Once upon a time, when my youngest boy was about 18 years old, we were walking together and he asked me, “Dad, what does masculinity mean to you?”

A loaded question. I sensed that he was aware that he was growing into manhood but was unsure what it meant to be a man – and not a boy – and whether he was there yet. I didn’t want to affirm popular stereotypes of masculinity, such as sex appeal, power, popularity, and aggressiveness.

After some thought, I said, “A real man is a person of strong character. Anyone can be physically strong, but a real man is strong as a person. Life is challenging. A real man does the hard things. He does the right things.”

In a sense, I’ve been writing my answer to this question ever since. Much later, after my son reached middle age, I reminded him of this incident. He laughed. “Yeah, I remember you gave me some generic answer.”

“But do you feel that you became the man you wanted to be? When did you finally feel you were really a man and no longer a boy? Was there something in your life that convinced you to feel that way?”

We had a most interesting conversation. In our so-called modern world, powerful rites of passage no longer exist to effectively initiate young people into the adult community, with its roles, responsibilities, and privileges. As a result, many men his age still aren’t sure of their manhood. They aren’t sure what it means to be fully mature or whether they’ve achieved this status.

I recently reread a classic poem that has always been a favorite of mine. If I had had the presence of mind to do so, I could have given it to my son when he was 18. It’s by Rudyard Kipling.


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Growing into manhood – or womanhood – also means learning to use good judgment while building a life and career. This is the overall theme of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

You can grow the bond with your child through better listening. Download the FREE ebook, Listening to Understand.