From Boys to Men

Dr. JBy Dr. Charlie Johnson

I have worked with pre-adolescent and adolescent males, primarily African-American, but other racial and ethnic groups as well, for more than 25 years. In my 15 years at The Kingsbury Center, I have specialized in working with those who have some sort of learning disability, be it a struggle to read, despite average intelligence; or slow processing, which inhibits the ability to work in “real time”; or internal distractions, like attention or anxiety, which make it challenging to be an effective learner, both in terms of academics and in appropriate social and emotional functioning. My overarching goal is to help these boys successfully transition to manhood. What I have observed in emerging young men over the years leads me to share my personal perspective on a phenomenon that causes me great concern: too many young men are not being successfully “launched.”

I think everyone would agree that a parent’s primary directive is to prepare their young for independent, adult functioning. This is true for humans, lions, tigers, bears, and even birds. Eagles (our Kingsbury mascot) learn by instinct to nest, fly, hunt and establish families of their own. The thought of an adult eagle returning to the nest or never actually leaving would be strange indeed. Many of you may be protesting already, humans aren’t the same as other animals; we have frontal lobes, complex language and social structures. Humans don’t give birth in a nest of sticks, and we try to stay warmly connected to our parents throughout our lives. In addition, humans are, well, human, and these are tough times to be a young adult; just ask any un- or under-employed millennial. I can’t argue with that, but I still believe my concern is valid.

In most cases, young African American men are “loved” to be sure, but too few are provided the opportunity to learn the tasks necessary for flying, hunting, and building and establishing their own nest. The maternal instinct is a powerful force, to be sure. There is an old saying, “mothers rear their daughters and love their sons.” Translation: mothers teach their daughters the subtle and complex tasks needed to function as adults. On the other hand, in many cases, mothers go about the daily task of nurturing and loving their sons, and for various reasons, neglect the valuable training they consider vital for daughters.

Mothers are probably huffing with indignation about now, but please hear me out. I’ll readily admit, rearing sons is no easy task, particularly for single parents. Truth be told, many mothers, often without consistent paternal support, are charged with the task of doing double duty, and may think that “teaching him to be a man” is not within their skill set, or even their right. They love, nurture and guide their sons to the best of their abilities. Yet, generally speaking, mothers are loathe to push their sons out of the nest. I personally know this to be true; I’m the fifth of six sons. And as a father, I feel the “maternal” press to love and nurture and protect my precious son. It isn’t easy to make someone you love uncomfortable, particularly when that someone is in a highly vulnerable category. We’ve all heard the statistics: young African American males are XX% (pick a statistic) more likely to be killed/shot/incarcerated than are their white counterparts.

I see a lot of young men in a state of arrested development. They are deathly afraid of attempting to fly, even with the benefit of a safety net that extends to the ground below. Far too many can be found scurrying about on the ground, chests puffed out, boasting about what their parents have acquired or regaling all willing to endure their tales of yet to be realized po-ten-tial. Their boasting, posturing and bravado notwithstanding, the common denominator is fear. They won’t admit it, but these young men are afraid.  They are afraid of failure to be sure, but they are also afraid of success. From the perspective of one who hasn’t truly developed the ability to bounce back, or even the experience of falling and attempting to get up, failure confirms an enduring sense of ineptitude. Success is equally frightening, in the sense that it establishes a standard of expected performance.

The irony is that boys, or men in training, if you will, need the very experiences that they dread. It is of course best if they have fathers or other men who model and mirror effective manhood. They also desperately need a healthy dose of trial and error, false starts and even the anxiety inherent in attempting something new. Will they experience frustration, rage and embarrassment? Of course, they will. However, helping our children learn to persevere in the face of frustration is one of the greatest gifts that a parent could ever offer.

In education, teachers look for a “sweet spot” of instruction where the level of difficulty on a given task is enough to challenge, but not so difficult that the student becomes frustrated, overwhelmed and gives up. Equally important, the task can’t be so easy that the child becomes bored and quits. Our charge as parents, educators and psychologists is to become more proficient at identifying and implementing the “sweet spot.” Once identified, it is exactly the place where love, nurturance and encouragement are needed most and have the greatest impact. Young boys need to “pursue, persevere and master” in order to become powerful, competent and effective men.

Every mother no doubt envisions her baby boy growing into a fine young man one day. This transition to successful adulthood doesn’t happen automatically, and doesn’t happen without a properly supportive parent. A mother’s role, in fact, will become more challenging, as the years go by. Whether it’s climbing, jumping, bouncing, touching everything within reach or “conquering” the last “boss” in a video game, boys “need” to be active, engaging, impactful forces in their environments. The desire to be an effective change agent atrophies or takes on less desirable forms if certain interpersonal, coping, problem-solving and self-advocacy muscles aren’t “stressed” incrementally in a loving, systematic manner.

Unfortunately, there is truth to the old sports adage: No Pain (struggle), No Gain. Sometimes, love has to be tough love. In future posts I will explore how we can provide these young guys with what they need. Here’s to our boys becoming confident, powerful, competent men!

3 thoughts on “From Boys to Men

  1. Great post, Dr. Johnson. Fear is a great driving factor on both parent and child side to be sure. Thanks for paragraph #6…the heart of the matter and particularly timely for our household.


  2. Dr. Charlie Johnson says:

    Thank you kindly, Mike. Parenting boys is a challenge unlike any other.. Definitely not for the faint of heart…


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