Not every conversation is roundly accepted at every cocktail party. Some topics are bodily in nature or so intimate that people just would rather not. This is one of those. The people who would find the most interest in wading through the discomfort of real talk are the dads and moms of boys on the cusp of becoming men. The issues Lis and I faced with our boys and how we handled them might give parents some small comfort that they’re not alone.
Moodiness is a combination of hormones, social isolation, the newness of the latest mental leap, and a child’s particular temperament. A sulking child needs comfort and understanding, encouragement, talking with them given the confusion of feelings versus talking at them on their unacceptable behavior, and the occasional kick in the butt to ‘fake it till you make it’. It’s important to remember and advise them that you, the parent, are helping them develop their mental model of the world which includes character development. So moodiness requires them to resist the temptation to feel sorry for themselves. So at about 9 years of age, dads should begin to prepare boys to become men. Particularly if the child leans toward a melancholy disposition, but in general, dads should visit their son at bedtime and begin the long conversation about manhood. The discussion should cover unexplained feelings, new sensations, hormones, girls, technology, and how communication between son and dad needs to get stronger. The line to use – “No one on the planet loves you more than your mom and I do, No one.” So therefore, don’t think your friends can tell you more about life’s issues than we can.
Bodily changes, hair, smell, morning blood flow, begin to emerge from boyhood around 9-11 years old. Fast starters and later bloomers notwithstanding, puberty is around 11ish. Your conversations around secret subjects called “The Talk” should begin in advance of that age. Open, wide ranging questions investigating his knowledge, offering insights, not pushing an agenda, should create a confidential atmosphere. Any question, any question at all, should be answered with the feeling of openness. Occasionally, you might start at 30,000 feet and come back to the question again another time. Questions should be met with questions – “What do you mean?” – so that you don’t answer a question they’re not asking.
“Daddy, where did I come from?”
“Well buddy, when I put my penis in mommy’s vigina, my sperm fertilized your mommy’s egg and she became pregnant. You grew inside her womb for 9 months and then were born.”
“Oh. Because Stevie says he came from Cleveland.”
Hygiene is a requirement. Starting at 9 years, an increase in parental attention to hygiene should be in advance of when hormone smells become an issue. Using deodorant, airing out tennis shoes at night, brushing teeth, showering regularly, washing excess oil off face and scalp all need to be reviewed and strengthened. Taking laundry seriously, making sure that clothes are put in the proper spot post sports and post laundry day. Every stage of maturity requires more balancing of new efforts with old lessons. Get ahead of it.
Technology is a convenience, not a requirement. Allowing your son access to his own personal link to the world is dangerous to say the least. Insofar as porn can start as a small accidental leak into your son’s life and become a raging flood sweeping away the wonderful person you once knew, technology is Pandora’s box. Even if porn weren’t an issue, having his friends text your son all hours of the night is a distraction to concentration and sleep. You can’t control the world, but you do pay the bills. Phones are for you to communicate with your child – period. Smartphones are misnamed. Early in life, you want to have blockers thereby creating a safe zone. No sense in the real world breaking in too early. But later, blockers on your technology will create a false sense of security. Instead, you want to put a blocker on their character, on their heart, where they develop the strength to withstand the temptation. Difficult, but critically important for when they are away from home. All internet use, laptop, smartphone, iPad should all be used in the main part of the house.
Masturbation. Gonna happen. This touchy subject has larger ramifications in writing about it. So if your religious beliefs are different than mine, I respect that. If you’re wiser than me, which is likely, then I would yield to a better idea. But as a father, I don’t want to condemn the act or fact that my child is a sexual being. I don’t want to burden him with guilt or shame beyond what society is going to provide him. What I am interested in is getting him to self control and time management. My advice to my boys was “Don’t waste 2 hours thinking about it. Git ‘er done and get back to life.” The problem isn’t the act itself, it’s the mental activity and wasted time surrounding the activity. Young men can masturbate 2-3 times per day. If each time took an hour with all that mental imagery, that’s not a positive or Godly use of that energy. “Git ‘er done and move on” is my advice. It worked out for our family. It’s a delicate discussion, for sure, but one in which dad is understanding and is a ‘go-to’ for advice.
Some periods of life are just what they are, periods of life. There’s a beginning and there’s an end. Your child does not know that, whereas you do. So when guilt arises because of the all too common aftermath of masturbation, dad’s should address the feelings as much as the activity. Normalize the transition into manhood. I don’t buy into the idea that this is a sin. There’s no upside to that idea and only downside. Instead, as human beings, we are what we are and must deal with that. Going from boy to man is fraught with turbulence. Cementing self concept in guilt is not my idea of being a good dad. Loving transition into self control is better I think.
Attitude. What does “Bad Attitude” mean anyway? When my dad used it on me, it meant I had a tone in my voice or a look on my face that conveyed disrespect or maybe an attitude of entitlement. I’m not sure because I didn’t know what it meant at the time. Kids shouldn’t ever use hurtful words, disrespectful tones, and other actions that express exasperation with an adult, particularly their mom. Instead of immediate reaction that condemns their seeming disrespect, there should be a question: “Your tone came out as disrespectful. Did you intend to disrespect your mom?” Or, “In your frustration with this situation, you sounded like you’re blaming your mom for this when you’re the one that has caused it. It’s not appropriate to project your frustrations on other people. Did you intend to do that?” In other words, as the adult you are able to respond rather than react. Responding as an adult has you disengage your authoritative emotions and engage your wiser intellect.
Lying becomes more sophisticated. The foundation of the family is built on trust. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is the cement within that foundation. Everyone within the family perceives reality based on their ability to trust the data they are collecting. So dad’s modeling of truth sets the tone. An extreme example, infidelity rises to the top of lying. A child’s definitions of love, trust, security are upended when it turns out that dad was crossing his fingers. The billions of data points a child has collected so far manifests in their own relationship to the truth when confronting a reality they don’t desire. Let me unpack that statement – When a young teenager messes up, which they will, and must come clean with what happened, their relationship with the truth will be a matter of character. That child will draw forth from the essence of their childhood experiences on how you play the truth game. I used infidelity as an extreme example of falsity, but it’s a spectrum. Manipulating words to manage the consequences is a character relationship to the truth. Character comes from mom and dad. So your teenager will express his character as a new intellectual exercise. You must provide consequences (Never punish. Punishment is punitive. Correction provides consequences) for violating family conduct and then explain and declare what your family identity is on speaking truth.
Engagement is key. I mischaracterized my role in life during the period my kids were transitioning into young adults. I was doing well at work and thought I was a big deal. My dad had his work persona that I dredged up from childhood and re-created at home. “Dad’s a big deal” was the image I was going for. I messed up, not massively, but enough to have some regret. Instead, my “job” was primarily to be all-in with my family. It wouldn’t have robbed much of anything from work, but my engagement at home would have looked differently. I was in my head and should have been in the game instead. Initiating time with each child to talk it out, explore issues, play, encourage, explain, question would have been the ‘great dad’ image I would have preferred.
Young men are subtly and flagrantly attacked by society for being male. Masculinity certainly needed to be modernized from the John Wayne 50’s and 60’s. But today’s “Girl Power” has gone too far by not just encouraging strong women, which is great, but also by characterizing men as doofuses (doofae?) seems to be standard fare. This should be resisted and modeled otherwise. Men as men are critical to a harmonized society. Women need men to be men. It is now up to today’s father to re-generate the idea of masculinity for the next generation.
To molding tomorrow’s men,