Have you ever browsed through a family photo collection and seen photos of a boy taken over the course of many years, from babyhood through to young manhood? If you have, you’ll know that boys don’t grow up in a smooth way. They go in surges—looking the same for a year or two, then suddenly seeming to change overnight. And that’s only on the outside. On the inside, great changes are happening, too. But developing maturity and character aren’t as automatic as physical growing. A boy can get stuck. Everyone knows at least one man who is large in body but small in mind or soul. He just hasn’t developed as a mature person. Such men are everywhere—they might be rich, powerful, a president, or a tycoon, but you look at them and think, Yep, still a boy. And not a very nice one.
Boys don’t grow up well if you don’t help them. You can’t just shovel in cereal, provide clean T-shirts, and expect him to one day wake up as a man! You need to follow a certain programme. The trick is to understand what is needed—and when.
Luckily, boys have been around for a very long time. Every society in the world has encountered the challenge of raising boys and has come up with solutions. The three stages of boyhood are timeless and universal. Native Americans, the San tribe of the Kalahari, Australian Aborigines—all knew about these stages. We know them from science - hormone studies and brain imaging. And from observation - whenever I talk about these stages with parents, they say, “That’s right!” because the stages match their experience. They just hadn’t thought about it before.
Here are the stages at a glance:
- The first stage of boyhood is from birth to six—the span of time when the boy primarily belongs to his mother. He is “her” boy, even though his father may play a very big role, too. The aim at this age is to give strong love and security, and to “switch a boy on” to life as a warm and welcoming experience.
- The second stage includes the years from six to fourteen—when the boy, out of his own internal drives, starts wanting to learn to be a man, and looks more and more to his father for interest and activity. (Though his mother remains very involved, and the wider world is beckoning, too.) The purpose of this stage is to build competence and skill while developing kindness and playfulness, too—becoming a balanced person. This is the age when a boy becomes happy and secure about being male.
- Finally, the years from fourteen to adult—when the boy needs input from male mentors if he is to complete the journey into being fully grown up. Mum and Dad step back a little, but they must organize some good mentors in their son’s life or he will have to rely on an ill-equipped peer group for his sense of self. The aim is for your son to learn skills, responsibility, and self-respect by joining more and more with the adult community.
It’s worth noting that these stages do not indicate a sudden or sharp shift from one parent to another. It’s not like there’s the mum stage, then the dad stage, and then the mentor stage. For instance, an involved dad can do a huge amount from birth onward, or even take the role a mother usually has if need be. And a mother doesn’t quit when a boy reaches six. Quite the opposite. The stages indicate a shift of emphasis: that the father comes to the fore more from six through fourteen, and the importance of mentors increases from fourteen onward. In a sense, it’s about adding on the new ingredients at each stage.
“It’s clear that fathers of boys from six to fourteen must not be busy workaholics or absent themselves emotionally or physically from the family”
The three stages help us know what to do. For example, it’s clear that fathers of boys from six to fourteen must not be busy workaholics or absent themselves emotionally or physically from the family. If they do, this will certainly damage their boys. (Yet most fathers of the twentieth century did just that—as many of us remember from our own childhoods.)
The stages tell us that we need to bring in extra help from the community when our sons are in their mid-teens—the role that family members (uncles and grandfathers) or the tradesman-apprentice relationship used to take. Too often, teenagers move outward into the big world but no one is there to catch them, and they spend their teens and early adulthood in a dangerous halfway stage with only peers to depend on.
It’s probable that many problems with boys’ behaviour—poor school motivation, depression, and getting into strife with the law (drunk driving, fighting, crime, and so on) - develop because we haven’t known about these stages and haven’t provided the right human ingredients at the right times. The stages are so important that we must consider them in great detail and decide how to respond.
READ Raising Boys in the 21st Century by Steve Biddulph (Thorsons)
WATCH Steve’s parenting talks at stevebiddulph.com
Shona Hampel (founder of themodeladvocate.com) has three children, two boys and a girl and has found Steve’s teachings so useful in understanding her sons. She explains how important it is to raise sons to respect women.
“I am not looking forward to this time, but apparently at around age 14, a boy realises he is bigger and stronger than his mother and the penny drops: “she cannot make me do it”. Hitherto unquestioned household tasks like clearing his plates after dinner or tidying his bedroom might be met with a surly manner and disrespectful attitude. This is where a father needs to step in: “Don’t speak to your mother with that tone of voice”. He needs to send the message to the mother: “I’m with you; we’re in this together and I won’t leave you to do this alone”. A lot of men make huge mistakes at this point. A man siding with his son with talk of “why are you making such a big deal of it” is the worst possible response, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how marriage and co-parenting works: You stay on the same side and never undermine each other. A father who undermines his wife constantly is not raising his sons correctly.
What about single mothers? One third of British mothers are raising sons alone. Steve says they can do this really successfully – and it is preferable to raising sons with an undermining partner. What is crucial is that she finds a male role model, a grandfather, uncle, teacher, friend. Her sons need to know how to be a man, or in Steve’s words “what a good man looks like”. He needs someone to watch and emulate. She needs to look at her life, choose that man wisely and make sure he is around every so often. Behaviour modelling is very real – your children will always follow more what you do than what you tell them to do. Be the people you want your children to become.”