October 25, 2014

Protecting Our Young Men From The Call To Jihad

There is a lot of talk in the news today about how young men are being "radicalized" by religious extremists and being seduced into going off to fight wars in foreign lands. It's a sad story to be sure, but it's a very powerful call for young men.

The call to Jihad, at its core, is really the same call young guys hear to join street gangs, to join our military, or even to be on a school sports team. These organizations put out a call to action that matches up perfectly with the psychology and physiology of our adolescent males. What our young guys hear is a call to be a warrior. The surprising thing for me is not that some young men are answering that call, but that even more young men aren't responding to that message.

If we want to prevent our young men from being lost in tragic ways to the warrior call, we have to learn a little about the adolescent male experience, and then come up with alternative activities that really speak to them. Here's a four-item, short course in what I've learned about why our young men are vulnerable to extremist messages or any call to become a warrior.

. . . why our young men are vulnerable
to extremist messages
or any call to become a warrior.

1. The Biological Imperative: From adolescence to around the mid-twenties, young males are biologically vulnerable in at least two ways that set them up for a warrior call to action.

They are experiencing something like seven to ten surges of testosterone a day. Testosterone has been referred to as an aggression hormone, and it causes young males to feel powerful as their muscles are getting stronger and their sexuality is emerging. Testosterone drives a combative nature and hungers for physical activity, testing through competition and physical challenges, to demonstrate skills and prowess. You can see all this working on neighborhood basketball courts or skateboard parks.

The second biological issue is a young male's well researched and poorly wired prefrontal cortex. Simply stated, it's the part of the brain that helps them to think through the consequences of their choices. Sadly, up until the mid-twenties (and possibly beyond), this part of the brain is still under construction and is marginally functional.

If you take this biological picture as a whole, you come up with a very restless young guy, who is feeling powerful beyond reason, who is naturally combative, ready for action, and who isn't thinking clearly about his choices. This is the perfect young warrior.

2. Tribal Nature: Simply stated, guys need a tribe. Men have operated in packs for eons. Look at the fans in any sports stadium. You'll find mostly men, wearing similar colors, and cheering on "their" team. This sense of belonging, membership, and being part of a pack, is very masculine behavior. For the young guys, being part of a tribe, having an identity as a member, is pretty important.


Males also like hierarchies, think of a military or bureaucratic structure. In a hierarchy, the pecking order is clear and a guy's place in the order of things is laid out. Beyond just belonging in a pack, you know your place in the masculine order of things.

Being in a male tribe gives a young man access to the book on manhood. A tribe gives a young man a smorgasbord of men he can look up to for guidance. He's surrounded by masculine role models and men who may teach him important life skills. There may even be a path of testing or ordeals necessary to achieve full membership and acceptance into the group. This is a perfect match with a young man's need for challenges and proving his worthiness.

Tribe = the book on manhood!

Getting blessings from older men and ultimately acceptance into the adult male club, getting a place around the fire, or honored status in the pack, is a big hunger in young men. A Jihadist group, street gang, or football team all meet the young guy hunger for a tribe.

3. Honor, Respect and Contribution: What our young males want is to be seen (at all) and then respected for who they are and for their unique gifts. They want to stand for something, and if it's a good or noble thing all the better. And though you might find it odd, young guys want to contribute, to make a difference, to be in service. After a community service project, I've see young men smile and stand straighter in the sunshine of gratitude expressed by the food shelf staff, habitat house owner, or elder food delivery service.

They want to stand for something. . .

What too many young guys get in our communities today is pressure for invisibility and often no young guy park or guy place to hang out. Their graffiti "art" is criminalized and over-painted as soon as possible. Their appearance is ridiculed and their music often disrespected. They slink around in alleys, the woods, or at the mall trying not to attract negative attention. So if someone offers them honor, respect, and an opportunity to contribute to an important cause, why wouldn't they say "yes."


4. Hope: Too many young men simply don't see any kind of a desirable future. There is little hope for good work, advanced education, or any legal economic success. Without those things, the idea of being a family man, father, provider, husband, are all just distant concepts for other people. So many young men have been fatherless or under-male parented and don't have good role models for any life but the street. Living with chronic hopelessness as the background to your life is sad business and makes angry and resentful young men. If someone shows them a quick path out of that place, and offers some hope of reclaiming self-respect with a few goodies attached, why wouldn't a lost young man choose that path?

There are lots more reasons many of our young men are vulnerable to the call to warrior. Whether or not they make good choices is really up to us. What is clear is that our young men need our support, intentional guidance, positive community, and especially good men around them.

When it comes to Jihad, like Ebola, we don't have to wait till the epidemic of under-male-nourished boys is at our door and starts taking even more of our young men from us. We can start acting now. It's not really that hard to do, we just have to be willing.

If you want to talk about what you, your group, or your community can do four young men, give me a shout and let's talk about what we can create. The young guys are waiting and the time is now!



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October 19, 2014

How to start a Man-Making Movement

I'm all about inspiring others to take the risks of stepping forward to try a man-making activity. From witnessing countless men trying to find a way to show up for young guys, there are two things I know to be absolutely true. The first is that it's really hard for men do it wrong. In fact, when a good man steps forward, it most always leads to making a positive difference in some young guy's life, and him becoming a better man in the process. The second truth is it's really hard for men to get beyond the initial fear of looking bad or sounding foolish.

. . . it's really hard for men do it wrong.

Here is a funny and inspirational video clip that pretty accurately describes what it takes for a man to start a movement. It also shows how, if a person can find the courage to move past his fears, his actions can organically grow into a movement others may join. Look closely to see who, in addition to the guy who takes the first big step, shows up to make the big difference between success and failure.

Hope this inspires you to do something in service to yourself, men, and young guys today!


If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

If you want to talk about easy, low-risk, man-making options that may be possible for you, give me a shout and I'll brainstorm with you.

Another thing I also know to be absolutely true is there are young males in your community who are at this moment waiting for you to get up and do something!


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October 11, 2014

President Obama Speaking Truth to Young Men

In the video clip below, President Obama is talking about the My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge he issued in September of 2014. He is speaking to the progress being made in calling men into service to young males. He describes a very long list of organizations, agencies, cities, and businesses that are all starting initiatives in support of (mostly) young men of color.

The President says America is realizing we won't succeed as a country unless our young people are successful, and that's why he's putting out this call to action. It's a beautiful thing to hear, especially for those of us who've been in man-making work for a long time.

What I liked so much is that he leads with his own very personal story of being a fatherless boy and support he got from his single mother and grandparents. It's a familiar story to those of us in the man-making field, but wonderful example of real vulnerability and hard truth-telling from a very powerful man.

. . . a wonderful example of
real vulnerability and hard truth-telling
from a very powerful man.

In the Question and Answer time, the President continues to tell it like it was when he admits to being a young teen male without direction, other than "misplaced goals" focused on basketball. As he got into high school and even in early college, the President confessed he didn't take his opportunities seriously and was "enjoying myself a little bit too much." I really liked his admission that, with all his privileges, many "second chances," and having access to advanced education, he was still very much a lost young man. That condition didn't change for President Obama until his twenties, when the young male brain starts to get better wired. That is when he started to look toward the future and take himself and his life seriously.

. . . the President confessed he was
"enjoying myself a little bit too much."

You will hear the President answer hard questions, like the one about how he learned to be a good father when he only met his dad once when he was 10. He speaks to the values all parents should teach their kids, and the power of an involved father or, for fatherless young guys, the importance of a caring adult man in a young boy's life.

I think the President Obama modeling truth-telling in this video is inspirational. That and the My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge are great gifts to man-making from the President of the United States.


If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

You wouldn't be reading this at all if you didn't already care about what happens to our young men. If you're already working with some young guys, why not share the video with them and get their reactions. It's a powerful call to positive manhood from a very important place.



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September 30, 2014

Rites of Passage for "Tender Warriors"

The Tender Warrior Association (TWA) is a non-profit, group mentoring organization, serving male middle school students, ages 11-14, who are from Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C. TWA is the inspiration of Jeff Robertson, it's Founder and Executive Director. While TWA was incorporated in 2008, Jeff has been on a hero's journey of Man-Making work for the past 20 years. Today, TWA consists of 3 major components, Outdoor Adventure Activities, Ivy League College Tour Program, and a powerful honoring event called the Tribe 7 Ceremony.

Outdoor Adventure Activities: The men and young men meet on the second Saturday of the month for fun and some time for just hanging out. While the activities vary, Jeff believes in getting his young men out into nature as much as possible. On any given Saturday, they may be playing sports, heading out for camping, or hiking. Whatever the activity, there is always time toward the end to circle up for a conversation about some aspect of becoming a man.

The Ivy League College Tour Program: When funds are available, men and the young guys head out to visit new cities and take a look at life on New England college campuses such as Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Their next college visit will be a guided tour of Dartmouth College, including lunch on campus, and tour of the city of Hanover, New Hampshire. As a bonus, they are hoping to tour NBC studios in downtown New York City. These trips provide the young men with a look at the world beyond their communities and always expand their horizons and view of what's possible.

. . . powerful expressions of
acknowledgement, caring, and blessing
are focused on the young man.

The Tribe 7 Ceremony: The Tribe 7 Ceremony happens early in a boy's involvement with TWA. It's a ceremony in which a young man is witnessed and honored for crossing an important line on his journey toward manhood. The family of each young man is supported in finding 7 men from his circle of extended family, friends, faith community, school, or his neighborhood. These men agree to participate in the ceremony and to support the young man in the days and years ahead. Jeff says in a world where men are often absent in many parts of a boy's life, it's sometimes a big challenge for a family to even find 7 men who will step up. However, when the men are found and the Tribe 7 Ceremony is possible, there are powerful expressions of acknowledgement, caring, and blessing focused on the young man. The boy is always deeply moved as are the men and families participating around the edges of the event.


The video below is just a short segment of a Tribe 7 Ceremony. In it you can actually see the ritual working its magic on everyone. The young man, thirteen-year-old Shariff Levine, is at the center of it all, nervous but beaming. The men, sometimes also feeling a little awkward, each have 2 minutes in which to accept and commit to the role of man-maker in Shariff's life, bless the young man, and present him with a special object to which the man has given special meaning. In the ceremony, each of the candles and the swords has special meaning which is explained to the initiate. They represent values such as strength, passion, determination, courage, confidence, and there is even one for the young man's "unknown potential." As you watch, can you begin to feel the power of what these men are focusing on this one young man?



If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

I don't know about you but I was blown away by Jeff giving Shariff a gift of opening a savings account for a college trust fund. It also warmed my male heart to hear the men surrounding Shariff pledge to be there for him as he moves toward manhood. Who among you wouldn't have wanted that in your life as you were entering adolescence?

On September 30th, Jeff Robertson is being honored by the Architect of the Capital for his innovation in creating this group mentoring organization for young boys of color. He is one of my Man-Making heroes and truly deserves all the recognition he gets (and more)! Speaking of more, if you like what Jeff is doing you can donate to his work. The donation request on the TWA website is for $7, but whether it's $7, $70, or $700, you can be sure it will be put right to work setting young men on a positive journey toward manhood. You can reach Jeff at (301) 442-7760 or visit the TWA website at: tenderwarriorjr.org to learn more about their programs.

Trust that you and your men friends
are hardwired . . .for this work . . .

If you are inspired by Jeff's example, gather up some of your men friends and see what you might create for a young man in your world. In addition to Jeff's example and others I've described on this blog, here is a "how to" article describing a passage event I created with some men friends years ago for one of the men's son.

Anything a group of good men
do in support of a young man or group of young men
simply can't fail.

Anything a group of good men do in support of a young man or group of young men simply can't fail. Be prepared for this work to feel a little awkward because it's been so long since this was a normal part of life for men. Trust that you and your men friends are hardwired, deep in your male psyche, for this work and will know the right things to do and say. Be ready to be amazed by the young men's reaction, what happens to your male heart, and the positive reaction from the community around you.

If you have even a little desire to do something and want some guidance, contact me. Right now there is something every man can do in service to young guys. It's time for men to go to work. The boys are waiting and, as men, we do know how to do this!



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September 23, 2014

Boys, Boobs, and Saying "Yes!"

I still remember my first touch of a naked female breast. It was in the back row of a dark movie theatre when I was maybe twelve. I was on an early adolescent date of sorts and I didn't really have a clue about what I was doing. I remember it took all the courage I had to make my way through a long run up of incremental steps to get to the object of my desire . . . that breast. I was with a girl just a little older than me who somehow managed to pretend none of it was happening, didn't say "no," and seemed to like the attention.

The breast, . . . was indeed
wonderful and otherworldly for me . . .

The breast, while it was indeed wonderful and otherworldly for me, was really just another player in the drama. I was already being propelled by my young male biology and in the grip of an ancient gender dance. Up to that moment in my life, I had NO actual experience with breasts or any other element of female anatomy. I also had no real understanding of what was going on in my body. In short, I didn’t know what I was doing or even why I was so magnetized by those breasts. I was simply operating on pure male instinct and loving it.

In my young male world at that time, there were early rumblings about girls' body parts, "scoring," and things vaguely sexual. Those ideas were mostly joked about in my young boy pack. The fact the guys a little older than us were very focused on girls wasn't lost on us, but no one in our age group really had a clue why. We knew something was going on but it was all a vague and exciting mystery.

The internet has changed everything. Today, kids with even a little sexual curiosity can go online and find all the information on the topic they can handle. An unsupervised adolescent male today can easily find enough information to become an amateur gynecologist. The good and the very bad information is all easily available. Because of how much questionable and blatantly bad information about sexuality is out there, adult guidance is even more important now than ever.


Sadly, too many parents are not having "the talk" with their kids . . . in time. A recent survey of parents and their 13 to 17 year-old kids published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (as reported in U.S. News and World Report), speaks directly to the need for an ongoing conversation about sexuality with kids. In the Talking Parent, Healthy Teens survey, just some of what they discovered included:
  • Almost half of teens had intercourse before their parents got around to talking with them about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
  • More than half of the teenagers had engaged in genital touching before discussing birth control effectiveness, resisting pressure for sex, and the importance of condom use with their parents.
  • Girls were more likely than boys to have had talks with parents about sex.
We all know someone has to talk with our young guys about these issues. Mark Schuster is one of the authors of the Talking Parents, Healthy Teens survey and is a co-author of a helpful book titled, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but Were Afraid They'd Ask). It's perfect for parents trying to gear up for having "the talk" with their kids. If you're a parent of a young male, read a book, if necessary, and start the conversation with your young man. There is just too much at risk to pretend our young guys aren't going to be sexual.

When considering these conversations with young males, the questions of how to talk about sex, when to bring up the topic, who should be having the conversations, and what the content about sexuality should include, combine to create an extremity complicated matter. These questions are beyond the scope of this post, but I do feel those of us working with young males should be talking among ourselves and with the parents of young guys about how to raise the topic.

That all said, there may be a conversation parents and those of us working with the young dudes can have right now.

The California legislature has just passed a bill that clarifies what it means to have consensual sexual activity. “Activity" means not just the act of intercourse, but all the steps that lead up to two people getting it on. Here is a lot of information on that legal initiative.


This legislation begins to move the discussion out of the realm of someone having to say “no” and instead now requires both parties to say "yes," and keep saying yes as things progress! That means, "continuous, affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement by each party to engage in sexual activity.” Now that kind of agreement would have made my approach of a long run of incremental steps to get to the object of my desire, unacceptable. I’m thinking that would also be true of a lot of the strategies used by young guys these days.

. . . our young guys will need to know
how to have a
sexually intimate personal conversation.

Adolescent male sex impulses can be a lot like a snowball rolling downhill, gaining mass and momentum along the way. Given that fact, it’s going to take considerable guidance to make sure our young guys and women are safe in this new day of positive consent. In addition to managing powerful personal biological drives, our young guys will need to know how to have a sexually intimate personal conversation. We can and do need to teach them how to do that.

In our school-based and other circles with young men, personal truths are often spoken. When trust has been formed, there is a level of personal honesty, emotion, and real vulnerability that is often shared. The challenge will be to get young guys to bring this form of intimate exchange into their relationships with women . . . and to do so in the heat of a sexual moment.

There is plenty of grey area remaining between the California law’s legal consent requirements and the reality of human sexuality. But requiring a series of yes's along the way is a good start. Laws regarding consent won't stop someone intent on dominance, manipulating a partner, or committing sexual assault. Just having this issue in the public view can be a good reason to bring up the topic with our young men.

If all the barriers to having these intimate conversations can be overcome, discussions about having a healthy, mutually respectful, and positive relationship with a sexual (or any) partner can be launched with our young men. I say "Yes" to that!



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