Recently I’ve been teaching about boys and the challenges they face these days as they try to launch into becoming good men. Parents are concerned about boys’ lack of initiative, about their seeming inability to take on responsibility and the twin element of entitlement. Then parents are confounded by how many guys (and girls for that matter) seem to be disinterested in driving, reluctant to take drivers ed…the former path to HUGE independence. It does leave one scratching their head, wondering!

While there are many contributing factors, I see a few which go together and have some ideas on how to counter them. Here are some things I think parents may be able to initiate:

Speak about your boy’s coming independence, about the good stuff, the fun stuff about it AND link it to his increasingly taking responsibility. If you stop and think about it, learning to take responsibility is a baby step – baby step – baby step sort of deal. First he’s responsible for little stuff, gets that right; then he is given responsibility for bigger stuff, gets that right; then bigger, bigger….. Already I can hear parents lamenting, “But what if he doesn’t do the stuff he’s responsible for?”

I’d like to say here that privilege and responsibility are two horses yoked into the same yoke: they must walk side by side. If one of them is a teency step ahead, it would be demonstrating responsibility before getting the privilege. If our boy isn’t accepting responsibility, we don’t give the concomitant privilege. You do not get screen time until your work is done. You don’t get a phone if you’re not managing your workload well. Why would I give you MORE privileges if you’re not handling what you’ve got so far? And, back to our first point, “my dear boy, I’m pretty sure you’d like me out of managing your business. I’d like that too. When YOU manage it, I WILL get out. This is what that would look like…(enumerate stuff he’d need to manage that you’d like to not manage).” We sometimes forget that his goal (getting us out of his day to day life management) is the same as ours! But sometimes we focus so much of responsibilities that we forget to remind him of the good stuff about independence: getting to drive to school; getting to choose when he’ll do his work…assuming it’s in a timely, effective manner; getting to make decisions about his own future.

Learning about money is another huge aspect of independence. Basically, it boils down to three steps: first, I have to pay for stuff (think of your two year old trying to walk out of the store with a pack of gum but having to pay for it first). Step two: I have the ability to earn money. There’s something I can do which the world values and will pay me to do. A secondary part of this is that some actions get paid better than others…likely the ones which you have to have some expertise to do. In other words, fixing computers gets more money than bagging groceries. You can work less and earn more if you know stuff of value. The third and very important lesson is: delaying gratification, saving or investing money allows you to get the big stuff you want. We’ll often see young kids squander away their allowance until that day it dawns on them that if they want that big thing, they’ll have to hold onto their money. It has been my observation that kids in affluent communities are slow to learn this final lesson…mainly because their families give them too much stuff, often too soon. It’s so tempting…after all, you love that kid, he wants it, you have to ability to get it for him. Why make him wait? (I’ll tell an excellent story about that in my next blog) But if we don’t give him that big thing, if we allow him to experience of earning it for himself. What he learns is far more valuable, far more satisfying than merely having the thing! He’s learned that he can count on himself to get what it is he wants in the world. A bit like: Give a man a fish, he eats today. Teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

Doing good for their communities is a third lesson that teen boys are missing today. We are concerned that teens are so self-centered, that their energies go into gaming and other soul-bleaching pursuits. It is curious to me that at exactly the time in their lives when their bodies are growing stronger and bigger every day, that at exactly the time they really ARE MORE able than they’ve been, we don’t have a way to put them to good use. This is, in fact, the first time in the history of the planet that when a boy is as big as his mom, he DOESN’T go to work with the men in his community. Up until this point in human history, boys worked on the farm, in the saw mill, onboard the boat…whatever the men in their community did, they did too. They learned, got more reliable until the day when they could work independently or take over their family’s work. In what ways today are boys able to get that practice at being men, doing men’s work? Most boys don’t even mow their family’s lawns anymore! Much less work for the betterment of their larger communities, helping the poor, helping the elderly, helping those who need their strength and energy.

So imagine how pleased I was recently, while suffering a back injury, wondering how in the world I was going to rake my lawn…three times before winter comes… and my doorbell rang. It was a fifteen year old boy from down the street and his buddy. Could he rake my lawn? I got my husband to do the negotiations. Not only could they do the front but the back yard as well…and for more than they’d offered to charge. My husband must have been delighted to get that chore off his list. I offered that I’d like them bagged in compostable bags, for sale at the nearby grocery…I’d drive them and pay for the bags. As we drove home I asked what they’d do with their earnings. One said he hoped to get enough saved up to invest…he’d heard that was a good idea. The other said he was thinking about what he’d get his sibs for Christmas gifts. Both replies sounded like good progress toward financial learning.

The boys worked earnestly (but with chatting breaks along the way). They did a pretty good work and I suspect learned more about the effort needed to do this job. Not having to do it myself, to risk my back further injury, I was delighted and told them how grateful I was for their strong backs and willingness to help me. They beamed and seemed to grow about six inches before my eyes. As fas as I could tell, no parent initiated their seeking work for pay. No adult managed them or directed how they went about their work. At the end, I imagine they were tired, and very happy to be done. But I hope they know, that they experienced the growing up, the baby-step forward which they took toward maturity. How wise their parents were to step away and allow their boys to make progress, to seek out work, to do it and to get paid.

It might not look like much except boys raking but I can assure them, it is so much more! I wonder if they’ll be back for the next raking in a few weeks!