Boys Need Men to Teach Them About Life

by Rick Johnson

Early in the movie GoodFellas, Ray Liotta’s character is a teenage boy working for the neighborhood “wiseguys” or members of the Mafia. When he is arrested for the first time, he is greeted as a conquering hero by all the older “made” wiseguys after he walks out of the courtroom.

These powerful, rich men now consider him worthy of being a man. He is given money, cheered on, and welcomed to the club of men by older men he idolizes. He is given confidential advice that now makes him an insider of their club. They were very effectively teaching him the value system (good or bad) of their “tribe.”

This is what all young men yearn for.

The club of men that welcomes a boy or young man can determine the destiny of his life. We see it with gangs of all kinds. Boys yearn for the acceptance, validation, and even affection of a group of older males to teach them how a man lives his life. If those men are good men, he thrives and prospers, and as more and more good men invest the boys around them, society prospers as well. But if the adult man doesn’t know how a man successfully lives life—or if he is careless with the character he is modeling—then the boy and everyone around him will likely suffer.

Men know stuff. They know how to do things and they know how the world works. They learn from their experiences and from trial and error.

Our organization once held a retreat at a ranch with a big stone fireplace in the great room. One of the young men from the city was asked to light a fire in the fireplace. I noticed he was struggling and casually gave him a few tips on how to start a fire. Soon he had a majestic fire roaring in the fireplace. As people came along and complimented him on his great fire, he was quick to say, “Rick taught me how!” It was as if he was so grateful and proud that a man had taught him something handy that he couldn’t wait to let everyone know.

That experience built his confidence because now he knows he can start a fire if he needs to. Seems like a small thing, doesn’t it?

Being capable is important to our self-esteem as men and boys.

If no one shows us how to do something, how can we ever learn to be capable? And if we do not feel capable, how can we feel good about our manhood?

Being capable and competent is one of the things we strive to teach the boys during our annual father-son campouts for non-custodial dads. We want to teach the boys (and maybe the fathers too) some survival skills that will give them self-confidence. We teach them how to start a fire from scratch, the “ten essentials” for survival in the wilderness, how to use a compass, and other survival skills that breed feelings of competency and adequacy so important for a male to feel good about himself. Because I know that I can survive if dropped in the middle of nowhere with just my own two hands and a couple of basics, I believe that the other struggles and issues of life—even if I fail at them—are somehow less consequential in comparison.

When boys are brought up to feel that way about themselves, they have a much better chance of succeeding at life. When they have men (especially dads) come alongside them and teach them how to succeed in life, they do not have to suffer through the trials of failing which often lead to frustration, anger, and even quitting on life.

Dads, it’s up to us to help prepare our boys, and it should be a top priority.

Rick Johnson is a bestselling author of thirteen books on marriage and parenting. He has retired as the founder and director of a fathering skills ministry called Better Dads.

Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • Did your father teach you skills and wisdom for life? What do you wish he (or another mentor) would have taught you?
  • Make sure you find ways to teach those things to your son—and do something similar with your daughter.
  • What comes to mind for you when you read words like “success” and “prosper” with regard to your child’s future? What are your top goals and desires for him?
  • Plan an outing or excursion with your child in the outdoors, where you can start fires and teach other “survival” skills (or learn them together).
  • Think about your son’s natural interests and strengths. In what areas does he likely feel competent? (Maybe ask him if you don’t know.) Be intentional about helping him learn and grow in areas where he might not feel competent.

Watch the replay of the Fathering Breakthrough Event

Join Dr. Ken Canfield and a handful of friends and partners as we give an update about our efforts to inspire and equip fathers all over the world.

There may be no more important work than turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and that’s what this is all about. We’re seeking to repair, rebuild and restore effective fathering for the benefit of children and families everywhere.

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