Calling Out the Super Hero in our Boys

Faster than a speeding bullet. More fidgety than a rabbit with an itch. Able to run circles around mom and dad for hours on end. Look, in your living your your church…it’s a boy!  

Where does all that energy come from? In a word: Testosterone. Testosterone in an energy hormone. An action hormone. A get something done hormone. A risk-taking hormone.

Michael Gurian, in his book, The Wonder of Boys, offers these insights into testosterone:

  • Because of their dominance by the hormone testosterone, aggression and physical risk-taking are programmed into boys. It’s important to distinguish between “aggression” and “violence.” As psychologist Aaron Kipnis has put it, “Violence is not hard-wired into boys. Violence is taught. Aggression is hard-wired.”  (p. 6)
  • A little boy (on average) will turn toys into guns or swords more frequently than girls will…He will tend less toward empathic first responses to other’s pain and more toward provocative first-responses. He will generally be more competitive than his sister and especially in the few activities in which he perceives the potential to dominate over or be superior in…He will seek rough-and-tumble play… (pp. 7-8)
  • When a boy hits puberty, the influence of testosterone on his body and brain will increase manifold. His testosterone level itself will increase in quantities ten to twenty times more than girls. (p. 10)

Testosterone is the energy that causes boys to fidget when they sit too long, that demands movement to learn and to bond, and that enables boys to laser focus on a particular item but makes it difficult for them to multi-task. Imagine experiencing a surge of that volcanic energy 7 plus times a day! That’s the story of boys as they begin to move into puberty. And they often leave in their wake frazzled moms, dads, grandparents, and teachers.

That, of course, begs the question: How in the world do we help our boys harness that energy productively?

It begins by giving our sons a vision for their lives.

Testosterone offers us and our boys a powerful insight into the overarching purpose for the boys in your life: To save the world.

Testosterone is the fuel of superheroes. Testosterone is the energy that motivates a boy, when forged in healthy ways, to positively shape life around him. Every boy begins life wanting to be a superhero…to fight the bad guys, to save the world. To make the world a better place. When harnessed for good and noble purposes, testosterone is the power that energizes our boys for greatness.

Managing the force of nature that is the boy in your life can be a daunting task. But it is a noble, sacred call—the opportunity to raise a boy who can change the world.

Here are some things you can do to begin to forge your son into a world-changer:

  • Let him be a boy. If the boy in your life is a testosterone tornado, give him space to exercise his super hero powers. Let him fly. Let him explore. Let him breathe. Let him move. Let him build.
  • Give him boundaries. Boys need strong men and women to harness the energy of boys. While you want to give a boy his head (to use a horse training metaphor) you also need to let him know that you are the boss and that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use his energy. Boys thrive in hierarchies. As dad and mom, you are at the top. Teachers in the classroom or youth leaders are at the top as well when the boys are with you. Loving, compassionate, safe boundaries will teach a boy how to use his powers for good.
  • Hold up models to emulate. Teach boys about heroic men, men of different temperaments, personalities, race, and religion, to give them a vision of what’s possible. Washington, Lincoln, Patton, MLK Jr., Fredrick Douglass, Jesus, Gandhi, Grandpa, Dad, and so on give our boys insights into men who used their energy for good. To say to a boy—This is the line of men you come from—energizes him with a noble vision for his life.
  • Affirm his super hero actions. Whenever your boy does something honorable, responsible, good, or sacrificial, pat him on the back in a variety of ways. Keep affirming in him his power to do great things and he will live into his purpose for saving the world as a man, a dad, a husband, a brother, a co-worker, a boss, and a citizen.

Imagine a world filled with boys living out their purpose of changing the world!

Can't Girls Be Superheroes, too?

You get the best out of a boy by stimulating his desire for greatness and then telling him he has a long way to go: that he can perhaps achieve something marvelous but he must be humble and work hard for it.
                                    --Roy F. Baumeister, Is There Anything GoodAbout Men?

I receive some occasional pushback on the connection between boys and heroes, and my emphasis on calling boys into heroic manhood. The pushback goes something like this:
Why does boy=hero? Girls can be heroes, too!

This kind of thinking is patriarchal.

You are stereotyping!

In Christ there is neither male nor female.

I absolutely agree that girls and women can be and are heroes. (My granddaughter, when she was younger, loved when Grandpa told her stories about Super Clover.   My youngest granddaughter, Mattie, 2, loves to play with super heroes!)  Girls can be and are super heroes!

But that’s not the point when it comes to reaching boys. Hero language is boy language. Heroism—saving the world—is an overarching boy/man theme, which we see again and again throughout history and literature. Heroism calls to a boy differently than it does a girl. It’s not that girls aren’t heroes. It’s that boys resonate deeply with that call and language. Heroism is embedded in their DNA. Testosterone—the primary boy hormone—is the energy of superheroes.

Saving Private Ryan is a prime example of that compelling theme for boys and men. As Private Ryan stands at the gravesite of Captain John Miller, he remembers back to how Captain Miller and his band of soldiers saved him. With his dying breath Captain Miller says to him, James, earn this…Earn it! James Ryan, now an old man, turns to his wife and asks, Have I been a good man?

Do you hear the heart call of every boy and man? Heroism. Being a good man. Saving the world. These are themes woven into the DNA of boys and men by their Creator. 

Girls can be and are heroes. 

But boys live their lives based on that theme.
A further challenge to hero language goes like this:

Jesus was the anti-hero. He lived a life of submission, not heroism.

Using hero language may pander to boys and men, but it is not Biblical, Christ-centered language.

I recognize that Jesus was not the Messiah the Jews expected—a conquering Hero-King-Warrior who would overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a new kingdom. He was, indeed, a Messiah who chose servanthood and death in order to save the world. 

But many people today, in my opinion, misinterpret the kind of Savior Jesus came to be. They paint a picture of passivity. A picture of giving up. A picture that in their minds expresses everything that is antithetical to the hero.

I would suggest that Jesus is the ultimate hero, not the anti-hero; that Jesus defines heroism. Jesus was in control of every moment of his life. He chose to lay down his life. He intentionally served. This was no weak man standing passively before Pilate, or Herod, or the soldiers, or even hanging on the cross. This was a man fully in tune with his call to save the world—a man who demonstrated true heroism by the deliberate giving of his life. A man who shows that true heroes serve others sacrificially.

As Jesus battled demons and sickness, he was saying, This is what a hero does. When he washed the feet of his disciples he was saying, This is what a hero looks like. When he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, claiming to be the true Caesar in a country occupied by the Roman Empire—a provocative act of treason—he was saying, This is what a hero does. As he hung on the cross begging his father to forgive those who nailed him there, Jesus was saying, This is what a hero looks like. Jesus poured new meaning into heroism, fulfilling the deepest yearnings of the Image of God-male.

Boys and men aspire to that noble, sacrificial manhood. Jesus not only models it but empowers boys and men to live it.

The plethora of Superhero movies over the last few decades reflects the yearning of culture for heroes and the yearning of boys and men to be heroes. Yes, girls like Superhero movies, too. But why do you think the producers of these films are so concerned that their movies be well-received by “fanboys?” Because they know that heroism is the heart language of boys.

If you want to reach boys, call them into heroic manhood. It’s the language they speak. It’s the call they hear. It’s the call of their Creator to follow the true hero—Jesus—and save the world.

Boys and Girls Emote Differently--Can't We Be OK With That?

Most boys hear those words and exhortations constantly throughout their lives. 

Men don’t cry! 
Men suck it up! 

Act like a man!

Recently I’ve been hearing push back on that phrase, with a growing number saying that Man Up! is one of the most damaging phrases a boy can hear. 

Anyone raising a boy or seeing the way boys are often robbed of the ability to express what we often categorize as “soft” emotions would have a hard time disagreeing.  We seemingly live in a culture that has a difficult time allowing boys and men to show any emotion other than anger—and we don’t like that emotion, either!  Crying, for example, is often pegged as one of the most anti-manly things a guy can do.  It’s a sign of weakness and a guy can never show himself to be weak.

You’ll get no disagreement from me on the problem.  I think we do a great disservice to our boys and the rest of culture when we socialize good, healthy, emoting out of our boys.

But, contrary to much of what I’ve been reading and hearing as of late, the answer is not to socialize boys to cry more or to nurture them to be more verbal with their emotions.  (Or to put it more bluntly, it does not help boys emote by insisting that we can nurture/socialize them emote more freely like girls often do!)

To start there is to do a great disservice to our boys. 

Brain science research has found at least 100 differences between the male and the female brain.  While males and females are mostly the “same” those over 100 brain differences make a big difference.

In addition, at the risk of oversimplifying, males are made up primarily of testosterone—an aggression/action hormone.  Women are made up primarily of estrogen and oxytocin—bonding/tend and befriend chemicals.  While males and females are mostly the “same” those hormones make a big difference.

Boys generally do not emote the way girls emote.  For one thing, because of the way a boy’s brain is wired, he has a much harder time accessing his feelings than does a girl. 

Ask a girl how she’s feeling about something and generally all you have to do is step back and listen to her verbally express her feelings instantaneously.

Ask a boy how he’s feeling about something and what you’ll often get is a blank stare or a mono-syllabic grunt…not because he doesn’t want to answer the question…but because he doesn’t know.  It can take a boy 30 minutes to over a day to access his feelings and put them into words.

Girls tend to processes stress in the front of the brain enabling them to verbalize the stress.  Boys tend to process stress in the back of the brain, moving them to a fight, flight, or freeze response—i.e., a response that doesn’t use a lot of words.

Where a girl’s brain is wired to tie emotions and words together, a boy’s brain is not.
            Women throughout the world have higher levels of prolactin, which controls, among other things, the development of tear glands…hence, generally, wherever you go (even in a culture that is friendly to male tears, like Italy), you see more tears from women’s eyes than from men’s. 
Leadership and the Sexes, Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis, pg. 14
My point is not that we should not nurture our boys to emote in healthy ways, but that you can’t start a discussion on helping boys emote more freely and healthily by focusing first on nurture. When we start with nurture, usually to the exclusion of nature, we tend to assume that boys can be socialized to express their emotions and feelings like girls—who tend to do it more openly and verbally.  But this, in the end, will only frustrate boys more.  Because it is trying to nurture them to emote in a way that isn’t a part of their nature. 

Many will claim that the brain has great elasticity, meaning that it can be molded and shaped through socialization and nurture, which is true.  But the brain also has some set points, so to speak, that make a male male and a female female.  These cannot be changed. 

Boys’ emotive nature, however, can be recognized, affirmed, and nurtured to respond accordingly.  Meaning, if we want to free our boys up to express all of their emotions, we need to understand how boys are wired to emote, and then free them to do so.  We start with nature, and then nurture their nature.

Most boys will not emote like most girls.  But boys are wired to emote and to do so in powerful, profound, healthy ways.  (Movement is always a good starting point for most males—get them moving and it will energize their brains to verbalize better, bond, shed some tears, emote, access feelings, etc.)

Our job is not to nurture boys to express emotions the way girls do, but the way boys do.

In other words, when we exhort a boy to Man Up! we should pour a rich understanding of nature and nurture into those words, so that we are truly inviting a boy to man-up into the healthy, thriving man he is created to be—engaging all of his emotions, gifts, and skills in the way he is created to by God.