Many men have difficulty helping their son’s transition into manhood and some find themselves disappointed to see that their sons are not handling it well. I’ll leave this post with minimal introduction – it is a copy of a letter I wrote for my son on his 18th birthday as part of an effort to help my own son in this transitional time (posted with his permission).
It’s hard to believe you are turning eighteen. It has been an incredible pleasure to watch you grow up. I can tell you that it has been hard sometimes to see you struggle and get hurt, but really cool to watch you do well. I sometimes think you have had more victories in your life than you know. There are many times when I’ve seen you do things, like your volunteer work or just being kind and respectful to other folks, that make me dance in my heart and silently shout “Whoo-hoo! That’s my boy!” I don’t say these out loud all the time because I don’t want to swell your head too much, and also because you’d complain about me embarrassing you.
I’ve read in a number of books that it’s important for a father to officially recognize their son as “a man” – to let him know that he has been found worthy. On one hand I like this idea, on the other hand it has made me ponder what it really means to be a man. At what point do you meet all the criteria?
The main criteria of being a man that I hear most often is that a man is someone who can stand alone – stand on their own two feet without having to depend on anyone. I’ve spent plenty of time in my life feeling like I’m standing alone, and you know what? It’s a pretty lonely place to be. The happiest, most successful men I know, are not afraid to step out and make decisions and, more importantly, they always take full responsibility for their own choices and decisions. These men also keep themselves well connected with close friends and family. They have taught themselves how to open up and be transparent with their friends and they lean on them for support, friendship, & companionship. Of course, it is important to choose these friends wisely: the friend who is the most fun at parties, may not be the right person to go to when you need to work through a challenging life issue.
While a successful man knows how to depend on his friends, co-workers, and family, that doesn’t mean that he should be dependent on them. A real man knows how to develop a vision for his life, then, usually through hard experience, learns how to overcome his fears and doubts and strive to achieve that vision. (Wise men also learn how to adjust their visions as they grow.)
One of the biggest challenging life issues you begin to face as you move into your adult years is the lack of cheerleading and recognition you will get. It’s been fun watching you do so well in the various sports you’ve played, and it has been fun watching you bring home trophies and awards. Likewise, in your schoolwork, I’ve been proud to watch you do your best (ok – I know you goof off sometimes), and to get the recognition for your efforts. Growing up, these achievements have been recognized.
As you move into the work world, you will find that frequently your achievements are not recognized. Many managers take the attitude that they expect excellence, and so they don’t feel any need to show appreciation when they get it from you. Many men (and a fair number of women), are competitive and feel that giving any sort of recognition will somehow give you a leg-up on them. It can be especially difficult when you have a boss or a customer that simply doesn’t like your style of doing things or really doesn’t have any appreciation for the work you are doing. You will certainly face all of these situations at some point in your career. In fact, as you get older, it is rare to have people at work celebrate your successes.
As you move forward into adulthood and move out into the world, it is essential to center your sense of happiness on something other than the feedback you will get at work. It is important to always strive to live your life in such a way as to be proud of yourself. This is why I’ve shared with you many times the need to always live your life with integrity. There will be many times when you will have the opportunity to cheat and cut corners on your integrity, but the few bucks here and there that you might be able to add to your wallet will never take the place of losing your ability to be proud of yourself.
Ultimately, it is important to ground your sense of value in that fact that God made you as a wonderful and perfect person. By perfect, I don’t mean faultless. I think God has built into us just enough faults so that we have to learn to depend on each other: this is part of our perfection.
The college years are a time when many people start to move away from God. This happens for a number of reasons. One is that you begin to pick up enough skills to stand on your own and you start to think that you no longer need to depend on God’s help to survive. Another is that in college you will learn how to view the world in a logical and rational way – they teach you that there is a scientific answer for everything. Many people lose touch with God in college simply because life is too busy to spend any time thinking about Him. Some people push God aside because they want to party and misbehave, and they cannot allow a God into their lives that comes with all these restrictive “rules”. Finally, as a child, although you have learned of God, you may never have known God.
I’d love to spend time talking to you about these things when you are ready. In the meantime, I hope you understand that God has been around the block a few times. He understands young adults – He is, in fact, the ultimately cool dad (He truly is eleven cool). I’ve got lots of rational reasons for my faith, but ultimately, I’d have to say that there have been several times when I’ve felt God working through me and this is what has helped me to just know. So my advice, if you can remember it, is that if you wake up one morning and find that you have drifted away and life is getting hard, reach out and find yourself a couple of Christian men who can re-introduce you to His life giving Spirit.
In this letter, I’ve shared with you that the world can be lonely and recognition starved. I’d encourage you to let God work through you and be the kind of person who always seeks to make the world a little less lonely and recognition starved for those around you. Instead of looking at the folks around you as competition, look for ways of helping them to succeed, look for ways of making them feel encouraged. The truth is, over the long haul, this habit will help you to be truly successful. People like to be around people who make them look and feel good and while many people like to be team members, not many take the time and energy to learn how to be good team builders. Teach yourself how to encourage and uplift other folks, and you will have learned how to build a team.
A friend of mine recently pointed out a verse in the Bible, 1 Timothy 4:12 (“1 Timothy” was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to his younger disciple) that reads: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. As people get older, they invariably create for themselves a worldview and then they put the world into it: in other words, they come to think they have everything figured out. You’ll meet guys in life who will share with you their view on things and usually do so with the hopes that you will start to see things their way as well and also that you will recognize how smart and wise they are (again, people crave recognition). It is always good to listen and learn from these people, but also recognize the wisdom in Paul’s words. It’s not good to just accept another persons world view (except your father’s of course), but rather consider it carefully and understand the reasoning behind it. Myself, I’m starting to come to believe that the world is too complex for any of us to really comprehend so we create for ourselves worldviews that are simplified to the point that we can function in our day to day lives. It’s good to recognize this because it helps us to be considerate of other people’s views because we know that when we judge them through the eyes of our own simplified view, we are doing them an injustice. Don’t misunderstand my cautions here though, men need to learn from each other and need mentors in life and at work. You just need to take responsibility for your own choices in what you will believe.
I’ve been struggling for some time trying to decide what to write in this letter, what bits of wisdom to pass on to you as you are launching your journey into manhood. One of the reasons I wrote Essence of Wisdom for Parents was to leave a legacy of those things that I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, for my children. There’s a lot of depth in some of those one-liners. I hope as you get older, you give it a read every once in a while. Through this letter, through the book, and through many of our conversations, I keep trying to find all the right things to say to help you succeed in life, but in the end, you are just going to have to do it yourself, and you know what? I think you will do pretty well.
You know that you, son, have made the job about as easy as it could be for a father. I continue to be immensely proud of you – for what you have accomplished, but more importantly, for who you are. You know that I have told you this before and I know that I will tell you again. I have seen you grow into a kind, considerate, caring, industrious, and handsome young man. (And I’m not just saying that last bit because you look like me.)
I can tell you easily that I don’t think I could be any more proud of you, or pleased with how you have grown up. Like God, I’ve been around the block a little myself, and I know that there are probably a few things in your past that I am not aware of, but I know that’s the nature of life. When the statue of limitations is up, I hope to have the opportunity to sit around a cup of coffee sometime and hear the stories. Perhaps I’ll share a few of my own.
As usual, I’ve been able to find shades of gray where most others see black and white. So let me end by clearly saying that yes, I am proud of the man you have become. I cannot image being more excited to give this kind of stamp of approval. I hope that as we move forward in life together, you will continue to let me share in it, because I can tell you it has been a great pleasure so far.
PS: Learn how to hug!