Building Strong Boys: The Meaning of Manhood

I’m jumping right in at the deep end with this first topic in the Building Strong Boys Series — The Meaning of Manhood.

Now, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a tomboy.  As a child I was a tree-climbing, football-throwing, frog-chasing little girl.  When teachers at school asked for “a few strong boys” to help move something, I would be the first one to shoot up a hand and ask, “What about a strong girl?”  And when my grandmother gently chastised me for sprawling all over the couch, reminding me that ladies don’t sit like that, I vividly remember thinking to myself, “That’s just fine, because I am no lady.”  (Of course I knew better than to actually say that out loud…)

I’m not in favor of gender stereotypes, and I can totally relate to those of you who may get a bit riled up reading about archaic and stereotypical definitions of gender roles.  It makes many people uncomfortable to define manhood or to accept the exaggerated caricatures of masculinity.  But those erroneous definitions, as well as our resistance to creating new ones are two parts of the same problem.

Exaggerated Definitions

As common thought would indicate, an over-exaggerated, macho-type definition of masculinity can be hazardous for our boys.  Research indicates that heavy pressure to conform to narrow definitions of gender can have negative implications.  In his book, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, Dr. James Garbarino notes that many of the young men he interviewed in correctional facilities place an unhealthy premium on this macho version of manhood.  Repeated are themes of justifying violence in the name of “respect”, an objectified and possessive view of women, and an overriding attitude that “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

While none of these characteristics seem worthy of the title of “gentleman”, these troubled youth believed these views (as well as the actions that led to their incarcerations) were part of establishing themselves as “men”.  The authoritarian image of a man as a forceful, emotionless, and uncompromising figure has led many young men down undesirable paths.


So we know we don’t want the exaggerated caricature of a man, and we’ve seen the hazard of pushing rigid views of gender roles on children.  As a whole, we’ve become more flexible, which is generally good except for when it’s taken too far.

The more I study human development, the more I realize the answers are usually found in the middle ground.  Yet the pendulum keeps swinging.  Past generations in the US embraced rather rigid views of gender roles.  We often look at them today and say they appear a bit (or a lot) sexist.  So we made adjustments and made amends.  But as that pendulum swings too far the other other way, we now find that we’re reticent about discussing any gender differences or talking at all about what characteristics comprise manhood or womanhood.  And it appears that may be detrimental as well.

Several experts on the topic the development of boys and young men note that when boys are not given healthy role models or thoughtful guidance to build their gender identity, they are left with the “whisperings of society” — a little Slim Shady, some Jersey Shore, and a bit of Grand Theft Auto — to teach them what it is to be a man.

In his book, Boys Adrift,  Dr. Leonard Sax shares his discussion with the headmaster of an all-boys school.  The headmaster, Kenneth LaRocque, says this:  “It’s not enough for a boy to become a man.  We want him to become a gentleman…A boy does not naturally grow up to be a gentleman.  You need a community of men (and, the book notes, the positive influence of women as well) showing boys how to behave.”

It isn’t that our boys need the stereotypical archetypes, and yes, as many of you will argue, much of what they need to be taught as characteristics of manhood (responsibility, self-discipline, altruism, etc.) are virtues for our daughters as well.  But when we avoid teaching boys what it is to be a man, their hard-wired drive for identity development will find that definition elsewhere.

Dr. Sax goes on in his discussion to note,  “We are now seeing a rise in violent crime committed by young men.  I suggest that one of several factors driving the current rise in crime may be our collective neglect of this transition to adulthood.”

Rites of Passage

Perhaps the most interesting points I found while researching this aspect of building strong boys, was the research on rites of passage.  Perhaps like many of you, for me, the term originally conjured up images of ancient tribal rituals and awkward scenes from Fred Flinstone’s days at the lodge with the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

The term originated in 1908 from the work of French Anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep, whose seminal work introduced the term in its title, Les Rites de Passage. Anthropologists that followed his lead studied tribes off the coast of Australia in the early 1900s and the Ndembu people of Zambia in the 1960s.

The concept seems outmoded in today’s Western cultures.  We’re advanced.  More civilized.  We don’t need that, right?  Or do we?

Dr. Sax, writes rather extensively about the purpose of these rites.  The chapter title plays on the over simplified notions of what rites of passage are about.  Calling the section, “Revenge of the Forsaken Gods”,  Dr. Sax explains:

“When I say that “the forsaken gods will have their revenge,” I am not suggesting that I believe in the literal reality of the gods and goddesses who oversee the sacred festivals of the native communities that Professor Gilmore (an anthropologist referenced in the book) describes….We ignore the importance of these traditions at our peril.  Manhood isn’t something that simply happens to boys as they get older.  It’s an achievement — something a boy accomplishes, something that can easily go awry.  If we ignore the importance of this transition, and fail in our duty as parents to guide boys through it, then we will learn the hard way why traditional cultures invest this transition with so much importance.”

Rites of passage are not limited to those sacred ceremonies performed amid firelight to the beat of ancient drums.  They are readily available here in the 21st century.  Some include ceremonial aspects, others are the fulfillment of a more gradual experience.

Research on rites of passage suggest that included under that title are religious ceremonies like bar mitzvahs, confirmations, and ordinations.  Also included are significant trips and outings, celebrations of events (graduations, note-worthy birthdays, etc.) ,and programs like Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Clubs, and YMCA.

Positive rites of passage experiences appear to be founded on a period of skill-building or character development, achievement, and connection with positive adult role models.  The rite of passage is more than the ostensive ceremony, but the understanding and cognitive change that comes with it.  Simply pushing boys into contrived rituals and ceremonies has no more positive outcome than neglecting these rites.  It’s the combination of the event with the meaning that it carries for the youth involved and the positive experiences that led up to that moment.  It’s the conversations, connections, understanding, and accomplishments that come with it.

It is interesting to me to find that when components of healthy development are missing, the engine that drives of human development compels us to fill it as best we can.  Unfortunately, the alternatives are often unhealthy counterfeits.  In the case of rites of passage, youth may find counterfeits in gang initiations, drug use, risky behaviors, delinquency, or violence.  Without a positive declaration of their manhood, some young men seek a replacement in anyway they can find.  Anything to prove to the world — and to themselves — that they are no longer children, but men.

To be certain, defining the meaning of manhood is a complicated, and personal task.  But it’s not one we can turn our backs to.  Our boys need adults who will support them in their innately-driven quest to understand and attain manhood.  Research and common sense tell us that that achievement isn’t the function of age, but of experience and growth.  It’s a process.  A journey.  One that begins before the teenage years.  And it isn’t something we can simply leave to chance.

What are your thoughts?  How do you support boys in making a healthy transition to manhood?

This post is part of the Building Strong Boys Series.  Start the series here.

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Filed under Child Development & DAP, Uncategorized

14 Responses to Building Strong Boys: The Meaning of Manhood

  1. Thank you, Amanda. I come here to be inspired, enlightened, and educated. You never disappoint. Thank you for the time you spend providing this powerful research that is so beneficial to creating a healthy, safe, accepting, and loving society.

    I have only daughters, yet I have always been very interested in a few particular families I know with older boys. The boys are college-age and older and the young men are so kind, respectful, loving, confident, funny, and bright. I look at one factor these young men all have in common: a loving and respectful relationship with their parents. These young men enjoy spending time with their parents — in fact, they bring their friends home to spend time with their parents. There is never any name-calling, ridicule, or disrespect. I look at those young men and hope those are the men my daughters to marry someday — and I have their parents to thank. Time, love, and attention went into raising those boys. It is clear.

  2. Kim from Canada

    Amazing! I have 3 little boys (getting to be not so little….7, 5 and 2) and my wonderful husband who had a very rocky past with no one in his life speaking life and truth into him. We also work with a not for profit missionary organization with many many single women, and very few young men. It baffles me…where are all the men? I am loving this series and just ordered all the books you referenced from my local library! We continually work on communication with our boys and making space for the processing (not just sitting and chatting over a cup of tea….if only :) but being active with them and always listening for that moment when they ask those questions or share a struggle about getting older. It’s really about using those natural situations to give them skills, encourage them and not be ‘too busy’ in that moment. It keeps me on my listening toes!! Thanks again for the blog and series!

  3. Thanks for this, Amanda.

    The issue is of central concern to me, having lost my father when I was eight. (In a way my whole blog is about it.) There’s no magic formula, but the essence of the problem is this: a young man needs a safe place to speak his heart. The power of doing this in a group of male peers is transformative, and can even overcome a lack of adequate fathering.

    It’s up to the village to provide opportunity for this to happen, whether through rites of passage, boy’s or men’s groups, or some other form. When this doesn’t happen a boy who hasn’t had good fathering may seek solace in a gang.

  4. Kristie

    Hello Amanda! Thank you for tackeling this topic! I have an interest in this both as a professional (in early childhood also) and as a parent. As a professional, it has been our organization’s mission to recruit and focus on getting fathers (and father-figures, uncles, grandfathers, friends, community members, etc.) to become involved with their children from the get-go. Those that do become involved often seem timid at first, but usually blossom and really treasure the impact that they have on their child (and usually on the whole class). The problem is the same as you said – too few are interested, or even around, to take on that role. It seems there are several groups that have the opportunity to SHOW young boys HOW to positively transition into manhood: 1) The media (TV, movies, music, sports) – by CHOOSING to focus and report on the POSITIVE male role models – the father who has 3 jobs to support his family, the athlete who works hard in off-season, the musician who brings his family on tour. 2) Schools – by recruiting and promoting father (and other types of male) involvement and by REQUIRING a parenting class in high school – for both girls AND BOYS. If their parents either aren’t willing or aren’t able, then schools will have to teach future parents about child development, budgeting, good decision-making skills, how to be a good role model and about being responsible. 3) The government – by coming up with incentive programs to recruit more male teachers = at least some type of positive male role model for many. (Not sure what else the government could do specifically, but it wouldn’t hurt to make male government leaders more accountable for the example they are providing to others). 4) But of course, ultimately – it’s our job as current PARENTS to continue to seek out and provide positive male role models for our boys – it is our RESPONSIBILITY and our PRIVELAGE to raise future husbands, fathers, friends, co-workers and positive members of society!

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  6. Hi Amanda, I really appreciate this research. You know I´m a mother of three boys, the older one is becoming 11 in two months. While reading your research I remembered Bert Hellinger and his research on the Systemic Psychology field and his discoveries regardingThe Orders of Love. These orders are:

    1. hierarchy,

    2. belonging

    3. balance in taking and giving.

    I can very well imagine that understanding and helping to implement these orders in family life are of great importance for boys in the transition to manhood. Just a few implications:
    – A father that is recognized in his hierarchy and is given the right place in the family system will be able to guide his boys into manhood in many healthy ways. (After family constelations research many times mothers, female school members and other relevant people rearing and educating boys don´t give fathers -and men- their due place).
    – A boy and young man that is given his right place in the family system will accept and embrace his parents, offering them the needed recognition to be able to become an independent adult. (the more you continue judging your parents, the more attached to them you are).
    – Helping boys experiencing their belonging to the family system, to their culture and society offers them the right path to identify and trust in healthy manhood models. Transitional rituals are a perfect tool to meet this objective.
    – Trusting youth and it´s potential to GIVE (avoiding setting them in the exclusive position of RECEVING) helps developing a sense of inner balance and offers a feeling of self confidence, much needed in teen age. This implies offering them real life opportunities to offer their gifts, to give them the freedom to express their ideals, to take their input into real consideration when planning and while decision making, etc. In my own experience this is best fulfilled when young men (and women) taste the joy of nuourishing their idealism by being of help to others volunteering in social service organizations.
    Hope this brief ideas contribute to your wonderful research,
    Love, Fernanda

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  8. Being a male is a matter of birth, being a boy is a matter of time & Being a man is a matter of choice, its on every male that what they decide of being a man or gentleman.

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  10. Robin

    I read an article a few years ago that described one family/group of families tradition for “initiating” boys into manhood. It’s a beautiful tradition that I hope I can create for my son one day. When a boy turns 15 years old, they are invited to participate in an annual all-men camping trip. If you are younger than 15, too bad. The men in the group consisted of a group of close families where fathers, uncles, grandparents, close friends participated. Also, men who had gone through this ritual in the past often came back from college to particpate and initiate their younger brothers, cousins, or friends. On this all men, weekend camping trip, they goof off, fish, hike and sit around the campfire discussing what it means to be a man. And through this ritual, the 15-year-old(s) are initiated into manhood and given a community of role models whom they can talk to in the future. The article discussed the importance of such ritual, as you have in your article, and I think it’s a great example of how this sort of initiation can work well in modern times.

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  13. Thank you Amanda for researching and sharing. I’m so glad I found your site. I did my PhD/Masters in Organisational Psychology. Culture can have a lot of influence over individuals’ behaviour, and what is considered acceptable. I guess a big part of the transition to manhood is the male culture boys grow up in. Ideas like the male camping trip Robin mentioned, and scouts, could help boys grow into gentlemen or rough men depending on the role models. I remember going on a hike in Venturers (older scouts, our troop accepted girls). I was one of the leaders and the only female in a group of 5 venturers (no adults). I was sick of the testosterone-driven discussion by the end of the 3-day hike. Boys of that age can be very single minded. They will discuss and lust after girls, that’s natural, but they need male role models, and strong girls, to let them distinguish acceptable from unacceptable behaviour, thoughts, and words.

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