In the increasingly gender-neutralizing American parenting approaches of today, it has become something of an anomaly for a man to be able to identify the moment when he entered manhood. This lack of a boy’s official entry into the fellowship of men is somewhat unique to our culture. In the Jewish community Bar Mitzvahs mark the entry of a boy into manhood at the age of 13. In the Redneck community, a boy’s first beer, which occurs when he is roughly tall enough to push the lawnmower, is the indication he is ready to mix with the good ol’ boys.
So when does a boy become a man? Is it an age, like when the government calls him an adult? Is it an accomplishment, like high school graduation? Is it a milestone, like the first time he beds a woman, or kills a deer, or drives a car (or does all three at once)?
In the old days an age may have been appropriate. Boys pretty much matured at the same time, taking on responsibilities on the farm or entering into an apprenticeship with their father or another relative. But today’s boys don’t mature at the same rate, which is why we have 25 year old entrepreneurs who own their own internet based companies and 25 year old gamers who live in their mommy’s basement. It’s difficult to list an age as an entry point into manhood when you have some eighteen year old males wearing the uniform of the United States Military while defending our country and some eighteen year old males wearing Spongebob pajamas at 3:00 in the afternoon while eating cold pizza and watching South Park.
Accomplishments, like graduating from High School, used to indicate maturity because the diploma was empirical proof of a significant amount of energy, time, and effort being concentrated on an educational goal. Now kids are forced to go to school, taking away the idea that it is any kind of privilege. And schools have gone soft on educational requirements to the point that colleges are continually lowering expectations and introducing programs to assist students who seem incapable of using their heads for anything more than holding up their earphones or swallowing many beers. A moderately trained shaved chimp could “earn” a diploma these days, making this “accomplishment” a poor indicator of manliness.
So should milestones be the official entry point into manhood? Does sipping an alcoholic beverage or having sex really indicate a boy has arrived? Only if manhood is cheapened. Manhood is leadership, responsibility, vision, purpose… it is the word we use to identify those of the male gender who engage in honorable pursuits and who improve the world around them, especially the worlds of their families and loved ones. Being physically able to handle a drink or take a woman to bed doesn’t indicate any of these things. So while it is tempting to title a boy a man when he wrestles his first grizzly or forges his first sword using the magma of an active volcano as a heat source, it just doesn’t suit.
A boy becomes a man when he chooses to take responsibility for himself and for the people around him. This occasion should be marked by a boy’s father, so that a boy becomes a man when he begins to take on the traits of his mentoring father and his father acknowledges that step into manhood somehow.
Author Robert Lewis suggests that one good idea for this is a manhood ceremony. He talks about a symbolic gesture, which brings to the mind of Professor Man a few good ideas for when my son comes of age. First, i think any manhood ceremony should include fire. Fire is manly. Second, there should be a showing of strength, like a cage match with a Bengal Tiger or a malformed orangutan named Bull. Third, there should be manly men present, like my father and father-in-law, my pastor, Rocky Balboa, Abraham Lincoln, and William Wallace. Also, we should have manly food, like fried alligator and some other kind of meat on a stick, because you have to eat at things like this. I’ll give some sort of sage advice, and we’ll present my son with a symbolic gift, like a sword or a shield or a light saber. After a quick stop to the emergency room (that many men plus fire plus weapons, you do the math), we’ll end the night in prayer and my boy will be a man.
Review time: Manhood doesn’t begin with a beer, or at a certain age, or when you do the nasty; it begins when you take on a man’s responsibility, and it is best when it is marked by a ceremony involving a boy’s father and a night of mildly symbolic danger with the guys.
You’ve been MANschooled.