Raising Gentle Men

When a boy becomes a man, he must also become a gentle man.

Posted Nov 05, 2019

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We all hope to raise our sons to be gentle men. You know: the kind of man who will treat others well at all times, including his mother and father, his sister and brother, his dates and eventually his life partners.

Parents have taught their boys how to shake hands firmly, sit properly at the dinner table, and say “thank you,” but sometimes forget to teach sexual etiquette. It seems the rise of the hookup culture has resulted in teens who will have sex without even sending so much as a text the next day, taking little ownership of the other person's resultant emotions, and with the mindset of "Well, I never promised them a relationship."    

When a boy becomes a man, he must also become a gentle man: This should be your mandate.

Rituals as Celebrations Throughout History

Rituals can be useful in creating a healthy sense of self-esteem and can also help a teenager figure out his identity and his place within the community. There are many examples of rituals for boys who are entering into manhood that are celebrations. To share a few:

  • The Boy Scouts have many coming of age ceremonies to uphold the values of the organization, all of which culminate in obtaining Eagle Scout status. They must gain the 21 merit badges required to demonstrate one can live independently, be competent or excel in a variety of tasks.  
  • Among Native American cultures, there are ceremonies given by Elders that include fasting alone at a sacred site chosen and used by many in the community for generations. During this time, the young person hopes to have a vision that will help them find their purpose in life and society. Dreams or visions may involve natural symbolism, such as animals or forces of nature, that require interpretation by Elders (McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil (1940). Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, Ltd.).  
  • In the Jewish religion, there is the practice of the bat or bar mitzvah. Before reaching this age, the child's parents hold the responsibility for the child's actions. After this age, the boys and girls bear their own responsibility for Jewish traditions and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.

Create Unique Family Rituals

A family is a tiny community unto itself, and parents may create unique familial rituals to induct sons into manhood if the boy considered himself cis-gendered. The options for such a ceremony are limited only by your imagination. It’s about your family, which is your tribe. Consider creating a list of tasks your son must learn to do independently. I think picking tasks from different areas would be prudent. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Becoming a provider. Assess the ability to earn enough money to buy something the family needs to contribute to the family's life. This could be earning enough money to buy the family a new appliance or taking the family to the movies to show a contribution that does not only serve their own needs.
  2. Child-rearing. Assess the ability to spend a day babysitting a young child. Things like cooking and providing for that child's needs will help gain experience in child-rearing. Alternatively, start smaller with caring for the family pet (dog, cat, fish!) without any help.
  3. Reproductive health. Assign some sexual health books for reading to the teen, and then provide quizzes and discussion at the end to ensure that the critical sexual education topics (such as the prevention of STDs) are understood. Great books like Girling Up and Boying Up by Mayin Bialik and Drawn to Sex: The Basics by Erika Moen & Matthew Nolan are some good resources.  Websites like https://amaze.org/ can provide helpful tools.
  4. Discuss what it means to be an adult. Take the time to discuss adult responsibilities like how to treat women with respect. This includes everyone: mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, dates, and future relationship partners.

Transitions are hard for everyone. And, adolescence can be painful at times. Think about all the media messaging about the awkward experiences of puberty. There are so many examples of how painful coming of age stories can be, like Juno, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Wonder Years. Creating positive rituals will ease the pain and remind your child that pleasures and delights also come with this transition.

Once you’ve chosen those tasks, decide how to mark the passage.

  • A journey. To increase the “separation" required of a rite of passage to manhood, consider sending your son on a service trip to a foreign country or on a journey guided by an organization like Outward Bound to increase independence and feelings of competence. I love the idea of creating a ritual around a boy becoming an adult ready to take on adult responsibilities. Set out for a weekend celebration like camping or a special trip to commemorate the occasion and invite wise members of your community to take part.
  • Words of encouragement and guidance. It would also be great to commemorate the event with a book or letters from family and community members with their hopes and dreams for the child's future sexual life, and the responsibilities and pleasures that await them. Even if family members cannot attend the ceremony, they can contribute in this way. Peers or older teens can be invited to write something about what it means to go from a boy to a man. This can be a useful tool for re-reading throughout their life.
  • A totem. Bequeath him with a piece of jewelry such as a necklace or a memento with the date and a loving quote for him to keep with him. I know that it will become his most treasured item.  

Organizing this kind of ceremony centered around what it means to leave childhood will help your son become a respectful and loving adult.

Cultivating a society that creates a gentle man starts by practicing healthy rituals that celebrate the transition from boys to men. Teaching boys to be independent, nurturing and responsible towards women is necessary during this rite of passage. Organizing positive experiences to mark the passage will create lasting memories of this journey.

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