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Monday, February 21, 2011

Raising Boys Into Emotionally Mature Men, Part I.

On November 29, 2010 I wrote a post called When a Man Decides to Leave Emotional Boyhood Behind In it I listed 9 characteristics of emotional boyhood and their equivalent contrasts of emotional manhood. Check it out to get background for what follows in this post regarding fathers helping sons become emotionally mature men.

Let me begin by reminding us that emotionally mature sons need the help and guidance of both fathers and mothers working together to help boys become authentic men. Each has a necessary role in raising them. The masculine and feminine influence shape boys differently, but each balances a boy's sense of himself in the company of both.

However, I am utterly convinced masculinity best internalizes masculinity. Masculine being is best transferred by masculine being, especially through willing identification and imitation. I know I'm getting heavy here, but its a heavy deal. God created masculine and feminine being. He also provided the means through which it could be healthily passed on from generation to generation.

Therefore, emotionally healthy men are the most fitting means by which the existential transaction takes place developmentally over time. Again, this is especially true, but not exclusively so, when it occurs in a loving family where dad and mom work in harmony to model what it means to be an authentic, person of character and integrity -- male or female.

For boys of Christian parents, becoming Christian men centers on gradually learning to live life as a follower of Jesus, at his disposal, and on his terms in every endeavor. Serving the Lord of lords becomes the greatest priority and highest End in life. Such allegiance flows from a radically transformed heart and focused will toward Kingdom mission and God's glory. Pursuits of wealth, power, influence and achievement are placed under obedience to Christ. Doing so with resolve is a far departure from pursuing the American Dream as one's Prime Directive.

To give you a sense of the essentials of a boy turning into an emotionally mature man, the following are helpful markers, I think. I realize, much I will say below holds to true for daughters in principle as well. I will write about that later. I also do not mean to disclude a boy's mother from also modeling, teaching and supporting the attitudes and values below. As I said, she also plays and has a uniquely vital role in growing him up into emotionally mature masculinity.

1. Helping a boy learn to love Jesus and value the spiritual side of life.

If you are a Jesus-follower you will naturally desire for your sons and daughters to become Jesus-followers. If you are wise, you won't try to force a relationship; you will help motivate and create it as a model, supporter and teacher. In other words, a father helps his son open and relate to Jesus, at first to know him as a Friend and Gentle Shepherd, then as he ages and matures, as a Savior, King and Lord.

The goal is intimacy with God, the heart after God's heart intimacy David had : "I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do."(Acts 13:22) They key to this level of surrendered heart is helping a boy know God's nature and will as revealed in the Scriptures. It is helping him know the "still, small voice" of the Spirit as the voice of One who loves him, by "dialoguing" with God in prayer and reflection. Thirdly, it's involving him in the life of the Church as the community of the Beloved, of which he is a part, gathered around God, loving one another and serving Christ's redemptive Kingdom mission in the world.

As a boy repeatedly sees his father reading Scripture, praying (alone and with mom) and sharing the work of the Church it normalizes for him. As dad talks freely about his relationship with God his son learns it is a normal part of life. Jesus can be talked to. Jesus can be listened to. Jesus protects him and loves him. He learns Jesus is never far even though he can't see him. The birth of Jesus is a good place to begin as well as passages showing him relating to children.

Depending on the cognitive and emotional maturity of the boy, somewhere around the 4th to 6th grades, he can begin to grasp that Jesus is the Savior of the world and King of kings. Concepts such as the cross and resurrection, the fact Jesus paid for our sin and was raised from the dead can be slowly introduce and talked about. There is no reason to hurry these truths, but they need to be developed for a boy to understand the Gospel core of the Christian worldview.

As a boy heads into the emotional maze and minefield of the teen years, he should explore the idea of Jesus as Lord. This is his invitation to "big-league" Christianity. The Lordship of Christ summons all his followers to radical obedience for a lifetime. It is the more challenging or demanding part of the Gospel message, but one which expresses its core. To have a heart after God's from his perspective means, "he will do everything I want him to do." This principle is essential to masculine emotional maturity of the highest order. Loving Jesus is ultimately obeying what he commands. True intimacy with him is surrender and following hard after him in all things.

A Dad who lives with God like this will "warm" his son(s) to living this way as well. The Christian spiritual life is radically following Jesus because of love for him. Knowing him at the deepest levels of the heart translates to being where he is as he redeems the world one day at a time. When his father relates to Jesus this way and is open about it it can become real and enticing for his son, especially if dad is inviting him into missional projects and tasks of serving.

2. Developing a boy's understanding of the power God has granted him to live his life.

In my work as a lay counselor, I've become aware of the critical need to help boys grow into an emotionally healthy understanding of the power God has given him to make a worthy way in the world. For a boy to come into his own, he needs to see he can pursue what matters to him, even if he fails at times. A boy has to acquire the confidence to step out and act in the face of challenge and difficulty knowing God has called him into being at a particular point in history to do something only he can. The gift of life and the power to live it confirms his right to be. This too is following Jesus.

Through trial and error salted with a father's gracious encouragement, supportive correction and generous love, a boy steadily comes to trust his potential and inherent giftedness. He learns to rely on the instincts God has put in him to accomplish things because he has come to know and trust him, his Savior and Lord. Conversely, he doesn't learn to shrink back into an unhealthy dependence on others who seem more strong or capable, thus surrendering to a life of impotence no matter how he might posture in front of others. Such boys, and later men, hesitate and hold back, afraid to try something new in front of others. Fear of failure and a growing shame cripple ability to recognize the power God has put in them, and they gradually submit to a half life of mediocrity, or worse, manipulating others.

A healthy understanding of the power God has put in him, and it submitted to a far-greater Power, namely Christ, centers him in life to the full as Jesus desires it. A young man's dreams allied with God's will can change the world, and has many times over.

3. Enticing boy's courage so he develops the habit of taking initiative.

Closely related to number 2 is the critical need to gradually entice a boy's courage. Courage is a key component of authentic masculinity, an essential ingredient to defining a man's ability to face and move through fears of all sorts. Fear can can hamstring a man and chronic fear will slowly crush his spirit, trapping him in a life of boyish posturing and impotent cowardice. A man without courage is like a badly-tuned engine; it can never perform to the level it was designed. Courage makes a way where it seems there is no way. Courage says "Yes" in the face of many "No's." Courage asks, "Well, why not?" or "Who says it can't be done?" Courage creates movement where stultifying inertia has ruled the day.

Over the years, I've recognized through counseling hundreds of men that unless they grow up in a supportive environment where they can develop the habit (way of life, really) of taking initiative to tackle a challenge or solve a problem, they will learn to hesitate, shrink from, or even worse, chronically procrastinate. The sad fact is they weren't trained to negotiate a daunting dilemma or tough task requiring resilience, ingenuity, and determination. A man who's been well-trained in boyhood to face challenges and obstacles may have no idea how to deal with the situation at first, but he'll roll up his sleeves and find out: ask questions, look at options, think it through and then take take action. He goes into the chaos or fog even if he isn't dead sure of the way forward. There will be a kind of, "Let's see if this works," sensibility to how he tries to achieve a solution. In so doing, he reveals an emotional maturity which subordinates fear to taking initiative.

To raise a boy into such a "can-do" way of life he needs to have many chances to try all sorts of things, to test his intelligence, and strength. Clearly, such testing will look different for a 2-year-old than an 8 year-old, or a 13 year old, but the principle of trying holds true for each. So Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Mike, and older brother, Louis, all need to walk along side him frequently: supporting, encouraging, helping and inspiring him to try new things and see what opens. The men in his life also need to help him see failure and frustration as opportunities for learning and persevering or altering his course for a better result. Over time, this essential feature of emotional maturity will take root: failure is not seen as a sign of existential bankruptcy and shame does not begin to distort his self-awareness into ingrained boyishness when it comes to living the way of courage and initiative-taking.

In the end, helping him discover and live this quality of masculine emotional maturity will grant him the ability to act even if he doesn't know the way or is confident he will succeed. A life well-lived requires such an attitude.

4. Being able to test reality in the face of strong feelings.

Wisdom necessitates seeing things as they really are not as they appear or feel. Wisdom is a fount of life and freedom. Foolishness is a wide portal to chaos and bondage.

Emotional maturity requires the weathered ability to reality test because all that glitters is not gold, and unexamined impulse can quickly lead to disaster. So it asks questions such as:

  • What's really going on here?
  • If I do this what are the consequences?
  • Are my feelings telling me the truth?
  • Am I getting an accurate read on the situation or seeing what I want to see?
  • Should I take more to get the facts before I commit?
  • Am I being deceived?
  • Will good or evil come from my actions?
  • What is this going to cost me in the end?
    The Scriptures are filled with warnings about not testing reality from God's perspective especially when it comes to trusting how a man feels as the most reliable measure of his response to all sorts of enticements. So helping a boy balance his feelings with an ability to see what's actually true based on time-tested standards of truth becomes an exercise in grounding him in what is, not what seems to be or what he wants it to be because his feelings want what they want. Many a man has shipwrecked his life because his feelings and impulses deceived him.

    Perhaps the surest way to help a boy develop this tool of emotional maturity is to talk about what he is feeling in light of what actually happened or what the situation needed in reality. Sometimes it will mean comforting him or soothing his wounded ego. Always it will mean using the issue as a teaching opportunity to point him toward truth and reality, not merely desire and impulse. When done so in an atmosphere of compassion and masculine love, it opens the way to recognizing the difference between feeling something is true because he desires it to be so, and actually knowing it is objectively true.

    Emotional maturity in this regard will help him navigate the avalanche of enticements hurtling toward him from every direction promising happiness, pleasure, power, and freedom if he acts and acts quickly. Having such navigational skill in our culture of endless entitlement will bode him well  for a lifetime.
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