How to Raise a Man

Bible-based wisdom on bringing up boys
From the September 2010 Trumpet Print Edition

I thought I had learned a thing or two about child rearing after bringing up two daughters for several years. Then my wife and I had a son.

Noah is a unique creature. His sisters were fairly quiet and conservative in their play. He is a wrecking ball with lungs.

His sisters like to dress things, decorate things, set things up, stack things on top of other things. He sees a stack of things as an invitation for demolition. He likes to kick and punch. He enjoys collisions.

Somehow even his dinner plate looks to him like an artillery range. “Ah-h-h-h —boosh!” he says while dropping his carrot into his potato.

We didn’t teach him these things. We are trying to teach him civilized table manners, and respect for other people’s things and for the structural vulnerability of the walls in our home. But the urge to dominate, to subdue, to conquer, he’s got in spades.

This is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. One is that some delusional academics seem to think there are no inborn psychological differences between boys and girls—only what society teaches them. Absolute poppycock. Without prodding or guidance, from very early on my daughters would pick up a doll and begin cradling it and cooing to it. My son pulls the head off to see what’s inside.

More importantly, I’m fascinated because what I’m seeing with my own eyes backs up a truth revealed in the Bible—a truth with staggering implications as to the responsibility it places on me.

General society’s complete ignorance of this truth is creating a mess of problems with the way we rear our boys. Perhaps in their early years they yearn to do battle in the arena; they are keen to exercise their strength—and often in undisciplined and damaging ways. But society fears this. We are deeply ambivalent about masculine energy. Our female-dominated early education seeks to squash it. We embrace the convenience of indulging our sons’ natural enthrallment with inert entertainment; after all, if the boy is absorbed in a video game, he’s not whacking his little brother with a bat. Without considering the consequences, we reward passivity; it is less alarming than ferocity.

Then we watch—as if helpless—while our sons grow self-indulgent, lazy, soft. Bit by bit, the stuff that made them different from their sisters becomes muted, stifled. Or it gets swallowed whole.

That we do this is perfectly understandable. But it’s a tragic mistake.

The fact is, there is something valuable in our sons’ assertive boyishness. It needs to be shaped and guided; it needs to be refined and balanced. But woe be to us—and to them—if it gets crushed.

Why? Because they are destined to be leaders.

Where Did That Boyishness Come From?

Genesis 1:26-27 say that God created human beings male and female. God is the source of everything that makes men men and women women. He designed differences in physique, in emotions, in intellectual and psychological composition. He is the author of masculinity and femininity.

But why? Piece together all of the observable and scriptural evidence, and you can see unmistakably that God created these differences—physical, mental, emotional—to establish order and structure, especially within the family. “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Those who don’t believe the Bible scoff at that scripture. “Christians” who don’t like it find ways to make it mean something else. But godly men and women see simple logic and beauty in it.

For the sake of order and organization, God created men to fulfill one role within the family and within society, and created women to fill a different and beautifully complementary role.

Before we can prepare our sons to fulfill the role for which God created them, we need a clear concept of just what that role is. We need a vision of what godly masculinity is so we can measure our sons’ behavior against that—to know what needs to change and what needs to stay, what needs to be shaped and developed. Raising a man requires knowing what the boy is to become.

That is not to say we should force our sons to grow up too soon. The men of tomorrow should begin their lives as happy, carefree boys; let them play and laugh and think as children. Similarly, we don’t want to do anything to create any sense of a battle between boys and girls, pitting one against the other—or acting like there’s some mystery about the opposite sex they’ll never understand. They should play happily together with other boys and girls in active sports and games. When society artificially foists on them false concepts about the opposite sex, they can feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable and self-conscious; those relationships can seem complicated. Protect their simplicity and innocence: Let children be children!

However, as they grow, our sons must gain a sense of their uniqueness—not in a way that makes them awkward around girls and women, but that gradually teaches them their God-given responsibilities toward them. While the basic principles of child rearing are the same for boys and girls, each must be taught the different jobs they will fulfill in a future family. Boys require a different mindset, a different set of skills.

We parents must equip our sons to resist feminization and to grow to become successful men. We must take special effort to bring our boys up to be strong, effective, successful, ambitious leaders.

Teach Him to Work

Boys have a natural tendency to want to conquer—to storm the backyard and erect a barricade. We want to encourage that, not squelch it. We want our boys to be adventurous, courageous, visionary. After all, they were created to exercise dominion over the Earth and to subdue it (Genesis 1:28). Thus, we need to show them how to exert their strength in a godly, constructive way.

Teach the boy to do things. Don’t let him stand awkwardly by as his friends dive into childhood experiences like swimming in the pool or riding horses. Don’t let him lose valuable experience sitting on the sidelines while his friends or the family engages in an activity. Get him a dog and show him how to train it. Teach him to use things, to make things, to plant things, to manipulate his environment productively.

God began the creation of human beings with the man, and immediately gave him work to do (Genesis 2:7, 15). God gave man physical things to teach him good stewardship—taking care of the blessings we receive. Further, after Adam sinned, God actually made his workload harder (Genesis 3:17-19), knowing that physical labor is crucial to building character. God knows that when everything is handed to us, we just don’t do well; He wants man to earn his bread through the sweat of his brow. And the Bible is clear in its command to men that they work to provide for their families (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:8).

Parents: Teach your boy how to work. The lessons Adam learned by having to “dress” and “keep” the Garden are lessons all boys need: to appreciate the value in hard work—to be patient and wait for fruits to show—to have realistic expectations of success—to enjoy labor. A boy needs to experience getting worn out, and having to push himself when he feels like quitting.

Give him chores. Boys tend to be lazy; it’s a parental duty to help them overcome that. Eventually, your son will need to get and hold a job outside the home. He needs a steady progression of responsibilities and opportunities that teach how to work, how to be responsible, how to be self-motivated.

Proverbs 21:5-6 show that laziness leads to lying. This is something we especially want to guard our boys from. A young man who begins to lie and deceive rather than earning his pay through honest hard work might enjoy some perks at first, but they will always end up hurting him. “Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel” (Proverbs 20:17). As Douglas Wilson wrote in Future Men, we want them to taste that gravel right away—by disciplining dishonesty.

When your son understands the value of hard work, he will know the value of an honest day’s pay. That provides another invaluable opportunity: teaching him how to save, how to pay his own way, how to spend wisely, how to be generous to others, how to give back to God. These are crucial skills for a man. Teach them when he is a boy.

A Leader of Women and Children

The Genesis account reveals another valuable truth: From the beginning, God did not intend for Adam to be alone. He needed a companion, a helper. He was incomplete without Eve, and she was incomplete without him (Genesis 2:18-24), and God placed the man in a leadership role within that marriage.

Our sons were created to become leaders of women and children. We must keep this end goal in mind as we work with them.

Teaching that role begins with the relationship between Dad and Mom. Our sons need a strong example of a godly marriage. They need to see proper masculine leadership in action—a man who leads his family in love. A boy is going to be drawn to emulate his father’s strong, manly example.

Fathers: Be the man you want your son to become. He is watching you. Your life is his most powerful model of masculinity.

A father must ensure his son treats his mother with respect. God commands a son to honor and obey his mother (Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:1). This becomes increasingly crucial as he gets bigger. If at any time she does not have his respect and obedience, she should get the father involved immediately, and he should put a stop to it. (He should also make sure that his wife is never fighting her son, getting angry, ugly and shrill with him; this too is unhealthy.) A son who despises his mother is a fool (Proverbs 15:20). If he develops a confrontational relationship with her, he is going to be more competitive and combative around women.

On the other hand, a boy who honors his mom will grow up to honor his wife (1 Peter 3:7). When a boy learns this early, he begins to appreciate that men must always have a sense of responsibility and duty toward women. This makes it more natural to later step into the responsibility of leading, protecting and providing for a family of his own.

Teach your son gentlemanly habits that reinforce his duties toward females in general: opening doors for women, standing when a woman enters the room, being attentive to a drink or jacket or something else she might need, walking on the sidewalk between a woman and traffic, not treating her roughly or joking at her expense the way he might with another boy.

In preparing your son to fulfill his incredible role, pay close attention to how you discipline him. Do not browbeat him or put him down. Don’t instill cowering submission in him. Teach him to have godly confidence—and godly humility. How? With lots of encouragement. Encourage his strengths. Praise his successes. Show joy in his accomplishments.

Without sacrificing her authority, a mother should also lovingly support her son. She should have sensitivity to his God-given role. As he grows, she should show him respect, without demeaning him and emasculating him—or pampering him.

One of the Best Things You Can Do

Another area to give special consideration to is media. Technology is a strong drug. It grabs young minds and dominates them. Boys in particular tend to love the stuff—especially video games.

The Kaiser Family Foundation says children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 6 hours a day with media: television, radio, computers (not including schoolwork), music players and so on. That’s over 45 hours a week. Longer than the average workweek.

That’s also more time than they spend with their parents (less than 16 hours), in physical activity (10 hours), or doing homework (just over 5 hours). Looking at those numbers alone, it’s not difficult to see a correlation between increased media use and family breakdown, childhood obesity, and declining academic performance.

Beyond the mere time issue, though, is the content of that media. Studies prove it’s hurting our boys. It is our duty as parents to intervene. Vigilance here can help prevent a multitude of problems from taking root in our sons’ lives.

“As a pediatrician I can tell you that disconnecting, or strictly limiting and strictly supervising your son’s access to electronic media is one of the best things you can do for his emotional, mental and physical health,” writes Meg Meeker in Boys Should Be Boys.

Boys tend to be drawn to media violence far more than girls, and there is plenty out there to inflame that appetite. But it is a trap. The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly warned that television violence hurts our children. It has found that boys who watch violent tv turn more aggressive—even with brief exposure, but much more with larger doses. Playing violent video games correlates to even worse anti-social aggression; Meeker cites studies showing that they “increase aggressive thoughts, can increase feelings of anger or hostility, and can raise a boy’s blood pressure and heart rate.”

Video games are increasingly graphic and realistic, and in many of them the object is to kill people. Prof. David Grossman, a 24-year Air Force veteran who testified before a senatorial committee on youth violence, says the parallels are strong with the techniques used by the military to prepare men for violent combat. Violent video games desensitize our boys to human suffering and actually condition them to kill.

Most media violence is not only glamorous, it is morally ambiguous or downright immoral. “When the images are bombarded on an 8-year-old brain, a boy can easily shift from believing that a man is supposed to be trustworthy and self-controlled (as you, his father, might have taught him) to believing that real men are cruel and aggressive,” Meeker says.

If the media’s depictions of masculinity are brutal and destructive on the one hand, they are childish and stupid on the other. The almost universally portrayed stereotype is one of a strong, competent female having to deal with a goofy, idiotic male. The roles between the sexes as God intended are flipped upside-down and twisted in knots—then steeped in vulgar, adolescent humor that mostly appeals to childish males.

The greater our sons’ exposure to that nonsense, the more ingrained in their thinking it will become.

Ensuring that our sons’ model of responsible masculine behavior remains balanced and realistic requires that we strive to limit those false images, and provide a good example and solid instruction in what is true and right.

Safeguard His Purity

One particularly lethal stealth missile in the media aimed at our boys is sex. We must be defenders of our sons’ purity in a world where sexual impurity is everywhere.

Today, the average age of a boy’s first exposure to pornography is 11. And what is available on the Internet is far worse than at any time in the past—and far easier to access. Almost half of boys between grades 3 and 8 have visited “adult” websites.

“Porn and smut pose an awesome threat to your boys,” writes James Dobson in Bringing Up Boys. “A single exposure to it by some 13-to-15-year-olds is all that is required to create an addiction that will hold them in bondage for a lifetime. It is more addictive than cocaine or heroin. That was one of the conclusions drawn during the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, on which I served. It is known by those of us in the field of child development that the focal point of sexual interest is not very well established among young adolescents. It can be redirected by an early sexual experience (wanted or unwanted) or by exposure to pornography.” In other words, that early exposure can distort the normal channels of stimulation by the opposite sex—which of themselves are designed by God and wholesome when used properly—into all manner of perversion. “Many men who have succumbed to these perverse sexual appetites have traced them to the dawn of their adolescence,” Dobson explained.

Pornography is horribly degrading, especially to women. Again, God intends your son to grow up to be a protector of and provider for women. If he becomes ensnared by lust, it takes his mind 180 degrees opposite his being able to successfully fulfill that calling.

Talk to your son. “[F]athers must assume that a difficult sexual struggle is occurring in their sons’ lives,” writes Douglas Wilson. “[A] father must talk to his son and teach him. The teaching must consist of more than, ‘Yeah, I had this problem when I was your age, too.’ The teaching must be grounded in the Word of God—what does the Bible teach about masturbation, lust, fantasy and so forth?

“A father should check with his son and not wait for his son to ask. Further, he should check periodically and regularly. Every son needs guidance and accountability from his father in this area” (op. cit.).

If we do our part, we can go a long way to giving our sons one of the most priceless gifts he can possess: a clean conscience.

The world is filled with dangers—and a great number of them come via the media. Our sons need a strong moral compass in order to navigate this crucial aspect of their lives and to make it to manhood as unscathed as possible. We want to facilitate any use of technology and media that is genuinely good for our boys—that builds right knowledge, cognitive development and character—while drawing firm lines on what will hurt them. Knowing where to draw the lines—both in quantity of use and in content—requires educating ourselves and asking God for wisdom and discernment.

Teach him right from wrong. Show him that a real man, like King David, says, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 101:3). Provide an excellent example, and supplement that with plenty of instruction.

Embrace His Destiny

As your son grows, teach him to accept responsibility for himself. Teach him to own up to his actions and not make excuses. Don’t let him protect his selfish masculine pride. Don’t let him shift responsibility or blame and flee the burdens of leadership.

Being a leader requires making difficult, unpopular decisions. We all tend to be people-pleasers. Your son needs people skills—but also the courage to stand alone. Teach him to obey God’s definition of right and wrong, and to stand against the crowd when he has to. This requires courage, and you must teach it to him.

Teach him to overcome self-centeredness. Encourage him to seize opportunities to do things that benefit others at the cost of benefiting himself. Teach him the intelligence, the sensitivity and the magnanimity to identify the needs of others. Teach him to see the big picture. Teach him to see things from God’s perspective.

Build his physical and mental strength. If you can, show him how to change a tire, how to fix the car, how to do home repairs; help him learn to thrive outdoors, camping, hunting, fishing.

Most importantly, spend time with him. The father who teaches his son how to change the oil teaches a skill—but the more valuable thing is that he is with the boy.

“An unsupervised kid can get into more mischief in a single day than his parents can straighten out in a year,” writes Dr. Dobson. “Considering how the world has changed, it is doubly important to build relationships with boys from their earliest childhood. You can no longer rely on rules to get them past the predators in the wider world. It still makes sense to prohibit harmful or immoral behavior, but those prohibitions must be supplemented by an emotional closeness that makes children want to do what is right. They must know that you love them unconditionally and that everything you require of them is for their own good. … With all the temptations buzzing around our kids, simply saying no a thousand times creates a spirit of defiance. We have to build bridges to them from the ground up” (op. cit.).

This world needs strong, masculine boys who will become strong, masculine men. The main way we as parents can fulfill that need is by training our sons to embrace their destiny as leaders. That means giving them a good example, instruction, discipline, increasing levels of responsibility—and plenty of encouragement.

Your boy needs you. Raise him to be a man.