We live in an era when it can be fashionable to be unsure what a man or woman is. It depends, the theory goes, on how you identify.
But theologians talk about something called common grace. Because God created humans in his image, we possess some innate knowledge of who we are. The Bible says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Throughout history and across cultures, great similarities exist in the characteristics of men (no less than in women). Certainly in cultures influenced by Christianity, like North America, good men are recognized by qualities like bravery, self-control, kindness, ambition, responsibility, honesty, selflessness, industriousness, humility, generosity, and skillfulness. Traditionally, women sought such men for husbands. Boys looked up to such men as models.
In today’s climate of male-and-female confusion, how can we raise sons into men who escape becoming fragile or soft or lazy or endlessly distracted? While parents cannot guarantee the character of their children, there are some ways to encourage positive outcomes and discourage negative ones.
My wife and I raised two sons (now 40 and 34). The following contains a dozen considerations from my experience raising boys to men.
1. Get right with God.
“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). A son is a gift you can nurture effectively only with divine aid. Do you know this Lord yourself? Are you trusting and growing in Christ? The best fathers know the guidance and discipline of the heavenly Father in their own lives (Hebrews 12:5–11). They learn to transfer those same dynamics in gracious ways toward their sons.
2. Look in the mirror.
What kind of man are you? Sometimes sterling men arise from perverse home settings, but it is folly to sin while hoping for grace to abound (Romans 6:1–2). If you are bitter, critical, and angry, do not be surprised if a son mimics your bad habits. Fathers need to be humble enough to accept correction (from Scripture, from their wife, from a friend or pastor or even a child) and dedicate themselves to self-improvement. Many a son has learned self-righteousness from a hard-hearted, self-important dad. Teachable dads often cultivate teachable kids.
3. Love your wife.
She is your helper and sometimes mentor in the childrearing process. God says to love her as Christ loved the church and as you love yourself (Ephesians 5:25, 32). Sons (and daughters!) need to see and deeply sense a strong and steady affection from their dad for their mom. The security of marital ardor creates a forcefield that fortifies (and in the long run can help purify) the souls of sons. They rest in the joyful overflow. They observe how to express the love and respect they feel, but that their sinful souls can tempt them to neglect or withhold (boys can be real pills toward mom).
I remember hugging my wife one evening, a rug rat at our feet. He tugged on my jeans at the knee to be picked up. I did so and the hug became three-way. Then my son announced, “Kiss fight!” and began pecking left and right. How could we not join in? Boys can turn anything into a war. It still makes me laugh to think about.
4. Check your loves.
The pastor who baptized both my sons joined with us at a church retreat one summer. He bought me a bait bucket to encourage me to fish with my sons. Then he said to me, “Bob, your sons will grow up to love what you love.” It was friendly counsel from a man with a bit more experience with his own sons. It was priceless guidance. If I love myself more than God, my wife, and my children, if I neglect my sons as I chase career glory or disappear on weekends playing golf and drinking beers with buddies, I shouldn’t be surprised if my sons end up chasing the twisted and unenviable life.
5. Learn from your via negativa.
A via negativa is a wrong path, a negative example. Experts know that bad parenting patterns often get handed down and replicated. If your dad beat you, you will be inclined to beat your kids. A man who is right with God and his wife (see the first and third points above) can break this cycle. Be alert to the danger of replicating nasty patterns under which you suffered. Pray and strategize so you can turn the dark paths you knew into sunlit trails for sons.
6. Set aside more time as boys get older.
I expected that babies and toddlers would take a lot of time, and I was right. In our case, my wife quit her job as a nurse to be with the kids at home; she bore the brunt of childcare. But over the years, she went back to work, and I tried to spend as much time as I could with our sons.
I was not prepared to discover that the older kids get, the more they need you around. And you may be surprised to find they want you there! This trend may slack off some during the teen years, but not necessarily. Creative parents may find ways to make common cause with sons so they are in proximity without smothering them. One of my sons had baseball talents. This drew me into ten years of coaching, including some time-intensive seasons. He took far less time as a toddler! But the rewards for our relationship — his character development and enduring family memories — were simply incalculable.
7. Read to and worship with your kids.
Remember, kids will love what you love. If you love Scripture and times of prayer and singing hymns, your kids will learn and feel that. If your “Bible time” (or “Bible tible,” as it came to be called in our home) is daily, not sporadic and haphazard, you can cover a lot in just ten or fifteen minutes each morning or evening over the course of weeks and months.
We ended up combining this with reading (out loud) classics like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Ralph Moody’s epic Little Britches. I also dug up old poems like “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Casey at the Bat,” and many others. Combine this with discussion that runs where kids lead it, along with time for prayer, and you have ingredients for some soul-searching exchanges.
8. Teach them to work by working alongside.
Households survive on chores getting done, whether inside or outside. You can always do them faster without the “help” of young kids. But slow down and make them part of the crew. Teach them how to crack an egg if you are baking or turn a screwdriver if you are putting up a board fence. Get sweaty splitting and stacking firewood. Rake the fall leaves and ambush each other in the leaf piles. (We had a German shepherd who would bury himself in the leaves and wait for someone to jump on him. That’s the spirit!)
One of the most valuable gifts a father can give a son is a robust work ethic. Figure out what you can do together, and then create space for it to happen. Sons who know how to work with confidence, skill, and maximum effort are not apt to fail when they are out on their own.
9. Model Christian consumption of culture.
Mass and social media can dominate our consciousness. Christian husbands and wives should not be cyber-junkies or television addicts. Following Jesus calls for other emphases and pursuits. As they limit themselves, they have moral authority to help their children set their own limits — like no devices after a certain time in the evening, or time limits for online gaming. The easiest way to address bad habits is to prevent their onset. Help sons find richer, more productive horizons than excess Internet use. (Internet employment or online research for academic assignments, of course, is something different.)
10. Keep it physical.
Fathers, talk to your sons even while they are in the womb. They will know your voice when they emerge. Then hug and snuggle them. Hold them when you read to them and pray for them and sit with them in church. Carry them on your shoulders, roughhouse on the living-room carpet (“rassling,” I called it). Let them carry the feel of one last hug into their night’s sleep. Dads and sons alike need this expression and reinforcement of the love God has granted.
11. Teach them successful risk-taking.
We want our kids to be safe, but not at the cost of cowardice. You want sons to be risk-savvy, not risk-averse. Help them learn to swim as they overcome their (well-advised) fear of drowning. At appropriate ages, teach them to climb rocks, walk across a log spanning a ditch, befriend the neighbor’s barking dog, scale a fire tower, carry a box heavier than they thought they could, and sustain some scratches as they help clear land, prune trees, or repair the deck.
Boys that don’t learn bravery descend to knavery. Life is full of danger, and it can’t all be avoided. Figure out risks you can manage and surmount them as father and son. This parallels working side by side with them. Some tasks, like cleaning out gutters, can be two-men operations. Let your 12-year-old son shoulder the responsibility of steadying the ladder — or even climbing aloft if he’s ready (monitor closely, of course).
12. Show them how to care for others.
All the attention to sons prescribed above could leave the impression that to raise boys, you need to dote on and spoil them. Nope. If your home and marriage are trending Christ-centered (we never fully arrive in this life), sons will learn that God is the center of our lives, not us, and our daily prayer is for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. This also means we love and care for neighbors near and far. It means that part of our family income goes to the church, our family table is open to those God brings into our lives to be cared for, and we plan our futures with God’s call and will at the forefront of our thinking.
The list above is representative, not comprehensive. But with prayer, a lot of effort, perceived self-sacrifice (it’s actually a privilege), and God’s grace, parents and especially dads can increase the odds that the boys they rear will rise above the indolence, insecurity, and fear that studies say bedevil too many younger males at present.