Family

How a Boy Becomes a Man

The key actions for parents (mostly dads) to help their sons develop tenacity and find success

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of the successful transition from boyhood to manhood is perseverance. Boys lose steam and want to quit. Men lose steam, pause to find it again — and then continue.

One of the greatest masculine character qualities is tenacity: the setting of the will in a direction that a man knows is the necessary one. Boys ­can’t do this for many reasons.

First, they lack the mental and emotional resources to stay focused on a goal over an extended period of time. Boys get bored, they change their minds, they’re too busy discovering the world to focus on one goal.

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Second, a boy has no grasp of delayed gratification. He ­can’t really envision that saving $10 a week in his savings account will earn him more than $5,000 over 10 years. His inability to recognize future consequences prevents him from having any incentive to persevere. In a 13-year-old boy’s mind, today, and perhaps tomorrow, is all that matters. He ­doesn’t try to think this way; it is simply how his brain functions (which is why parents need to make sure he makes that $10 contribution every week).

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Living with tenacity requires motivation. Boys have motivation only if they can see immediate benefits and if those benefits are directed towards them. Building a bent toward perseverance requires that a parent make fairly immediate benefits when their sons behave well.

The immediacy of the benefits can be stretched out as the boy matures. A 10-year-old can save money for one month to buy a baseball bat and stay motivated throughout the month. A 16-year-old can save money for three or four months and stay motivated to buy the skis he’d been eyeing.

Tenacity also requires deep conviction. Boys like certain things and believe certain things, but they are easily influenced and their beliefs and likes are malleable.

Another hallmark of a mature man is that he knows what he believes and why. Thus he can act on his beliefs even when others disagree. He remains steadfast in carrying them out because they are unshakeable.

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A boy’s peers ­can’t teach him tenacity because they are in the same boat he is.

But you can. Whether you are a man or a woman, teach him to find what is right, to follow what is right, and then to hold onto it. Give him small tasks to follow through on. If he starts six weeks of tuba lessons and hates the tuba after the second week, make him finish. If he asks a girl to a prom, then changes his mind — tough, he must take her anyway. If he commits to a job 15 hours a week after school and gets mad at his boss, you can make sure he keeps going back to work.

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Conscientious, enthusiastic parents too often rob their sons of moving into manhood by letting them quit their commitments. If your son starts something and impulsively decides he hates it, make him wait at least two to four weeks before he decides to quit. And then, the process should be a sobering one. Quitting something should never be done lightly or finished too easily.

‘His Life Depends on It’ 
When Matthew Benton (not his real name) was nine, his father died after a long battle with a rare form of lung disease. His mother was devastated. She had adored her husband. After he died, she never talked about it, because, Matthew said, she ­didn’t want to believe it had actually happened.

One morning before his father died, Matthew got himself ready to go to school in his northern Michigan town and ate breakfast. He peered into his parents’ bedroom to say goodbye to his dad. His father was getting dressed for yet another test at the hospital.

“See you, pal,” he said to Matthew. “Same place, same time.”

Matthew loved hearing the familiar banter. He and his father had several inside phrases they exchanged. They used “same place, same time” in anticipation of the next time they did something special together. When his father used phrases such as these, the whole world went away. For just a moment, Matthew and his father lived in a private space where only they belonged.

On that particular morning, Matthew ran out of the house and boarded the school bus. He never saw his father again. Matthew was in third grade. When he came home from school, his father’s clothes hung in the closet and his half-eaten bowl of cereal was in the sink. His shoes were in the mud room and his jacket smelled of fire wood but he was nowhere to be found. For several months after his father’s death, Matthew’s mother barely spoke. She slept a lot and began smoking cigarettes. She never cooked a meal. Matthew made himself a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

His grandmother came over and he overheard her yelling at his mother one evening. Suddenly he began to cry and he felt that he cried for one solid year.

Almost 18 months later, Matthew’s mother married a man whom she barely knew. The man had a daughter three years older than Matthew. Matthew wanted the man and his daughter gone. This was his house.

Every time he walked past his parents’ bedroom, he refused to look in. After that horrible day he never went in his parents’ room again. His dad told him a lie from that room. He ­didn’t return to the same place at any time.

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Matthew coped over the next few years by closing out the world he saw and he inwardly created a new one. He listened to music, watched a lot of television alone in his room, and rarely went outside to play with his friends. When his stepfather occasionally asked him to go to a football game or a movie, usually Matthew refused. When he did, his stepfather accused him of being spoiled and rude. Matthew ­didn’t care.

During his eighth grade year, Matthew joined a Little League team. He loved being away from the house. And he loved everything about baseball — the uniform, the smell of his leather glove, even the way his hands stung when he whacked the ball hard. Mostly, he said, he liked Little League because Brian was there.

Brian was a 25-year-old trainer fresh from a farm league who came to practice to help Matthew’s coach. Matthew thought he sounded like his dad. When Brian showed up, Matthew said everything seemed okay for a while. He ­couldn’t explain why.

Brian learned quickly that Matthew enjoyed the attention he showed him. So he gave him more. He picked him up at his house and drove him to some indoor batting cages where they could practice hitting. Almost every week they did something together, usually involving sports.

When Matthew was 17, he drove to baseball practice. Brian was there. The moment he saw Matthew, Brian knew that something was wrong with him. He went over to him and smelled something peculiar emanating from his sweater. It was dope. He looked at Matthew’s eyes. They were hazy, and Matthew was laughing in a sort of stupid way.

Brian ­didn’t say a word until practice was over. Then he brought Matthew to his car and they sat inside for what seemed to be hours. Brian lost his temper: What was Matthew doing? What was he thinking? Why was he running around with such jerks? Why was he throwing his life away?

Matthew began to sob. As he recalled the hours in Brian’s car that day, he realized that he had disappointed Brian — and that hurt. But he needed to hurt. Over the years Brian had filled an enormous emotional void for Matthew, had helped him in innumerable ways, and now Matthew realized he had betrayed him.

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Something happened to Matthew in the car that day. He grew up. For years he had hated his mother, his stepfather, and even his house. He blamed them for stealing his dad from him, and he wanted nothing to do with them. Brian ­hadn’t taken away Matthew’s dad. But he had stepped into his shoes and been a second dad to him. He deserved better from Matthew, and Matthew knew it. Matthew needed to take responsibility for his actions; he needed to take control of himself and his life.

“I realized that day in the car that I had a choice. I could blame everyone or I could take charge,” he said. “Brian made me realize that I could take charge. It was okay.”

Brian gave Matthew the freedom of manhood. This is what a male mentor can bring to a boy. Every boy who ­doesn’t have access to a father needs a man — a coach, a teacher, a stepfather, an uncle — to be with him as he leaps the chasm from boyhood to manhood. It requires energy, fortitude, and sometimes a big push. And a boy takes that push much better from a man than he does from a woman. He trusts a man more, because a man has done what he has to do.

The biggest mistake we make with adolescent boys is forgetting that they all need help moving out of adolescence. Millions of boys grow older, but few become men. No boy really wants to stay in the banal world of perpetual adolescence, but he needs someone to lead him out. His deepest longings pressure him toward manhood and he needs to respond. He wants to respond, but he simply ­doesn’t know how. Help him. Be there to challenge him. Make him a little uncomfortable by stretching his intellect and demanding maturity. As in any other growth process, it will be painful for you both, but his life depends upon it.

If you are a coach, help a player or two. If you are an uncle, re-enter your nephew’s life. If you are a single dad, engage your son. Every boy in America needs a man in order to become one.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” part of The Strong Parent Project.

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meet the author

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

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