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Stretching Toward Manhood

Self-agency and the march to maturity

Ryan Tauss
Source: Ryan Tauss

The chaotic climax of the 89th Academy Awards ceremony presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, further highlights the relevance of the eventual “Best Picture” recipient, “Moonlight.” This (now) well-known story “chronicles” the life of a young black man, “Chiron” (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), growing up in the Liberty City section of Miami in the 1980s.

In his prescient October 2016 New York Times review “‘Moonlight’: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?” critic A.O. Scott said, “‘Moonlight’ is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.”

Other faces displayed on Oscar night included the characters of 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in “Manchester by the Sea” and “20th Century Women,” respectively.

Similarly, two adolescent boys in the wings are 13-year-old Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) and his friend Tony Calvelli (Michael Barbieri), also 13, in Ira Sachs’ 2016 film “Little Men.”

What do these boys have in common? Well, just about everything.

Like Mason (Ellar Coltrane) in “Boyhood,” each perfectly portrays the vagaries of growing up boy, along with the struggles inherent in coming to terms with themselves and their lives, families and relationships. Sprinkled into the mix are such constructs as loss, grief, love, conflict and sexuality. Perhaps surprisingly for some, there are also hints of sensitivity, loyalty and wisdom.

As these films span both decades and ages, they beg the question, “How do boys become men?”

Let’s take a look.

In his 2005 Boston Globe piece “Passage Into Manhood,” psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, shares a conversation he had with a 17-year-old boy on his way to summer camp. Once there, he would embark on a 50-day, 600-mile canoeing trip with peers, carrying and preparing their own food, experiencing animals in the wild and utilizing the wilderness skills they’d been honing during the prior four summers.

The portage seemed to be a capstone, a milestone and, maybe, a passage into manhood.

So, Michael popped the question: What is your definition of manhood? The boy replied, “It’s taking responsibility ... At the end of the day, it’s taking responsibility and taking things you’ve learned from others and creating your own self.”

The takeaway? “American culture has no universal ritual for helping boys move from boyhood to manhood. Jewish boys have their bar mitzvahs, Mormon boys have their year of missionary service, other boys sign up for the military. Yet every boy yearns to be a man, and traditional societies always took boys away from their parents to pass an initiation rite. We no longer have such rituals, but boys still wonder: What is the test, where do I find it, how do I pass it, and who will recognize that moment when I pass from boyhood to manhood?”

For answers to those questions, I turned to the experts. No, not Michael Thompson or William Pollock (author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood) or even my own 15-plus years of research on growing boys. Rather, I asked some of those boys themselves – and adults who raise them.

Dan, Kip, Matthew and Peter were each 17 years old last summer when they completed their capstone year of the teen leadership program at Cape Cod Sea Camps. Like Michael before me, I asked these four young men a series of questions and have documented a composite of their responses.

How do you define manhood?

I define manhood as the point when a boy reaches a state of maturity and independence. I think as people grow up, become more independent and gain greater responsibility, they travel down the path toward manhood. [It’s] a point in someone’s life when society looks at him differently than it would at someone who is still becoming more physically and mentally mature.

How do you know when you’ve become a man?

As far as how you actually know, well, I wish I knew. I can only assume that it is [like] those things that you just know when it happens. Like falling asleep or falling in love, at first it happens little by little but then all at once. I hope I’ll know when it happens. I think “becoming a man” is something that is decided on more by society than anything else. A boy becomes a man when he is independent and can not only function on his own but also provide for himself. You become a man after an epiphany of sorts; it takes a realization that you are not a man, that you are not mature or as mature as you ought to be in order to actually, completely become a man.

Do you feel there are specific steps, tasks or tests that you must take or complete to become a man?

Sort of like a narrative hero, you have to experience some sort of fall in order to achieve the ultimate goal. Afterwards, somebody can truly become a man if he actively works to put the past behind him and better himself. I think you have to have some level of self-sufficiency and personal independence. I don’t think there is anything more specific than that. I think taking risks would help [because] being uncomfortable really shows who you are. Taking risks and going out on your own and trying new things … that’s what you really have to do to become a man. I do not think there is any one straight path … [it] is unique to that individual. I think the underlying factors include finding men you admire and whose values you want to embody. [It also means] being open to hearing different points of view and being open to learning from others as you mature.

Do you consider yourself to be a man?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t know myself well enough to say that. I’m not sure being a man is one of those things that you will be really sure about. I wish I took more risks and would be more independent. I hope that going to college will help me down that path. Although I think I have some of the qualities of a mature young adult, I don’t think I could honestly convince myself that the word “man” is the best way to describe [me].

Uncertainty reigns.

What do parents of boys have to say?

Bob Rice and Linda Rosen, both parents of boys and members of the National Advisory Board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), weighed in. Rice says manhood can be measured across four attributes: the ability to support oneself emotionally and financially, to live independently, to express feelings in a mature manner and to deal with failure and learn from mistakes.


For her part, Rosen serves up a determinant discourse, saying, “We are Jewish, so we define manhood as being a ‘mensch.’ Basically this means having integrity, working hard, not standing idly by in the face of difficulty for others, having a purpose greater than oneself, devotion to family, attention to one’s community, humility, respect.

“When I read ‘manhood’ it brings to mind strength, courage, heroism, chivalry – protecting the ‘weak’ or just protecting the women and children – in a ‘boys don’t cry’ kind of way. But I think in the modern world, boys do cry, and it is considered a sign of strength to do so. Today manhood is associated with the strength to be vulnerable, to feel empathy, while still being courageous, having good boundaries, supporting one’s family, and making a positive contribution to the world.” She adds, “My definition of achieving true manhood will be when he steps forward as a leader in his community and pays his ‘dues,’ whether in contribution of his time, his talents or from his bank account. I will know that he is a man when I see that he is ready to lead or guide the next generation.”

And Marlene Connelly, CARE’s director of communications who is raising three boys, told me, “Manhood is not defined just by age or physical traits. Men treat themselves and others with respect and kindness, even or especially when it’s hard. Manhood involves knowing who you are and what you believe and then living those values to the best of your ability. It requires following the rules of the road and being polite, as if your grandmother were in the room.”

Connelly continued, “Manhood means knowing how to take care of yourself while also putting others first, or at least considering others, when making choices and decisions. It allows for making mistakes but requires learning from them. And being a man entails participating in life as a citizen of the world and acting to improve the lives of others, whether nearby or an ocean away.

“My sons are making strides toward becoming men. They are learning to accept that their actions now contribute to what their futures will be. They will take responsibility for what happens next, not because I pester them to but because they know they have the power to decide where they land. They will have developed the confidence to solve problems on their own and to ask for help when they need it. In doing so, they will also recognize how much more there is to learn.

“They have already stepped out of their comfort zone by living away from home and making friends on their own. And they are beginning to plan for the future in ways that will not only benefit themselves but also will add to the success of others.

“There are the cultural and age milestones, such as religious rites and learning to do laundry, cook and drive. But having the willingness to put in the necessary amount of work to achieve a desired outcome and developing the capacity to care for others are two steps that will determine how quickly, or well, a teenage boy becomes a man.”

That’s it! Self-agency.

Self-agency is defined by Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., in an article for Psychology Today: “Your ability to take action, be effective, influence your own life, and assume responsibility for your behavior.” She says, “This sense of agency is essential for you to feel in control of your life: to believe in your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations. Having a sense of agency influences your stability as a separate person.”

Perhaps even a man.

Self-agency sounds like what Thompson’s young companion said when asked if he considered himself a man. “Yes ... Well, no. But I will be in August.”

Maybe so, too, will Dan, Kip, Matthew and Peter. If they’re encouraged to stretch far enough.


CCSC. (2017). Summer by the sea. Cape Cod Sea Camps. (1 March 2017).

Del Barco, M. (2016). In ‘Moonlight,’ growing up black, gay and poor in 1980s Miami. National Public Radio. October 18, 2016.… (1 March 2017).

Lamia, M. (2010). Your sense of agency: Are you in control of your life? Psychology Today. September 24, 2010.… (1 March 2017).

Scott, A.O. (2016). ‘Moonlight’: Is this the year’s best movie? The New York Times. October 20, 2016. (1 March 2017).

Thompson, M. (2005). Passage into manhood. The Boston Globe. July 26, 2005.… (1 March 2017).

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