wish to be able to guide and mentor him as he goes through the trials and challenges of growing up. We live very different lives, and I know that even though I love him greatly, I can’t do much for him in terms of teaching him or showing him by example if I’m not around him.
In my own journey, I’ve been fortunate to be involved with a traditional sweat lodge community, which also includes the practice of ‘going on the hill’ (vision quest) and a yearly week-long Sundance ceremony. Participating in these powerful rituals has helped me to better understand my own true nature, my relationships with other humans, and my relationship with the Creator. It’s taught me about endurance, faith, responsibility, self-love, and community, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without these ceremonies in my life.
For some traditional cultures, it is the uncles or grandparents who are the guiding force for young men – the boy’s father is often too close to be able to truly teach him without it being tainted by his power as a father. For that reason, I believe that the uncles and grandpas I have gained through ceremony have been able to teach me so much – we’re not burdened by the axiom of “familiarity breeds contempt” when taught by someone outside our immediate family.
I also know that many men don’t have these types of rituals in their lives, and that their sons are taught by sports coaches or scoutmasters, pastors or guidance councilors, video games or the TV. I’m not saying these fathers are not good men, or that they aren’t trying to be good fathers, but merely that it isn’t taught – the transition to manhood nowadays is usually not celebrated or recognized by our society except through such tokens as a first shave, having sex, getting a driver’s license or a job, going to college, or perhaps joining the military.
Why can’t we raise manliness and manhood to the level of importance that feminism and the women’s movement has reached? Are we as men not ready to ask serious questions of ourselves and to change our lives if necessary? Are we not able to speak to our sons about the lessons we’ve learned (or not learned, as the case may be) and to guide them as friends and as fellow men?
So here’s my question to you: When does a boy become a man? What rites of manhood did you go through, or that you are planning for your son?
Further reading on manhood:
- Why Many Men Are Still Boys and What Can Be Done About It
- Men Growing Up to be Boys
- You Don’t Know Dick About Manhood
Image: m o d e at Flickr