February 9, 2008

The Child-Man

Kay Hymowitz, a writer for the Dallas Morning News, was recently interviewed on National Public Radio (listen here) about her op-ed article describing her notion of the Child-Man. She's describing 20- to 30-year old child-men whom she feels are are hanging out in a kind of delayed adulthood, living in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.

Unlike their predecessors, Hymowitz feels these child-men are ignoring the adult male responsibilities of having a serious job, getting married, even having kids and a house.

That sounds similar to the responses I got when when I was doing my research for the Man-Making book. I asked men, What was THE moment in your life when you knew, for sure, that you had become a "man"? You can read the actual responses on the Man-Making website, but an amazing number of men replied that there wasn't a single moment they could remember when they entered manhood, that they never crossed a recognizable line and became a man, and many said they weren't sure they were "men" yet today!

In an article titled 'Generation Next' in the Slow Lane to Adulthood (just below the Hymowitz interview), NPR writer Patti Neighmond quotes Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at Clark University. He has coined the term "emerging adult." He's describing the period of 18-25 years old where today's youth are less mature, avoiding adult responsibility, and overly dependent on their parents. Arnett claims a number of cultural changes over the past five decades created this lengthened path to adulthood.

I believe the absence of adult males in boy's lives, as mentors and role models, is at least a contributor to this notion of adolescence lasting into the the thirties for some men. If you're a young male and you've never spent extended time with or around solid adult men, I guess beer, women, and your X-box would be about as good as it gets.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Leave your comment on this blog post. OR, if you're a male and you'd like to tell me when and how you crossed the line into a certain manhood, send me an email and I'll add your contribution to this question in the What Men Say section of the Man-Making website.


  1. Hi Earl,

    I haven't listened to the download or read the book, but I certainly have identified this problem in my practice for years now. I don't think it has much to do with male mentors with the young men I work with.

    I think it has more to do with expectations of men by men and by families who are happy to have their boys stay home because it's just too "expensive" out there. A bunch of guys were raised being excused from the logistics of life in their families. If they don't go to college, get married, or join the military, they don't see starting at the bottom in the work world as a viable option. They want to be heroes and they want to have money. They might have to live with 5 roommates to afford their rent and work meaningless jobs till they find a place for themselves. They might not be able to afford cable or insurance or a car, all things their families have taught them to expect rather than earn. It wouldn't occur to them to walk or take a bus or ride a bike. And then, they do love their drugs, and a lot of guys can't seem to hold a job and stay stoned or hungover at the same time.

    Do I sound biased? I am. My wish--that parents would raise people (that includes both boys and girls) to contribute, connect, care and take pride in whatever their unique contributions are. My wish is that when it's time to get out in the world and learn from experience, parents will remember that they didn't start with everything and that they spent a lot of years being broke and that helped build muscle and character and creativity. Remembering this might help them give their young men (and women) that growth opportunity to get out in the world and contribute and find themselves.

  2. Lynn,

    I love your passion around the issue and I think I hear a little anger or frustration too.

    Yes I agree that too many young adult men have been enabled in delaying a more mature and responsible adulthood... permissive and coddling parents, tolerant culture, unmotivated peers, credit-card companies, media, and more have helped them to over stay in the fantasy land of adolescence.

    That said, in my boys-to-men work, I've come across too many young men without any realistic male heroes (vs. movie, music, TV military, or sports stars)... real men who embody a solid, responsible, and personally powerful vision of manhood that a young male might aspire to. If they don't get that from being around good men, where do you think it will come from. And it it's absent, why not choose the beer, babes, and computer games?

  3. I, too, am convinced that proper mentorship is very effective for instilling a vision of authentic manhood in our young men. While typical mentorship entails a passing on of good business sense, I'm talking about passing on a vision of marriage and parenting, of service and sacrifice; concepts that, for generations, men have literally stumbled into with no forethought. But I have seen sixteen year-old young men making decisions based on their future plans for family, all because of proper mentorship by other men.

    On a second note, one of the major stumbling blocks for our youth as they transition into responsible adulthood is seen in our high tech education requirements. While historically, most cultures have always had 15 and 16 year-olds married, having kids, and making a living, our high tech and affluent culture has created a perceived need for full time education till age 18 or 22. This is well after the normal maturing process has brought about a need for independence from parents. Our "kids" are stuck between childhood and adulthood while depending on parental provision for their education. This "no-man's-land" results in conflict and rebellion against parents, other authorities and cultural norms. A snowball effect from this has contributed to our current state of perpetual adolescence.

    Finally, the missing rite of passage for our young adults has erased the necessary transition into adulthood. In the absence of an invitation into manhood, boys never become men. In John Eldredge's sequel to Wild at Heart, The Way of the Wild Heart, he draws the same conclusion:

    "You see, what we have now is a world of uninitiated men. Partial men. Boys, mostly, walking around in men's bodies, with men's jobs and families, finances, and responsibilities. The passing on of masculinity was never completed, if it was begun at all. The boy was never taken through the process of masculine initiation. That's why most of us are Unfinished Men."

    I wrote an opening chapter titled: "Who Gives the Rite of Passage?" in Squires to Knights - Mentoring Our Teenage Boys. A key point I make is that in the absence of initiation by the father or a mentor, the peer group initiates our boys into a culturally immature version of manhood.

    We must model, teach and mentor.

    Jeff Purkiss


Your response to this blog post is appreciated and welcome.