As a child of the '70's now with three young sons of my own, I have been asking this question……"when does a boy cross that line and become a man"? I find myself thinking often about my own sons and the men they will someday be. I think about my influence on them as a father, and then compare their lives to my own childhood. I look back through my history and think about the men who were coaches, mentors, and fathers in my life that helped push me across that line into manhood.
Boys need men in their lives. Women obviously play a role that is irreplaceable in a boy's adolescent experience. However, there is something that can only be imparted from another man….something that despite all of men's weaknesses and flaws can only come through a male figure. It is for that reason that I look at our culture and challenge the parameters of responsible adulthood and the definition we have given for maturity and manhood. I suggest that we have lost our definition of manhood and thus lost the pathway to manhood. Young men need older men in their lives to establish various 'rite of passage' opportunities that would mark the defining moments of coming into manhood.
In America we tend to look at age for the most part as the indicator for "maturity." At 13 the boy is now at least kind of a "little man", busting out of the kid years and into the teens, which in our culture means finding independence (i.e., giving your parents hell for the next 4+ years). Teens seem to view this span of 13-18 as a small stint in the teenage phase with 18 as the release into true adulthood. This is because our culture has a whole set of laws for 18 year olds and crossing this line marks some significant things.....voting, buying smokes (legally), and joining the military, to name a few. Then, there is that magic 21. Yes, this is the age when you are now not only mature enough to vote, smoke, and fight for your country but you can consume alcohol at a plethora of establishments one had to formerly sneak into. In most states 21 is that magical time when the young man should be able to drink responsibly. Oh, I almost forgot, another "man establishing" moment culturally…the loss of virginity (at an ever decreasing age I might add!).
After turning 21 there are no other big steps of maturation associated with age, with the exception of the 65 mark. This is the age when we as a culture have said, "You deserve to retire; you're old." (I am a little biased against this age defined marker as I am personally surrounded by "old" family members that do not believe in retirement.)
Age happens. We can't stop it and every year we are a year older--no matter how mature or immature we may be. We all know 14 year olds that are more mature than 16 year olds and 16 year olds that should not be behind the wheel of any type of vehicle. I realize I have taken a broad sweep of American culture in relation to age and that in fact there are very mature teenagers out there...somewhere. There are also very mature 21 year olds that have successfully crossed through these age defining moments.
What if we are looking at it all wrong? What if we broaden our definition of manhood and maturity to include concepts like bravery, responsibility, self control, meekness (power under control), discipline, empathy toward others, self sacrificing, etc? Then, what if we set up specific opportunities that would challenge and test boys and qualify them for manhood?
Author Robert Bly reminds us, "The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through ritual and effort--only through the 'active intervention' of the older men." He tells of such a ritual in Africa where the boy has to take a sort of pilgrimage before he can be called a man. He first has to go out and find a wild bee hive, collect the honey in it and bring it back to the elders. He endures the stings and pain of this event, but that is only the beginning. While mom takes the honey he gathered and makes a honey beer, he goes off for a couple of nights alone in the wilderness (a quest if you will). He returns then to the elders where he is circumcised. If he cries or screams, he has failed his test. If he endures, he celebrates as a man with the elders, has his honey drink, and later that day is introduced to his mother as though it is the first time he has ever met her.
I realize that this is a radical example, but it is black and white. After reading this short explanation, we know now what it takes to be a man in this ancient culture. It is definable and can be measured. It is a "pass / no pass" test!
Young men that have failed to cross that line into responsible adulthood desperately need men in their lives to call them into manhood and acknowledge their bravery, responsibility, sacrifice…whatever! I am thankful for the men, fathers, coaches, and mentors that have set up definable and achievable rites of passage for my life….to push me out of immaturity and into manhood!
(Robert Bly, "Iron John")
About the Author: Matthew Bruner is the Director of Men of Valor Ranch in Northport, WA. Prior to founding Men of Valor Ranch, Matthew worked for Straight Arrow. For more information, contact him at 509-732-8936 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website, www.menofvalorranch.com.