6 Lessons on Raising Boys to Become Men

Not every boy is a football jock. Not every boy is bookish. (I was a happy, bookish, “drama geek” who somehow gravitated to martial arts.) Somehow my wife and I raised three wonderful young men who are all different, yet needed the same bits of advice to grow up and become independent, responsible, hard-working men. We are not perfect parents, and this list is certainly far from complete, but here are a few tips we learned along the way. (Actually, some of these ideas are for girls too, but for the most part I had my sons in mind as I wrote this.)

How do you raise boys to become men? Here are a few ideas:

1. Get them outside.

Boys are naturally more rambunctious. They love to virtually “explode” upon the scene by building, climbing, and knocking stuff down. I think every boy I’ve ever seen has a “truck gene” somewhere inside; whenever they see toy cars or blocks, they immediately make the sound of an engine and it’s off to the races with the car or block! (Yes, some girls are rambunctious too. We have raised a daughter too. But girls are definitely different and we need to know that and respect it. Boys in general just naturally like to take more risks and do “dangerous” stuff.)

They break things (some of my boys broke some things I really treasured), so let them break stuff outside! They think they are invincible. Let them play and explore and break and build outside! Get them away from the video games and other electronic devices and let them build forts and climb trees and build ramps for their bikes and skateboards. (Of course this should all be under adult supervision … if they want to parachute off the roof with an umbrella, I would discourage that.) One of the reasons we have an explosion of childhood obesity in this country is that our kids are discouraged from physical activity!

My mother would send me outside and tell me not to come in unless I was bleeding or on fire. So, we explored the woods and drainage ditches of where I grew up (Savannah, Ga.). We played with snakes and turtles, and played army, and built forts, and played two-hand touch football in the street. Oftentimes we played tackle football at a neighbor’s house. Tons of kids played with us. We all got beat up a little bit, but no serious injuries. Get the kids outside!

Camping with the family or joining a scouting organization is wonderful to teach self-reliance and let a boy be a boy. I used to endorse the Boy Scouts of America, but in light of their recent caving to the LGBT agenda, I now endorse Trail Life USA.

2. Don’t coddle.

Let your boys feel pain and learn how to endure it. No, I am not some kind of sadist. Yes, when our boys were toddlers, we hugged and kissed them when they fell and got “boo-boos.” I am talking about kids from elementary school age and older.

One day when I was teaching ninth grade history, a 15-year-old boy came to me with tears in his eyes and asked to go see the school nurse. “What’s wrong?” He showed me a tiny little paper cut. “Are you kidding me?” I asked. “Buck up, son! That’s just a little paper cut! Go sit back down!” This kid was always whining about some minor ache or hangnail. I don’t think his parents ever told him to suck it up and be strong. I did. And he did!

If kids get a cut or bruise and it’s not life-threatening, don’t make a fuss over it. Clean it, put a band-aid on it, and tell the kid to dry his tears, and get back out there and play. From my personal experience in 30 years of ministry, I think we have currently raised a generation of hypochondriacs who want a pill for the slightest pain and love the attention surrounding their helplessness.

Teach your sons to endure pain so they don’t grow up to be snowflakes. And learning starts early in life.

My wife and I also never allowed whining in the home. Our saying was: “No whiny-butts allowed.” No wimpering, pouting, or whining. Toys were put in “toy jail” or dessert was denied if a kid (boy or girl) wouldn’t stop the whining. The message was learned early on that such complaining and bellyaching was counterproductive.

This also included playing by the rules. It didn’t matter if our children were playing a board game or baseball, they were told to play by the rules and accept the decision of the referee. We reinforced this by not acting like idiots at games when the ref makes a call we disagreed with. (We were determined not to be “those parents” who embarrassed themselves at games. We chose to embarrass ourselves in other ways, I suppose.)

3. Teach practical life skills.

Do your sons know how to change the oil in the car or in the lawn mower? Do they know simple plumbing skills? Can they balance a check book? Can they cook on their own? Can they sew on a button?

Yes, this goes for the girls too. They all need to learn this stuff. So when do they learn? When you’re doing it. When my boys were little, I would have them come out to the garage and watch me change the oil in the riding mower. They would hand me the tools. They loved getting their hands dirty with Daddy!! It was great!! And then one day it was THEIR turn to do it while I watched.

Give them chores every day, starting as young as two or three. When they are toddlers, they can always pick up their toys and clothes. As they get older they can help with the dishes, vacuum the house, wash windows, cut grass, and shovel snow (up where I live). As they are doing these tasks (washing clothes and making the beds) those boys are learning life skills. And they are learning to appreciate Mom and all the hard work she does! Before they leave the home (and they NEED to leave the home and live on their own some time in their early 20s), they need to know these life skills.

4. Teach manners.

Well, teaching boys manners is a tough one. Expelling gas in all its various ways is an art form for most boys. But our job was to turn them into gentlemen, and it doesn’t happen by accident. People learn by example and by doing. So Dads, show them how to treat the ladies by how you treat the women in your life.

Women are unique. They are special. Treating them as just “another guy” is a strike against civilization, not for it, in my opinion. Open the door for the ladies, stand when they enter the room, hold the chair out for them, help them with their coat. Your little man is watching. And when he sees you treating Mom as special like this, he’ll never forget it. And he’ll want to do it too because he wants Mom to be so proud of him. My boys are all grown me now, and they STILL love to treat Mom and their sister as something “extra special!”

Teach them early on to respect their elders and how to give a good solid handshake and look people in the eye when speaking to them. (I am so tired of having to tell teenagers to look up at me when talking to me.) My father often told me that you could learn a lot from a man’s handshake. Once I shook a very popular politician’s hand. He did not look me in the eye and his handshake was some kind of limp-wristed dead-fish slimy grip. I never expected much from him after that. I was not disappointed.

Teach your sons how NOT to eat like a barbarian (elbows OFF the table, do NOT hold the fork like a shovel, and CLOSE your mouth when you chew). When speaking, eliminate “verbal pauses.” By the time a boy is in his late teens he should know how to speak in complete, coherent sentences that are not filled with “and-umm” and multiple uses of the word “like.” Like, I really don’t, like, like it, and-umm, you know, umm, it drives me crazy, like, you know?

5. Teach “manly things.”

A boy naturally wants to be like his Daddy. When I was six, I was thrilled when Daddy gave me an empty, old-fashioned razor (no blades in it), lathered up my face, then let me shave alongside him. I can still hear the sound of him splashing his razor in the sink full of hot water and then slapping on his Old Spice. I imitated every move and loved it all!

Boys need to learn to stand up straight and walk straight with confidence, not shlumping like they’re going off dig a ditch. Learn how to throw a football, hit a baseball, dribble a basketball, and wrestle (usually the basics of that are learned while wrestling Dad while he’s playing “King of the Mountain”).

One of my favorite websites is “The Art of Manliness.” Your teenage sons should read their stuff. Here is a great article from them on old fashioned aftershaves and colognes.

Teach them how to tie a tie (Windsor Knot and Four-in-the-Hand are good knots to start with). Windsor Knot:


Boys need to know how to fold a hanky for their sport coat or suit coat (they need to know how to pick out a suit while you’re at it).

Boys need to know how to select a good pair of dress shoes (can’t go wrong with Johnston & Murphy, but if you want to blow a lot of money, Allen Edmonds are the best!). Gotta learn how to mix and match clothes. Daddy always told me, “Son, look at Arnold Palmer. He is always in style because he always wears clothes that are classic. Go for the classic look.” Well, you and your sons figure out your own style. But me, I followed Arnold. And I never wore striped shirt with plaid, paisley, or a polka dotted tie. (But you do what you want.)

Along with teaching them about clothes, tell your sons about personal grooming. As they get older and shave, remind them to do their best to look neat and clean. Hair styles come and go, but neat and clean is always fashionable. I would tell my boys, “Few things are as gross on a guy as hair growing all over your ears or bushes growing in your nostrils. Keep hair and nails trimmed.”  It’s great to get dirty on the gridiron, but clean up afterwards and take pride in looking like a gentleman.

6. Give them heroes.

When all of my children were about 9 years old, I would show them the movie Glory (1989). It was about the black soldiers (the 54th Massachusetts Infantry) in the Civil War. Great film, but I would mute the five minutes of cussing by the Irish drill sergeant.

It is a true story. When the troops line up on the beach for the final charge, my son would look back at me with tears in his eyes. It had dawned on him what would happen next. “Daddy!! Are they going to die?? Are they ALL going to DIE?? I don’t want them to die!!!” I was crying with him (I always cry in that scene) and I would say, “Yes, they are all going to die. But keep watching. Watch how brave they die. There’s a lesson to learn here.”

When the movie was over I would put my son in my lap and tell him, “All those men knew they were going to die. But they went down, standing up. We are all going to die some day, but we have a choice as to HOW we are going to die. Are we going to die hanging on to this world, white-knuckled, kicking and screaming? Or are we going to face life and death courageously, like those men? Will we go down, standing up?” That lesson was not lost on my children.

Some things are worth fighting for, and dying for. Life calls for duty, honor, and commitment. And the heroes I talked about were real men of courage and character. Men we should imitate today.

Some of our families heroes are: George Washington, Jonathan Edwards, Sequoyah, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, William Carey, Thomas Edison, William Wilberforce, George Washington Carver, George Patton, Hudson Taylor, Chief Joseph, Jackie Robinson, Major Dick Winters, and Winston Churchill. All sinners, all men with faults, but also all great men who worked hard, used their minds, used the talents God gave them, and loved their families. For the most part, honest and brave men … and we sure could use a lot more just like them today.

I have told my sons many times, “This world has a severe shortage of gentlemen. Be different. Be a gentleman, and stand out in the crowd.”

I think they listened!

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