by Mike McCormick
Coming-of-age stories are some of the oldest and most beloved tales in human history—from ancient mythologies to classical literature to Hollywood blockbusters. Most of them tell of a young man’s journey to manhood and how a guru comes alongside him and shows him a new way. The story pattern is always the same and never grows old: the young man resists his initial training from his master, he struggles to find his inner resolve, and then ventures out to put his new-found strength to the test.
As in these timeless classics, every teenage boy needs to be guided into manhood, and there’s no better person to do this than a father or a male mentor. It needs to be an active and meaningful process because, let’s face it: getting the attention of today’s teenager in this digital age is no easy matter.
Every young man needs an older man to prepare him for and launch him on the journey to manhood. For whatever reason, teenage boys require a catalyst to lead them out of their childhood and into the next stage of maturation. Most cultures across the globe recognize this phenomenon and actively initiate their teenage boys into adulthood.
As a father or male mentor who’s already been on the journey himself, you are the perfect teacher—no matter how imperfect you may feel! If you are the father of a teenage boy, he needs you to step up and step into his life in a whole new way. It doesn’t take gobs of time, just intentionality. And you don’t even have to be a dad to help raise up the next generation of men; mentors, coaches, teachers, grandpas, uncles or brothers are encouraged too.
Here are five essentials to help any man give a teenage boy what he most secretly craves: the roadmap to manhood:
1. Tell him your story.
Don’t tell him any old story. Tell him your story. Every man has a story, and like it or not your story is the biggest influence on the kind of man he will one day become. There’s a good bet he’s picked up some bits and pieces about your life over the years, but he needs to hear your full story. Sit down and tell him who you are as a man and the highs and lows of your life. Tell him the pains, failures and struggles you’ve experienced, as well as your highlights. Tell him your regrets and what you’ve learned from the choices you’ve made because chances are he’s going to follow down a similar path.
It’s most important to share from the heart and be vulnerable. Many dads won’t take this important step with their son because they either don’t want to get knocked off a pedestal or they are too ashamed of their past and want to forget about it. Please know that your story, no matter how imperfect, is essential to your young man’s growth and development.
Sharing your story with your son brings him into your “circle of trust,” which is a euphoric feeling for any young man. It also opens the door for further conversations; he’ll be more likely seek you out for advice in the future. And he will see clearly that adversity is part of life and he shouldn’t be surprised or scared by it. Your story will help equip him to walk confidently into whatever challenges come his way.
2. Give him a roadmap before he starts the journey.
Men are famous for throwing the instruction book to the side, plowing ahead and relying on our own wits to complete a project, or getting hopelessly lost before we ask for directions. Usually when I do this I find myself backtracking to square one just to figure out what went wrong. Similarly, teenage boys do better when they start out with well-defined guidelines for their journey to manhood.
The best gift a dad can ever give his teenage son is the roadmap to manhood before he ever starts his trip. I taught my teenage sons six “guideposts” to communicate what a man says and does in the world: accept responsibility, lead courageously, pretend about nothing, journey with God, protect your heart, and engage in deep and meaningful relationships.
You may have a different concept of manhood and want to communicate something completely different, and that’s ok. Just communicate what matters most to you! In today’s world, being a good role model isn’t enough. Your son’s concept of masculinity is being shaped by the Internet, media and his misinformed friends. Dads can no longer sit idly by and let this happen.
3. Let him know he has what it takes.
Our teenagers live in a mixed-up world that bombards them with non-stop messages that skew their perspective on life. The predominant message in our society is that manhood is all about the accumulation of power, possessions and prestige. No wonder most teenage boys are feeling underequipped and just plain confused.
Don’t believe the tough guy façade. Teenage boys are scared they won’t measure up to the culture’s definition of manhood, and there aren’t many safe places out there to talk about it. Boys at this age are notoriously vicious about putting each other down and exploiting any weakness. Rarely are they ever affirmed for who they are. It’s so important during those teenage years to hear words of affirmation that let them know the journey is worth it and they have all that’s required to figure it out. While they may be a very long way from manhood, hearing positive messages is crucial to a young man’s development and maturation. Here are some examples of affirmations to use with your son:
“You’re going to do great in this world because …”
“You will make an awesome father someday because …”
“You have amazing gifts to share with the world like …”
It’s sure is easy to slip into negativity with your teenager because, quite frankly, he can be maddening at times. But do your best to keep it positive.
4. Make sure to keep it real too.
While teenage boys certainly need important affirmations from older men, be careful not to heap on too much praise just to bolster their self-esteem. Teenage boys have a great “BS” detector and nothing makes a teenage boy cringe faster than false flattery. It’s important that dads “keep it real” with their teenage sons.
They need to know that life is no longer simply cake and ice cream, and that more is required of them. During those teenage years somebody needs to challenge them, call them out, and help them make sense of things when they are prone to take the easy path or make the reckless choice. Remember, men are not just born, they are made. Teenage boys need to bump up into something (or somebody) they can’t control, manipulate or bamboozle. Teenage boys don’t respect anything they get for free, so somebody needs to keep putting price tags on things for them and encouraging them forward.
5. Take him on adventures.
While they often appear lazy and disinterested, teenage boys yearn to be tested and pushed beyond the edge of their limits. Our young men enjoy a false sense of control because most of life can be accessed by the touch of a cell phone, joystick or keystroke. It’s hard to find activities these days that take young men out of their comfort zones and into the wild. Extracurricular activities like sports, robotics, band, theater, or youth groups can all teach valuable life lessons, but at the end of the day, these are all structured activities. While amusement parks, sports games, music concerts, video games, monster truck rallies are all fine father-son activities, at the end of the day they are just entertainment.
Today’s teenage boys need to encounter the wild—where life is unpredictable and anything can happen. Too many of today’s fathers are so wrapped up in our kids’ activities and enjoying our own personal comforts that we’ve forgotten to take our boys on adventures and teach them the lessons that only nature can teach. The opportunities to adventure are all around us: kayaking, mission trips, service projects, camping, fishing, canoeing, surfing, hunting, hiking, etc. Seize them with your son!
Mike McCormick is the author of ManQuest: Leading Teenage Boys into Manhood, a guidebook designed for fathers to have intentional conversations and engage in activities that help boys become men. Mike is married with two teenage sons and a daughter and lives in Birmingham, Michigan.