Shaping our boys is a daunting challenge. It’s one that lies heavy on every dad’s heart. I know it burdens me.

Transforming these little creatures of need into men who will serve others … phew!

Currently, I have three sons: ages 4, 2, and 1. When do I start this whole “man-thing”?! My oldest still wets the bed.  My youngest wields an impressive vocabulary of two words: “ball” and “Pikachu.” So proud.

But the answer before all of us is simple: We train them before they can even talk.

Humans learn most through imitation. We pay more attention to what we see than to what we’re taught.  This is also why Jesus’ core command is to follow Him, not merely listen to Him (though listening is essential to following). The way I see it, this is good news to us dads. Because especially in the beginning, training our boys doesn’t take a lot of formal education. It just takes a lot of being who we want our boys to become.

Remember they’re always watching

This sounds more like bad news. We fail often as husbands and dads. Do you work an extra hour just to avoid home?  How often do you argue with your wife in front of the kids?  How many times this week have you lost your temper?  I’m sure all of us cling to Paul’s words: “I am the worst of [sinners]” (1 Timothy 1:15).

But here’s the thing. God set it up this way on purpose. We men rise to challenges. Tests bring out our best. God is keeping us on our toes by providing us with incessant accountability. He desires our growth.

For example, last week my wife angered me. So I quickly went into what I call “Viking Mode” (I’m half-Danish).  I had just started to sling some awful words at her when … boom … I heard my son crawl into the room, cooing.

I quickly bit my tongue and sighed a long sigh. Was there sin in my heart? Yes. But Isen’s presence, and big blue eyes, stopped me cold. I cooled off, grabbed perspective, and confessed my sin two minutes later.

Admit when you mess up

Manhood demands humility. Christianity demands repentance. So, for us Christian dads, we are constantly saying sorry to our wife and kiddos. If in the last point you asked, “If I’m constantly getting tested by the Lord, what happens if I keep on failing?” The answer is you admit it. Out loud.

Our boys learning to humbly admit when they’re wrong is integral to our boys becoming men. And where do they learn that? From Daddy.

I work with teens for a living. Most teenage boys are quick to shift blame. But not all!

A mentor of mine has a son in the youth group I lead. During a service project last summer, this boy accidentally spoiled some of the food we were cooking for the homeless. We could have never traced the error back to him. But he owned up to it, nonetheless.

“Team, that was me,” he said. “I totally did the recipe wrong. I am so sorry to let you down.”

The sheer panic of the moment stopped in that instant. And, immediately, the whole team was for him. Like I said, I know his dad—so I know  where he learned that.

Dads, let’s be quick to confess our failures to our kids. Let them see it. Show them the gospel, even if they are too young to understand it. Pick them up, hold them tight, and whisper to them the sweet truths of the good news.

“I’m a broken daddy, but Jesus is fixing me. I’m forgiven, but I still confess. The Holy Spirit lives in me, and He won’t ever let me treat you badly without saying sorry.”

Gospel culture like this breeds men, real men.

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Serve others

Whether it’s at home, church, or work, an essential feature of every man is to serve. We long to accomplish and mold and improve everything around us. We start the day with energy. We end the day without it.

And your boys are watching you serve. They see where your energy is spent.

From the earliest days, you’ve cradled, snuggled, bottled, wiped, bathed, smiled at, kissed, and overall loved them. As they grow and begin to walk, talk, and ask questions, start adding words to the foundation of actions they’ve seen from you. Your life will lend credit to your words. Over time, their hearts will be formed. Teach them to follow you as you follow God. As you lay down your life (in all the ordinary ways), so will they.

This is how men are made.

Love their mom

Men are often marked by how they treat women. Brute. Pig. Player. Let-down. Honorer. Cherisher. Protector. Tragically, men commonly treat females how they saw their dads treat females. Monkey see, monkey do. Once again, imitation.

What a privilege you have, therefore, in loving your wife! It’s not just her you’re loving. It’s your son’s future wife, and his son’s wife, and on and on. A legacy, a cycle, is fashioned when you smooch (not peck) your wife in front of them. When they hear you two laughing in the other room. When they witness your genuine apologies. When they watch you serve her.

Even though our little ones require all sorts of time and maintenance, meet her needs first.  Even though you have needs, meet hers first. Your sons see it. They sense it. And they know it to be beautiful, down at a soul-level.

Go for it

The best way to train your boys to be men is to start  now. And to know it’s never too late.  Show them manhood—robust, life-giving, gospel-based manhood—and they will follow. The alternatives will look bitter and stale by comparison.

Copyright © 2019 Justin Talbert. All rights reserved.

Justin serves as the student pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He has a Biblical Studies degree from Belmont University and an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary. He and his wife, May, have three sons: Soren, Aksel, and Isen. Find him on instagram: @justintalbert.