In last week’s post, I talked about five pitfalls that will derail our parenting efforts and how we need to know our ultimate goal, our end game, for our kids. When we know our end game, we can reverse engineer the process of getting there. My ultimate goal with my kids is for them to have lives of deep contentment where they add value to the world. As I’ve written repeatedly (see here and here and here), in order for men to have deep levels of contentment with their, we must live in accordance with their nature as men. Our nature as men leads us to esteem strength, courage, productivity, and honor. Because we esteem these things internally (perhaps even subconsciously), we must develop them in order to have a deep level of contentment with ourselves as men. Men who are weak, timid, fearful, cowardly, unproductive, incapable, or isolated will never experience deep fulfillment with their lives and will never deliver their potential value to the world.
What’s more, even men who are strong, courageous, skillful, and surrounded by other men will still feel a bit restless until they employ these virtues and relationships in pursuit of a purpose that is meaningful and larger than their well-being. It’s not enough for a man to be capable and connected, he needs a worthy mission. That gives us some clue on how to raise our boys, on what we should pursue and what we should avoid. So, here are five things that all fathers of boys need to do.
Rule Number One: Make them get strong. For kids, a big part of this is simply play. Make them be active. They need to run, jump, throw, climb, crawl, swim, and hang from things regularly. Most kids will do this willingly if we will give them the opportunity to do so and don’t overregulate them. Those few that won’t will typically do so with some prodding and intervention. It’s simply more fun, so they’ll typically choose it. Our job is to give them opportunity to do so. Let. Them. Play.
Once they start getting older, make them do strength training. I don’t necessarily mean to set them up doing deadlifts and barbell squats, but get them doing compound bodyweight exercises. Pushups, pullups, lunges, and squats are fantastic for kids. As they hit their teens you can start them with barbell training. The research is quite clear that such training is good for kids. Here’s a crucial factor, however: your kids will be much more inclined to embrace strength training if they see you doing it as well. If they grow up in a home where the father works to get stronger, they’ll see that as a normal part of being a man and will be much more likely to embrace it. If they see you sitting on the couch giving them orders to work out . . . well, good luck with that.
Rule Number Two: Put them in situations that force them to be courageous. I don’t mean to take them out in the woods in a strange location, make them stay all night, and force them to find their way back home when they’re eight years old. But challenge them. Make them try new things that push their physical and emotional limits. Encourage them camp out in the backyard. Make them go on that overnight trip with a trusted friend or family member. Help them spend time around dogs, horses, or other animals that they they’re not comfortable with. You can do it in baby steps and progressions, but do it. Force them to achieve. They’ll usually succeed and be glad that they did. Another great way to address courage is to teach them to stand with and stand up for kids that are getting bullied. I don’t mean for them to freak out every time someone gets called name. I’m talking about real bullying. Teach them that, if a bigger kid is terrorizing a smaller, weaker kid, they need to step in and stop it. First with words, then with force if protection is needed. That will usually result in them being faced with situations where they have to summon courage.
Rule Number Three: Teach them skills. I was an athlete growing up. I played sports all the time. Baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, swimming. I lived and breathed it. I spent most of my time as a child practicing or playing some sport. And it was a lot of fun. The only problem was that, when I graduated high school, sports ended for me. While I was strong academically, I couldn’t change a tire, shoot a gun, paint a room, hang picture, or cook a meal. In short, I really wasn’t capable of much beyond sports, speaking, and book work. There was a time in history when every man could build a house, stalk, kill, and prepare a meal, and provide for and protect his family. When I graduated college, I couldn’t do any of those things. Simply put, I didn’t have the skills to be a man.
I’m still not great a do-it-yourself stuff around the house, but I can do basic car maintenance, I can cook a bit, I can fish, and I’m learning to hunt. My self-reliance grows every day, and my goal is to teach my boys to be more capable and self-reliant. While no one can be an expert on everything, we can teach our boys to develop skills that will allow them to take care of their families from A-Z in basic ways. That doesn’t mean that they can’t pay to have their brakes fixed or hire professional painters or plumbers, but it means that, at a basic level, they will have the skills to provide housing, food, and protection for their families. And not just via their incomes.
So, teach your boys to hunt. And I don’t just mean to go after trophies. I mean to stalk and kill an animal that they will butcher with their own hands, cook, and eat. Teach them to catch, clean, and prepare fish. Teach them to do basic maintenance and repair work with your vehicle and around the house.
Help them to become comfortable with weapons. Evil men will use weapons to wreak havoc on our society. That has always been the case, and it will not stop any time soon. As a result, good guys must be more skilled with weapons than the bad guys, and this starts by training our boys. Obviously, this must be done in an age appropriate way and with the utmost safety precautions. Don’t give your six-year-old a semiautomatic handgun. Bring them along for shooting practice and progress towards them shooting as they get older. If you’re new to weapons, there are plenty of introductory classes that you and your kids can take together.
Rule Number Four: Help them build friendships. Kids end up being friends with the kids that they live close to, that they go to school with, and that they are in activities with. Friendships are both organic and intentional. Our kids will naturally be drawn to some kids in the neighborhood, on their team, or in their class instead of others. It’s our job to help cultivate those friendships that we believe are worthwhile. If there’s a good kid with a good family that your kid naturally likes, make sure they get opportunities to hang out; be intentional about it. You can’t force or manufacture friendships for them, but you can create opportunities for their relationships to grow.
The best way for this to happen: have strong friendships of your own. This will do two things. First, and most importantly, it will teach your kids that having friends is natural and normal, thus encouraging them to mimic your behavior. Second, your kids can be friends with the children of your friend.
If your child does not have friends, there’s a problem that you, as the father, need to address. It may be that a character flaw in your child; he may need to be less shy, less selfish, less obnoxious, etc. It may be that you need to create for opportunities for him to be around other children. The potential causes and solutions are numerous, but the point is that it’s our responsibility to help our kids have strong friendships, which requires us to identify and address any obstacles.
Rule Number Five: Be a man of purpose and help them find theirs. It’s true that so many things in parenting are “caught, not taught”, meaning that kids learn from watching you, rather than listening to you. I wrote about this phenomenon in this post, emphasizing how it puts tremendous pressure on us as fathers to have our lives together. “Do as I say, not as I do” rarely works, and almost never works over the long term. As a result, our kids need to see us living in pursuit of something larger than ourselves. They need to see us casting a vision and setting a direction for the family, and leading in it through our actions. Last week, I noted that one of the primary pitfalls of parenting was orienting our family around our children because it communicates to the child that he is the most important thing in the family. That burden creates self-centered children who are also insecure. You can avoid that pitfall by articulating and pursuing (you need both words and actions) a purpose that is larger than your family. Doing so communicates to the children that neither you, nor the family, is centered around them, but rather that both are going after something more important than any of them.
This type of living teaches your children that there are things more important than our immediate needs, wants, and interests. It will help them to think of their own lives in terms of a larger purpose, something that they believe to be important and worth pursuing that goes beyond their own needs and desires. It will help them to begin thinking in terms of their own Hero’s Journey. Men and boys who think primarily about their own lives end up leading very small lives, always in pursuit of the next thing that will make them “happy”. Those who think in terms of changing themselves, their tribes, their communities, and their world carry a larger perspective. While that means a heavier burden, it also means more joy, satisfaction, and contentment.
So, find your purpose and live it passionately and faithfully in front of your children. Your boys will be inspired to live similarly. One of the biggest problems with “millennials” is their lack of direction, their aimlessness. Combat that by both modeling and teaching a life of purpose. As your boys get older, help them identify their own. Almost no one knows their grand, life purpose at 13. Many don’t know it at 50. But that doesn’t stop us from identifying small missions and callings to pursue, even at a young age.
So, in summary, while there’s no roadmap that answers every parenting question, we can reverse engineer a path gives our kids a better chance of living a life of deep contentment and that makes the world better. Obviously, we want to build good character and values into our kids. But, we must also build masculinity into our boys. A child who becomes a strong, courageous man who is skillful and connected to other men in pursuit of a meaningful purpose is well-equipped to live a life that brings happiness, contentment, and satisfaction to his soul and that makes everything around him better. It’s our job to help them get there. This is the man’s life.
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