One summer evening, I was driving through South Texas after finishing a speaking engagement at a university. The speech had gone quite well, and I was still feeling the adrenaline high and reliving a wonderful experience in my memory.
I didn’t see the accident coming. In a split second, I went from cruising happily down the freeway at 75 miles an hour to being absolutely certain that I was about to die. And as the car spun, air bags deployed and the glass shattered around me, another thought raced through my mind: Who is going to teach my sons to be confident men?
I wasn’t too worried about my wife. She’s a great mom. She is book smart, street sassy, and truly beautiful. There would probably have been a line of guys at my memorial service giving her condolence and wanting to ask her out. But what about my two boys? Who would provide for them what only a father can provide?
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Obviously, I survived. And as I stood on the side of the road with a painful bruise on my hip and a totaled rental car, I promised myself that I was going to go home and be a better dad. I was going to go home and purposefully raise my sons to be good men.
The two desires of every man
How does a boy become a man? As a guy, I know that every other guy wants the same two things. No, I’m not thinking “women” and “food” here, but something more foundational: At his core, every man wants to gain respect and avoid embarrassment. I think God has wired these two qualities into our DNA to help us in our biblical role of honoring, protecting and providing for our loved ones. So as I lead my boys, I remember that Reed and Cole will always have these two primary needs—to be respected by others and avoid being embarrassed.
A big way those two needs are met is through performing all the skills of modern life with confidence and humility. Shaking hands. Looking someone in the eye. Shaving. Checking the oil in a car. Mowing the lawn. Mowing others’ lawns to make a few bucks. Talking to a girl. Talking to a girl’s parents. As fathers, one of our most important jobs is to help our boys learn to perform these and so many other life skills with confidence.
In our family, my boys and I started doing little missions together. Think of them as small incremental rites of passages that help them grow in their confidence to face the world. We named them CatherMAN Missions, a little play on our last name. Keep in mind that a CatherMAN Mission isn’t about beating our chests, heading off into the woods and coming home covered in mud. (Well… sometimes it is.) But mostly, our “missions” are just a way for me to intentionally include my boys in performing the tasks of everyday life. The missions can really be anything—running errands and pumping gas, fixing the lawnmower, learning how to tie a Windsor knot. We’ll plan meals and go to the grocery store to get the shopping done. These men in the making need to know how to budget for burger over steak, just as much as they need to know how to unclog a toilet or change a flat tire.
All of these tasks of life require practice, and while practice doesn’t make us perfect, it does make us better. As I lead my boys, I remember my own experiences growing up and how many times I had to keep practicing before getting something right. As dads, we must see boyhood as the training ground for manhood. Better to learn how to change a tire in the driveway, then to practice first on the side of a freeway. So my boys and I jack up the car and have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon, even though the tire’s not flat. Practice makes us better.
Confidence and maturity
But performing the tasks of life with confidence and humility is only half of the equation. This ability must be paired with a mature character. Becoming a man has little to do with age, size of muscles or if a guy can grow a beard. The world is populated by lots of “manly” guys who still act like immature boys. As my sons observe our culture’s view of manhood I tell them that real men live by different standards—higher standards. It is maturity that transforms boys into men.
I’ve often thought that maturity and integrity are best demonstrated when a man knows how to do the right thing, the right way, at the right time, for the right reason. Even when nobody is looking. I also believe maturity is a practiced skill, just as is throwing a spiral or grilling a steak. So on our CatherMAN Missions, I try to remember that my boys are not only learning about how to perform life skills, but to reflect a wise and mature character to people around them. We open doors for people. We smile and look others in the eye. We respond to rudeness with gentleness and politeness. We talk about how others want to be treated—how we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes.
Our boys’ coming-of-age starts with practicing and mastering life skills, yet it is just as important that they reflect the mature character possessed by only the best of men.
Jonathan Catherman is an education consultant and trainer specializing in character and leadership development in youth. He is the author of The Manual to Manhood: How to cook the perfect steak, change a tire, impress ad girl & 97 other skills you need to survive.