When Does A Boy Become A Man?

Two ol' heads schoolin' a young buck on lessons in manhood.
Two ol’ heads schoolin’ a young buck on lessons in manhood.à

by: Don G / @lbdStreetFashion

At what point in a boy’s life does he become a man?

As a father of two young boys, I thought about how to properly answer this question for many years. When will I see them as men and how do I help their journey through manhood to reach that point? Also, is it my place to acknowledge that transition to manhood or is it up to other men in the community to initiate the necessary mentoring processes? In our modern culture, what are traditional milestones and rites of passage a boy must fulfill to be accepted in the brotherhood of men?

Julius Lee Brown posing with family on his Graduation Day from Nursing School at The University of Central Florida
Julius Lee Brown posing with family on his Graduation Day from Nursing School at The University of Central Florida

For the last 21 years or so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the relationship between fatherhood and manhood. I grew up in a single parent home and at the age of 16 I left that home to seek out my own place to call home. In the areas of manhood, fatherhood, self-growth, and interpersonal relationships, I grew significantly over the past two decades. However, I still can’t quite work out what got me to the point where I became a man.

Was it the moment I moved out at 16, joining the military at 19, having my first child at 21, or experiencing my first divorce at 24. Maybe it was a combination of all those things that created experiences which shaped my path into manhood.

Joseph Vernon Freeman with his sons David Lee Freeman and Joseph Vernon Freeman Jr
Joseph Vernon Freeman with his sons David Lee Freeman and Joseph Vernon Freeman Jr

From the earliest days of my childhood till I became a teenager, I was taught how a man should be. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles did not spare the rod with those lessons either. They set examples for my brothers, my cousins, and me in what it meant to be honorable, mentally and physically strong, hard working, people. We weren’t shown any special treatment in my family and if it was one thing we learned it was that both sexes had to work equally as hard in our family.

Joseph Vernon Freeman and his great-grandkids
Joseph Vernon Freeman and his great-grandkids

Everyday, especially on weekends, my grandparents put our young vigor to use. We were up before the rooster working in the fields, out cutting grass, in the woods cutting trees, feeding the livestock, or turning a wrench on a vehicle. My grandparents taught us how to make lye soap, chop wood, play the piano, hunt and skin deer, kill and smoke pigs, cook collard greens, bake cakes, kill snakes, pick berries, make herbal medicine, and raise all sorts of pets.

In those years I learned to live purposefully and to appreciate a hard days work for its own glory. Maybe that was where my path began with regards to my journey from boy to man. I learned to have respect for my elders (cherishing their stories of how things use to be and their knowledge and wit when it came to experiencing a full and happy life). As a teenager I made many mistakes in relationships with women, but what teenage boy doesn’t. Sparing you the omitted details, I will just move on.

I believe that those experience in my youth had a lot to do with the fact that I had relationships with men I could look to as mentors. They showed me the ropes and taught me about manhood and responsibility and maturity. My father wasn’t present to teach me in his own way, but I still had men in my life that were willing to step up in his place. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know much about him, but I believe that his relationship with his own father wasn’t likely very close or supportive either, and that transferred to our relationship.

Colonel Cecil Eason, US Air Force, Retired
Colonel Cecil Eason, US Air Force, Retired

Thankfully I saw a glimpses of who I could be in other men who were not emotionally distant, men like Colonel Cecil Eason. He represented the highest standards of integrity and challenged me daily to hold myself to those same values. I respected him because he always held me accountable and placed me into leadership positions where I had to think and act with compassion and dedication. His guidance lead me to join the Air Force and many of the values that this man instilled in my youthful mind, still shape my worldview to this day.

My son, Kevin Christopher Brown
My son, Kevin Christopher Brown

With my two sons I’ve been trying to imagine how I could avoid that same mistake in my own life, as I have one son who will be 13 and another who will turn 1 soon. The older one lives with his mother, so I don’t get to see him very often due to the physical distance between us, but I very much wish to be able to guide and mentor him as he goes through the trials and challenges of growing up.

The younger one lives with my current wife and I, and I spend everyday watching him grow into a younger (better) version of me. My sons live very different lives, and I know that even though I love them greatly, I’m limited in my ability to do much for either in terms of teaching them or showing them by example how I was raised.

My son, Malcolm Jorn`e Brown
My son, Malcolm Jorn`e Brown

For some traditional cultures, it is the uncles or grandparents who are the guiding force for young men – the boy’s father is often too close to be able to truly teach him without it being tainted by his power as a father. I tend to agree with that form of mentor-ship due to my experiences with my aunts, uncles and grandparents. They have taught me so much – even those not part of my immediate family.

Many boys lack rituals in their lives. They learn from sports coaches or scoutmasters, pastors or guidance councilors, video games or the TV. I learned the value of rituals through church services, Muslim daily prayer, marching band, ROTC, military training, and through the process of becoming a Mason.

For most boys, there are no rituals taught to help them transition to manhood. They are less likely to be held accountable for their actions. Rituals that teach boys to become men are most effective when they teach boys to stop relying on others, so that others can start relying on them.

I think that manhood involves establishing traits of masculinity, but nowadays these ways are not celebrated or recognized by our society except through such tokens as a first shave, having sex, getting a driver’s license or a job, going to college, or perhaps joining the military.

Why can’t we raise manliness and manhood to higher levels of importance? Why isn’t it cool to embrace one’s masculinity? Are we as men not ready to ask serious questions of ourselves and to change our lives if necessary? Are we not able to speak to our sons about the lessons we’ve learned (or not learned, as the case may be) and to guide them as friends and as fellow men?

My brother Julius Lee Brown
My brother Julius Lee Brown

So here’s my question to you: When does a boy become a man? What rites of manhood did you go through, or that you are planning for your son?

The ideal man, in my opinion, is the type of man who has answered his birth rite possessing a set of core values gained from cementing a foundation of traits molded by experience, wisdom, making tough decisions, and knowledge of the various forms of education, wealth, maturity, devotion, discipline, honor, respect, and love.

I believe that the true measure of a man is how he handles adversity, and that the transition I speak of is deeply rooted and can only be discovered through experiences, relationships, and challenges faced over time. Along the way, the path is what shapes each man into unique individuals.

My brother, Stephen Megal Harvey
My brother, Stephen Megal Harvey

Holding oneself to a higher standard is a significant part of becoming a man. Sometimes I think not just about the end goal being achieved, I think more critically. Did I achieve it in the best way possible? Did I hold myself to a higher standard than just good enough?

If I were to distill the characteristics that differentiate a boy from a man down to one sentence it would be; “When a boy can become a person that others rely upon, meaning he is a father to his children, a reliable emotional partner to his spouse or significant other, he is financially independent and responsible with his money, and he helps his friends when they are in need, looking to improve the lives and happiness of those around him, that’s the moment he becomes a man.”