What I Want My Grandsons to Know About Men

Phoenix (7), Judah (7), and Decker (4),  

You are a bit young to think about manhood but from the perspective of your 60-year-old grandpa, it’s just on the horizon of your life.

Our current culture has developed an allergy to masculinity, either claiming it’s toxic (some going so far as to blame meat eating on male toxicity, who knew?), or that you would be better served to learn to emote and talk more like girls. (Your brain isn’t wired to emote and talk the way a girl’s brain is wired. But you are uniquely wired to emote and communicate in your own masculine way!) Here’s the truth about men:

Men are capable of great good:

  • Good men have laid down their lives for centuries in order to protect their families, their tribes, their countries, and their beliefs.  
  • Good men have put their lives at risk to build the infrastructures of society (92 percent of all work related deaths are male…).
  • Good men have created systems of government with the intent to provide freedom and equality for all.
  • Good men have always been and continue to be caring dads, husbands, employers, employees, and grandparents.

Men are also capable of great destruction:

Though writing about boys, these words from my friend Dr. Michael Gurian, speak directly to this downside of masculinity--

…nearly every social problem we face in our civilization today—unemployment, income inequality, incarceration rates, religious extremism, domestic abuse, mental illness, health care inequalities, and painful violence against women—intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America. (Saving our Sons, p. vii.)

Yes…some men are destructive. Some men damage the lives of others. Some men seek to harass those of a different race or religion or political persuasion or gender. Some men are bad men.

But many, if not most men, are good men. As your grandpa my hope and prayer is that as you grow into manhood, you number yourselves among the good guys.

To give you some guidance, here’s a picture of what a good man looks like (with special thanks to Dr. Gurian for his great work on this framework for manhood from his book, The Purpose of Boys):

A good man is:

  • Honorable: He does the right thing, even when it’s the harder way.  He treats all people with respect.  
  • Enterprising: He doesn’t give up easily.  He fights for the good of others while at the same time maintaining a core belief in his worth as a good man.
  • Responsible: A good man lives to serve others.  As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.
  • Original: A good man knows who he is.  He’s aware of his strengths and weaknesses.  He knows what his unique gifts and talents are.  And he uses them to help build a better world through his family, his work, his citizenship, and his faith.

Boys, that's the kind of men I want you to be: Heroic men who show the world that good men exist and that good men are essential for building strong families, communities, and a better society.

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 room...in your classroom...in 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.