By Stephen James

Much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the quest a boy must take in order to become a man is a treacherous journey. Every boy will face physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. While there are plenty of external changes to observe, what happens on a heart level is much more important. How a father engages a boy's heart directly affects who he will grow into as a man.

We as men have something essential and unique to offer our boys in their quest of manhood, and any father, step-father, or grandfather must take this call seriously. Boys don’t come with blueprints or instruction manuals.

Like it or not, nurturing a boys heart is much more akin to growing a tree than it is to constructing a building. There isn’t a list of steps to take that will have our sons turn out the way we want. Who they are meant to be is already written in to their hearts, and our responsibility as fathers to discern it and help nurture it out of them.

How a father engages a boy's heart directly affects who he will grow into as a man.

At their core, boys have one question they ask of their parents over and over throughout their lives: “Will you grow up with me?” This question of the boys’ heart does not ever go away (though it can be muffled and stifled). As beings created for relationship, boys are asking for a companion guide on the quest for themselves.

The Scriptures remind us that all children are a gift from God. Boys bear a unique image of our wild, playful, and imaginative Creator. Boys are also proof that God has a pretty good sense of humor. Boys are a different breed. Boys are often a little squirrelly, unpredictable, and hard headed. Most of the time they require a different approach from what we would take with girls.

Because of their unique design, you can’t tame a boy—in fact it’s dangerous and damaging when you try to. However, there is a framework we can use when it comes to nurturing our sons. One that is much more focused on his character than his performance. This framework takes into account first the path a boy must walk, who the boy is uniquely created to be, and finally our role as fathers.

There is no such thing as a self-made man—there are self-made survivors, but no boy becomes a noble man of character on his own. He needs the help of engaged, older men (ideally his father).

Understanding a Boy's Heart

You don’t need a PhD. in developmental psychology, but a dad does need to become a student of his son and of his own story. Having an effective framework for fathering sons begins with understanding the path a boy must take on this quest to manhood. We have an advantage as a father of having grown up in the skin of a boy. But it’s been a while since we were boys, and we have to know what’s happening in his development at different stages.

The reason so many men struggle relationally, professionally, and spiritually, is not a lack of intelligence, will power, or morality. It’s the effects of not having reached key developmental milestones, of being rushed through one stage to another; or simply skipping entire stages altogether.

There are five different stages a boy has to pass through in order to become a man of heart. Understanding these stages is paramount.

  1. The Explorer (ages 2-4)
  2. The Lover (ages 5–8)
  3. The Individual (ages 9–12)
  4. The Wanderer (ages 13–17)
  5. The Warrior (ages 18–22)

Boys need different measures of things at different times in their lives. What a boy needs at age 5 (boundaries for example), doesn’t go away when he is older. It’s just that he might need more of something else when he is 7 (like redirection) or at age 10 (involvement with dad).

That may sound obvious, but one common mistake fathers make is that they parent using the wrong things at the wrong ages. They don’t understand what’s going on developmentally.

Explorer (ages 2-4)

In the Explorer stage, boys need to feel a man’s physical presence. He need hugs, kisses, and cuddles for long periods of time. Boys need to experience the tender side of masculinity. This can be difficult for some dads, but is really important. This kind of interaction builds a sense of safety, security, and comfort. Likewise, Explorer Boys also need to wrestle, so they can begin to feel and test their emerging strength. It also burns off some of their endless energy.

Explorers also need to feel his fathers strength in the support of his mother. How a husband treats his wife will lay a foundation of respect or disrespect that he will draw on later in his teens.

Lover (ages 5-8)

To engage the Lover means to play close attention. It’s in this stage that much of a boys personality will emerge, and he needs his dad to identify it and explore it with him. It’s important dads don’t pigeon hole their boys as x or y kind of kid. As much as possible, at this stage of development, a boy needs to be exposed to a wide range of experiences—indoors and out. The focus needs to be more on enjoyment not competition. This doesn’t mean boys can’t compete. They will and should.

But before age 8 or 9, a boy’s primary agenda should be having fun, exploring, developing, and gaining confidence. The key word for kids this age is FUN—not win. This is also the age where a dad can teach a son to connect with his heart. Just like Explorers, Lovers need physical connection with dad, but Lovers also need to feel their father’s emotional presence.

Boys need to see and experience that emotions belong in the life of man. Men who are a flat emotionally, are dangerous fathers raising boys who will lack wisdom.

The Individual (ages 9–12)

As a boy transitions from the Lover he moves into the Individual. For a dad to engage the Individual well, he will need to be expand his repertoire. Boys at this age need to know they are a force to be reckoned with. It’s a father’s job to call out a son’s strength. Not just physical, athletic strengths but also emotional, artistic, relational, and spiritual strengths. At this stage there is no such thing as a boy thinking too highly of himself. He needs to know you see his strengths and value them.

One thing dads need to look for, underline, and validate at this age is emotional vulnerability. For instance if an Individual son comes to you with a challenge with a friend, coach, sibling, teacher, along with helping him develop his own solutions to the problem, be sure to recognize and affirm his willingness to be honest about his own weaknesses and struggles.

This kind of positive reinforcement will help they two of you keep the lines of communication open in the next—and maybe most difficult stage—The Wanderer

» This is the first post in a 2 part series on fathering sons. To view Part 2, click here. «
Stephen-JamesStephen James is the Executive Director of Sage Hill Counseling and the best-selling author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. He earned his master’s in Counseling from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Stephen is a contributor to 33 The Series, Volume 6: A Man and His Fatherhood. He and his wife live in Nashville, TN and have four children together. You can follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenbjames.

For more insight on fatherhood, get 33 The Series Volume 6: A Man and His Fatherhood.

View the Video and Training Guide for Session 1 of A Man and His Fatherhood.

CLICK HERE to view all 33 The Series resources.

BONUS VIDEO: View the trailer for A Man and His Fatherhood