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When Does a Boy Become a Man? Our Missing Rites of Manhood

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:

Image: m o d e at Flickr

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26 Responses to When Does a Boy Become a Man? Our Missing Rites of Manhood

  1. Great stuff Derek. I have grave concerns about what our culture is doing to boys. It is clear that fewer boys are being successful in high school and going to college. I could write a chapter on each one of your paragraphs, they are so thought-provoking. There is not room here. I do think this topic deserves research and discussion.

    • Thanks, Glenn.

      I am rather concerned as well – both for myself (and I’m 40!) and for all of our sons (my youngest son is 7 months old). I think the women’s movement has done wonders for our sisters and wives and daughters, and now it’s time for a true men’s movement – to raise up strong, compassionate, and loving men who are ready to change the world, and not try to escape from it (as I did).

      Cheers-

  2. Hi Derek,

    I have an 10 year old son – and thanks for bring this important topic up. He will be 11 soon.

    In my world – I am interested in having him be ready, willing and able – to achieve – to find his own center – his creativity – his ability to see himself fully – bringing strength and peace to his world and his life.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Truly,
    Leslie Gabriel

    • Thanks, Leslie – I appreciate that you put ‘peace’ as something to empower in your son. We need more strong peaceful men.

      Cheers-

  3. I feel there is still an art to learning how to shave your beard that is one of the rites of passage for a young man. The whole process of lathering the soap, cleaning the blade, the methodical process of removing the beard and then the aftershave all add up to a ritual that a father teaches to his son. I remember being on the high school football team and having a competition with a few other guys to see who could grow the best beard by the end of a week. Something about growing a beard and then the ritual of shaving is ingrained in my head as one of those activities that separate the men from the boys.

    I enjoyed the post. Looking forward to the next update.

  4. Oh, this is so important. Thinking about it is definitely a step in the right direction. And this is the age where boys typically want to and/or need to be with their dad (even if they don’t think so). Guys who missed out on this, really missed out – even from a father who was physically there, but not meaningfully engaged. I think a father can be meaningfully engaged, daily, even when they can’t be there physically. There’s always a way.

    I’m just realizing my latest post is somewhat linked to this topic…
    .-= Isle Dance´s last blog ..Little Barns on the Island =-.

    • So true, there is always a way. And I love the last paragraph of your post – “And you knew, you just knew all would be safe, protected and well with the world. Because of really good men.”

  5. Derek,
    Great post—I so agree. The main issue in our culture with men is or course, the lack of conscious initiation practices. I too have a son, now 11 months. I have already introduced him to my tribe of men. When they meet him, I tell him, “this is one of your mentors.” He will have about 12 men to choose from and ever one of them will be a part of a year-long initiation I am designing.

    As you know, I am also leading a 6 month journey with grown men and it is an initiation at its core. We’ll see what happens.

    Thanks for working on yourself, being the man that you are, and even asking this question. Your son already has so much more than you had and I trust you will continue to guide him toward the kind of men that are needed in this world.

    your brother,

    Jayson
    .-= Jayson´s last blog ..Fear Or Love? =-.

  6. Derek,

    This is a great post and I applaud you for starting a conversation that’s been missing in our society, within our families, and within our own lives. I don’t have any answers myself (although I do have strong opinions on the topic), but I do feel that there is a crisis in our society around the idea of “manhood” and the proof of this crisis is in the continuing high levels of male abuse of women and children.

    Unless there are men involved in the lives of both boys and girls to model respect, peacefulness, compassion, empathy, etc… this cycle may continue. There are too many kids in foster care, too many kids up for adoption, too many children being raised by television, we can go on and on can’t we?!?

    Another way to look at it: look at our country’s funding priorities. Defense spending is out of control. Social services and education are further cut every budget year. Early childhood education is basically ignored – despite all the empirical evidence showing how important a “great start” is in putting children on the right path to becoming good men and women as adults.

    Sorry to go on and on, but there are so many facets to this – there’s not enough room here.

    Thanks again Derek for starting the conversation. Keep up the good work 🙂
    .-= Chris Singer´s last blog ..Daddy?!? =-.

    • Thanks, Chris. You’re absolutely correct – our priorities are all fouled up. If we really want to change the world, we need to change the environment and influences on children and young adults, not continue our War on (fill in the blank with the latest ‘enemy’).

      Cheers!

  7. There is an organization out there that has been initiating men for many years, the Mankind Project, MKP.org I think. They also have a Father and Son weekend and a Boys to Men weekend, among other things, and facilitate the formation of smaller, ongoing groups. This has been a very crucial source of support and mentoring for me in my personal growth journey.

  8. Just stumbled on your blog. I liked this post a lot. At one point in our culture we did have this sort of brotherhood (it definitely existed in America a hundred years ago) but I don’t exactly know when (or why) that changed. My guess is that it has a large part to do with our changing sensibilities on political correctness; we take it for granted that there are no real differences between men and women. I wouldn’t go so far to say that we should return to the old order (which only existed because we were too unindustrialized and poor to have many options open to women) but I think there needs to be some realization that young men have been left by the wayside by a culture that acts like they don’t exist (except when they cause problems).

  9. I also did not have much for guidance into manhood. Hunted and pecked, groped and guessed my way here. I think one thing that has to be discussed is the fact that the definition of manhood has changed. It is more a definition of general adulthood that fits now. Responsibility, compassion, respect, work-ethic, maturity etc. These things are beyond gender. I think maybe one thing that is still unique is how we treat women. How do we deal with the testosterone coursing through our veins in our teen years while still being whole humans and not “just boys” or even “just men.” First visit here. Really love the place.
    .-= Homemaker man´s last blog ..Keys =-.

  10. Richard Rohr does a lot with male initiation, too. http://www.malespirituality.org/

    he’s a catholic priest, but very respectful of a lot of native and eastern traditions too. (Shame we have to even mention that…)

    thanks for a thought provoking blog in general. stumbled over from eco-child re: fair trade hershey and now just browsing through!

  11. Great topic. I’ve been travelling this same road for several years seeking wisdom where I can to help raise my two boys (20, 16). Two books I found interesting; Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis and Boy’s Passage Man’s Journey by Brian Molitor. Another good book for all children is The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent.

  12. First off, nice blog Derek. I am a reading instructor for an after-school program for grades 6-8. Though I’ve only been doing this for about 2 years, I and another colleague have noticed that there are a plethora of programs dedicated to girls but few for boys.

    so I’m in the process of creating a club for boys different from the boy-scout model. this is to address some of the same issues you expressed in your blog. I want to help provide a forum to celebrate this transitionary point of life–into manhood while also imparting to them lessons that are specific to them. I’ve written alot here so I’ll stop for now. but I have much to say on the subject and will likely be creating a blog to catalogue my experiences with this program. And I am expecting my first child, a son, Feb. 24th.

  13. Nice work Derek!
    I have been working with men and boys through community organisations for almost 10 years now and have developed programs that are so amazing and very much needed. I find it interesting that it is women in the main who understand this implicitly and they are the ones to make it happen for their menfolk. I am generalising but if it were not for the women our job would be much harder! Keep up the good work!
    Andy

  14. Having no father figure in my own life growing up was difficult. But like most in my situation, I learned from my own mistakes. Now I am older, I try to be a good example. It seems many parents now try to shelter their boys. Part of living and learning is allowing our boys to make their own mistakes. I watch the women in this town coddle their boys. Protecting them from whatever bad things they don’t want them to see. The problem is that the boys do not know what to do with themselves when problems arise. Having not learned the necessary skills to be self reliant. I ask who takes care of these boys after these who have taken care of or sheltered then are gone?

  15. The only benchmark to know whether you’re a man or not is if you’re mentally mature enough. Yet, your inner kid should live on to add fun to your life. The ritual for this could happen at any age, it could just be observing yourself handle a situation with the maturity of other men.

  16. This is a GREAT Blog, it is a Blessing to know that there is a percentage of use out there that still care. I have 4 boys(15,21,22,& 30). I travel across the United States doing seminars on this very topic. I applaud all of you in your will doing. Please…Please do not stop. Now that we understand that men have lost their place in todays society. We(Men)have to start from the beginning. Derek, the best way to SHOW your son how to become a man is to STAY COMPLETELY in his life, and be the best MAN that you can possibly be. If you are married…Do what ever it takes to say married. The reason why we(Men)are Displaced and/or replaced is due to commitment(or lack there of).SHOW your man child what it means to be responsible…SHOW!!!! You can tell him how to sharpen a knife(or bate a hook). But if you SHOW HIM….Ceremonies are for celebrating. It will not make your boy a man. Proverbs 22;6 Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old…He will not depart from it.

    Be Blessed

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