I've been around lots of men and boys on hikes, adventure outings, and on Rites of Passage Weekends. What I've noticed on these occasions is, without any prompting, and almost instinctively, certain forms of predictable behaviors begin to unfold. Let's call it male tendencies or maybe a predisposition to act in certain ways when in a group of guys. I'm sharing my observations and inviting you to notice these things the next time you're in a guy pack. Think of it as increasing your male-literacy. I'm still chewing on this bone and may refine these thoughts later, but if you're working with groups of different-aged guys, here are some behaviors to watch for:
The males sort themselves out: The sort can be by age or maturity, interests, and then countless sub-levels. On a hike with 30 males of different ages, it begins to happen in the parking lot at the start. By 20 minutes up the trail you see little clots of guys of about the same age. The old dudes pretty quickly meet each other and stand around chatting together. The younger boys get to playing pretty quickly. The teens eventually figure each other out by clothing, body type, or the mention of a certain video game or type of music. Eventually, they, too, begin to connect. It makes sense that common interests, vocabulary, and discomfort with the other age groups all combine to keep the players feeling safest with their age peers. Those of us in charge employ a number of strategies to keep these mini-cliques shuffled, but on a long enough hike or event, the guys all find their way back to new friends of about the same age.
After the fear comes fellowship: I know there will always be some fear and discomfort in the beginning of the pack forming. That's why I like the idea of getting a new group into a circle and then invite them to check in with a little personal information. I use a format that includes stating your name, a feeling you're having right now (to develop emotional vocabulary), and then one thing you're excited about and one thing you're nervous about. I model the check-in and by doing so, set the intimacy bar up a notch by being "real" and naming my excitement and fears. That kind of introductory conversation going around the circle helps break the ice, lets everyone get a head start on knowing each other, and helps the mask of male bravado come off pretty quickly. That way an early level of trust is formed more quickly. From then on, it's fun for me to lay back and watch the distance between guys shrink in the face of the common adventure.
Males like hierarchy: This is especially true for teenagers. If they don't know each other, they mingle, talk, watch, position, and so on, until they have figured out who belongs where in the pecking order. If some competitive theme is established such as music, video games, clothing, cars, women, or just about any kind of physical skill, they will stay at it with each other until the hierarchy is clear. The group may not even be conscious of the process, but if you watch/listen closely, you can see it happening. Often it's on many different levels or criteria at the same time. The older guys do it too, but it's not as important to them. The really young dudes are not that interested in who is who, they just want to have fun.
The truth is that males of any age
are all trying to figure out
what it means to be a "man."
are all trying to figure out
what it means to be a "man."
They watch each other: I think it's common for just about any age male to be watching the guys who are a little older. The truth is that males of any age are all trying to figure out what it means to be a "man." So it makes sense that the guy who is a little farther down the road to manhood than the observer may be the embodiment of an important life lesson. Guys, especially the teens, are always watching those who are a little more experienced at living. A "real" man, who you think is solid and is older than you, can be a great teacher. That's one of the reasons I love multi-generational groups of males. The whole book of a man's life is on display across the ages, so everyone in the pack can go to school on the life that's coming at them.
Play is good for everyone: With just about any challenge or game, the young boys like to be included. The teens love trying to outdo each other, and if possible, outdo the older guys. When provoked, the middle-aged men love the challenges from the teenagers and will engage hoping their skill and experience will outlast the youthful energy. For us older dudes, after a very little involvement, it is sweet (and more comfortable) to simply smile and watch from the sidelines as the guys' games take place. Guys playing is really fun.
Adventure or challenges are important: While true for most young guys, teens especially seem to have a need to compete, test and prove themselves, and the more energy expended in the process, the better. I especially like the outdoor activities where the goal is getting to a high peak, climbing a rock wall (safely), or simply sleeping out in the woods or wilderness. Even small adventures give each guy the opportunity to overcome fears, and stretch themselves into new environments or challenges. On our hike in the wilderness, it turned out there was a common fear of using the wilderness outdoor, hole-in-the-ground toilet! In adventure activities everyone gets to learn how to take on something new and maybe difficult, and do it with the encouragement, guidance, and support of others. This is a great way to build self-esteem in individuals and it makes some powerful glue in the guy pack.
The teen guys test limits: Full of testosterone and propelled by their biology, teenage guys are feeling powerful and full of themselves. They feel almost foolishly invincible and are hungry to find and test their limits in just about any quest. I've recently written about this drive and the lack of rational thinking for so many teens. While some caution is in order in selecting adventures, the mixed-age pack has a natural way of creating great testing opportunities while moderating the most dangerous tendencies of teen risk-taking behavior.
On our outings, the men will always lead a safety conversation and set up some guidelines for the event. We do this knowing full well that the teens will very likely push past our very important and logical boundaries. They will break the rules, and test us for our resolve and degree of consequences. The challenge for the older men is to stand strong in the face of the very predictable assault on limits, and do so without anger. This dance may be repeated a couple times, with threats or real consequences, and appeals to their dignity being called into play. I like reminding the teens they are role models for young boys. This ancient drama is actually a fun part of an outing, IF you know it's coming.
Real caring for and support of each other often shows up: As part of the opening circles, I like introducing the idea of mutual support. I speak the obvious that we all have different abilities, that it's easy to feel left out or one-down, and that it doesn't take much effort to travel as a real band of brothers, looking out for each other. Sometimes I'll even invite the group to practice giving a compliment to a few guys they don't know. It really is a grand idea, and it mostly gets lost in the chaos of the outing. Yet I often see small acts of kindness and support with an older guy helping a younger or poorly equipped hiking brother. I'll see a teenager giving an eight year-old a boost over a difficult place or sharing water. If we're on a destination hike or experience, we always bump up the achievement with high fives to honor each other, and the victory photos we take celebrate the mutual accomplishment. It's all making more glue for the guy pack, too, because we all did it . . . together!
All males in a mixed-age tribe really like it: In truth, males are hardwired for a guy pack. I fully believe that each of these little bits of drama have been occurring down through time. I like thinking that hundreds of years ago, a pack of males like ours headed out for a hunt in the wilderness. There was fear, testing, successes, failures, learning, making good fun of each other, serious moments, and I know there was laughter when someone passed a huge fart. I also know that each male came back tired but strangely refreshed and felt he was a little better man for the going.
Here is the link to the campout photos;, but the pictures really only touch on the heart of the experience. I'd say go for the real thing. If you get a chance to head out in a guy pack, don't miss it. It will make you a better man.
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