Boys To Men: Finding Masculine Identity In Today’s Culture
By Charlie Eldred Posted on January 15 2010
Little boys, we are told, are made of "snips and snails and puppy dog tails." However, no recipe exists to explain what makes a man, much less how to turn puppy dog tails into a big dog. Each year, boys enter junior high hoping to exit as young men. They search for manhood in band class, debate club, wood shop, metal shop, football and soccer teams, not to mention spending every waking moment possible improving their Wii skills and texting prowess. Others long for the day their driver’s learning permit arrives. A car means freedom – and, who cares if the only vehicle available is a 1986 VW Rabbit? They are that much more manly by just being able to drive. But is masculinity or adulthood, for that fact, so easily defined?
For centuries, societies and cultures clearly laid out the passage from adolescence to adulthood. Some cultures measure the attainment of adulthood by a certain age or ability, while others focus on the accumulation of knowledge. Our culture measures masculinity by nebulous milestones: first date, first need to shave, first time to vote or drink, first time to drive alone, or the first time you live independently of your parents. For this discussion, adulthood is defined as the stage of development where a person is capable of making their own decisions and is capable of being held independently responsible for those decisions.
What steps must be taken to develop decision making skills and raise the responsibility levels in young men today? The need today is not necessarily for a specific skill set, such as the ability to tighten bolts or drive nails straight. The need is for the development of young men of character. One need not look far to see the need presented across society; indeed, many social agencies are doing much to build mentoring relationships between young and older men. Their stated goal is to end the process with young men that are productive assets to society. While necessary, it is not enough.
The need today is to challenge young men to be more than just productive members of society; young men need to be shown what true masculinity is: a character set, not a skill set. When a skill set is instilled without a corresponding character set motivating the actions, all that has been accomplished is the production of a highly skilled hypocrite.
One of the foundational truths to the study of behavior, from a Biblical basis, is that knowledge, character and action have a proper relationship and order. Knowledge must be paramount, but knowledge is not enough. Knowledge must be imparted for a purpose, and that purpose is to change character. Unless the learner interacts with the information at a personal and integral level, no lasting change can occur. Knowledge is meant to affect beliefs – even core beliefs. This is easily proven. There was a time you did not know a hot stove would burn you; but when that knowledge was personally gained and verified, it affected your belief. More importantly, it affected your actions! Actions are the last step in the process. Too often, learners try to hurry ahead and shortcut the process. They attempt to jump from knowledge to action without any change in character. The result is a hypocrite: one who says and does one thing, yet believes another. With the foundation laid (Knowledge -"Know", then Character-"Be", then Actions-"Do"), the process of bringing masculine identity to young men in society today can be discussed.
The end result is a man of integrity, one that is not easily broken apart or ruined. By taking the Know ~ Be ~ Do process in reverse, an outline for instruction becomes apparent. If the “Do” is a man who handles responsibility properly and makes reasonable decisions, then what is needed at the “Be” stage is integrity. A life of integrity, one that cannot be broken apart, is a life of faith, honor and discipline. The man of integrity knows what he believes and why. This knowledge affects his character and guides his decisions, because his world view is based in his faith. With such a character of honor, the discipline desired to be seen will be displayed.
So, the question now becomes, “What knowledge must be given to a young man to make his character honorable and his actions disciplined?” The simple answer is character instruction. It would be nearly impossible to give a young man a checklist for every possible scenario or situation he may face in the course of his lifetime. So rather than focus on the “Do” stage; the wise mentor will focus attention on the “Be” stage. If the student is given instruction in how a mature young man thinks and reasons, he will be more apt to process the particulars of any given situation that may arise.
This is much more difficult than teaching a list of “do's” and “don'ts” and for that reason alone, many will not undertake this process. In fact, many programs available today could be boiled down to the simple statement “Do this [or follow this process] and you will be successful.” Youth groups and churches are littered with people who tried to follow the list and became discouraged. Even more tried to follow the list, and now feel nothing more must be done since the list doesn’t include anything more.
We do young men a disservice by handing them a checklist of “10 Things Every Christian Young Man Must Do” or even “10 Things Every Christian Young Man Must Know.” While vital information must be communicated, it must never be implied that those are the only pieces of information needed, even for a particular topic. We must create a thirst for life-altering information. As with any creative process, there is no shortcut! This will mean investing heavily in the lives of a few young men; allowing them to observe your life of integrity with all its faults and successes. Allow the young men you mentor to see you at your best and worst. Allow them glimpses into your thought processes while you instruct them with word and example in exactly what a mature believer is at the heart of his being. It is not enough to tell them what you know and let them see what you do; that short-circuits the process. Young men today need to see how your character intersects your knowledge and your actions.
Young men today are seeking the ingredients to masculinity. They will find results to their search in many areas, including TV, friends, magazines, the Internet, parents, teachers and youth workers. They will respond to the results they hear most often and most convincingly. Youth mentor, your work is cut out for you. Your voice must be heard over the din of competing voices with inferior information. Your voice must be heard clearly and repeatedly. Your voice must sound as a call to greatness, holding out the promise of lasting value and an achievement of great worth – the attainment of true manhood.