The third of my four sons, Kolby Jack Kemp, is now a dutiful firefighter and adventure hound in the Rockies. I got nostalgic one day and walked into his old bedroom.

There I found his “Welcome to Manhood” album. And that took my mind back to the weekend we spent together when he was 18 and about to leave home for college.

I planned and prayed for that weekend for six months. We traveled, we rode up ski lifts together, we skied hard, and we ate burgers and steaks. And we weren’t alone—six other men joined us to help launch Kolby into manhood.

On the final night we sat for three hours and told stories, answering questions like, “What happened in your lives that shaped you as a man, a husband, a follower of Jesus?”

The younger guys talked about choosing deep friendships and how to treat women. The older guys talked about being humbled in life and valuing marriage.  Everyone talked about faith, identity, and relationships. Don, a former fighter pilot, told about coming close to death when he lost oxygen in his jet. He drew a parallel to how we men are blind to our own pride. He was saved by the stern words of his training commander in another plane to “put on your oxygen mask!” Don reminded Kolby—and all of us around the table—to build deep friendship and give a few men permission to speak candidly into our lives.

We completed our man trip with a prayer of blessing on Kolby and followed it up with the letters to him that went into his black leather album.  We affirmed him in manhood and challenged him to step up and assume his responsibilities as a man.

A daunting era

Manhood is in crisis today.  There’s an identity and character crisis … from the NFL to our high schools, from prisons to wealthy neighborhoods with emotionally absent fathers and fractures from divorce.

It’s a daunting era to raise a son into a man:

  • Young men continue adolescent behavior through their 20s—often coasting without building a career, mooching on couches or in their old bedroom in their parents’ home, barely dating, hooking up instead of honoring women, living together rather than marrying.
  • Guys look for mentions on social media instead of mentors among mature men.  They focus on fashion and style instead of character and Jesus, the only one Who can replace petty addictive desires with a larger transforming desire.
  • Single 30-year-old guys devote themselves to video games and fantasy football, and married 30-year-old guys forego bedtime and sex with their wives for video games and porn late at night.

Even in this culture, as dads we have a great opportunity to show our sons that God’s way of manhood is clear in Jesus Christ. It’s gutsy, rewarding, and significant. Our mandate is to model humble surrender to Christ and then call our sons to step up into that likeness of Christ that makes for a man. God is love and His love is the path of shaping growing boys into godly men.

Teenagers want to be in charge. They want freedom and independence. We must build on that natural desire by showing our sons that growing up to manhood and freedom comes after a man surrenders to Jesus and masters responsibility. Freedom comes after you grow up in maturity to take care of yourself, manage life’s issues, and become a benefit rather than a burden to others.

Teaching and modeling these principles to your sons requires commitment, wisdom, and intentionality. And yet my experience from raising four sons leads me to make a disclaimer:  No one does it perfectly, and the credit for anything good goes to God!

There’s a lot I could have done better. I didn’t succeed much at dinnertime devotions. I wasn’t disciplined in teaching the Bible and helping my sons memorize Scripture. I was more into playing with my boys than intentional teaching. I could have taught them more consistently about sex and relationships. They didn’t get much from me around car maintenance, checkbook balancing, or home repair. I coached their sports and took them skiing a lot, but I wish I’d taken them on some family mission trips. I exposed them to Christian athletes, but wish I’d also exposed them to impoverished South American believers with generosity and faith that exposed the shallow self-indulgence of American prosperity.

But, I did have a great teammate in my wife. I urge dads to frequently ask their wives (or, if they are single, a teen’s mom) for relational and emotional insight into their sons and how to best reach them.

So, with that said, here’s a bit of a game plan for raising adolescent sons to become men.

1. Start with prayer. Pray daily for your life to change and to model humility, responsibility, integrity, and love. Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to open your son’s heart to trust and seek Jesus above all else. Pray for your relationship with him and for other mentors in his life. Ask him frequently how you can pray for him.

2. Give him a vision for manhood. Find ways to point out the character, behaviors, and path to authentic manhood. Read through Dennis Rainey’s book, Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood and watch the Stepping Up video series together.

3. Shape your son’s identity. This is the central mission of a dad. Identity is based on:

  • Who made you—a loving, perfect Creator, God;
  • How He rescued you from selfishness and rebellion through Jesus;
  • Your inner strengths of character;
  • Your people-blessing strengths; and
  • Your skills and passions.

Help your son discover that his identity is based on strengths—the greatest strength is God, next is his character, and finally his skills. Too many people base their identity on performance, position, popularity, or notoriety. That’s why athletes are often narcissistic and stunted in maturity, and why entertainment stars are relationship disasters.

Make it your habit to communicate to your son that you take joy in who he is. Take attention off performance and outcomes … put it onto identity, belonging, aspirations, and character. I remember the day when I was coaching youth football and I heard a father in the parking lot yell at his son, who was one of our shorter, plumper linemen:  “Hey, Dufus. Get over here.” I was so mad at that dad, and hurt for that boy.

Dads, our job is to name our son a man. Men need to be named. Remember the Father naming Jesus when John baptized Him: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Your son needs to hear you say, “You’re a man” … “You have what it takes” … “I believe in you” … “I’m proud of you.”

When it comes to grades, performance, and sports, focus on the heart. Remember what the majority of young athletes fear most—dad’s comments on the car ride home. Make the car ride home positive: “I love to watch you play.” Encourage your son. Don’t break him down through criticism.

FamilyLife has a great resource to help you build your son’s identity. It’s called Passport2Identity, and it helps you set up a weekend to talk about scriptural principles on topics like transitioning toward independence, making your faith your own, relationships, and mission.

4. Mentor your sons in healthy relationships, sexuality, and marriage. I think of Coach Mike Swider of Wheaton College, who shapes young men through his football program.  He says every day his dad told him three things:

  • “God loves you, son.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I will always love your mother.”

In today’s world of consumer relationships and à-la-carte sex, a dad must make a long-term, year-round mentorship effort to help his son understand how to treat his friends, his family members, and members of the opposite sex. He should help his son understand that marriage is the pinnacle of commitment, love, romance, sexual fulfillment, and lifetime legacy.

A single dad, recently left by his wife, set a high water mark for casting the vision for husbanding and marriage. Months after she divorced him, his ex-wife called him in a panic that her car wouldn’t work. He calmed her, drove to her place, gave her his car for the day, took her car and had it fixed by the end of the day. That night his teenager expressed shock that he could be so nice to her when she’d been so mean to him.

His dad replied, “Love means treating people well no matter how they treat us. Jesus did that for us and I need to do that for your mom. That’s what men do. It’s why you and I need Jesus to be the men He made us to be.” Men, don’t let bad circumstances, past failures or bad treatment stop you from modeling and teaching manhood to your sons, and to your daughters.

5. Look for everyday opportunities to pass on biblical wisdom. In Deuteronomy 6:5-7, we are told to teach God’s Word to our children continually, as a way of life. As I raised my sons, I looked for opportunities during:

  • Meal time: family dinner, sharing the load, sitting at the table—without the TV on;
  • Family room and backyard time: games and play;
  • At bedtime: listening, telling stories, prayers;
  • In the car: driving to school and games, hiking or biking, skiing or fishing, on the way home from church or youth group events;
  • At restaurants: most especially for hungry teen boys, taking them out to eat regularly is prime man-shaping time.

One place I built manhood was at Family Pancake House in Redmond, Washington.  When my boys reached high school I started taking them (individually) to breakfast a couple times a month. At first we mainly just ate, without much deep spiritual conversation. But as time went on and college applications came closer, their questions increased and the conversations were valuable.

Use little notes and texts to affirm your son, encourage him, share a Scripture or thought about his manhood.

6. Create rites of passage. They don’t need to be fancy or formal. Create adventures and dinners that share stories and affirmation of manhood. Take your son away when he’s 10 to discuss growing up, purity and that he can bring his questions to you. Invite him to help plan a dad/son trip when he’s 13 -15. When he’s 18 take him on a Welcome to Manhood adventure and dinner with other men. And when he gets engaged, hold a groom dinner with other husbands to share stories and wisdom. Also remember that men like to talk shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes forward, so keep that in mind as you create time and intentional conversations in the car or on the trail with your son. Tell stories in the car, and out on the trail, of when you were young and things you’ve experienced in life. He’ll eat it up.

7. Don’t be afraid to admit your weaknesses. Humility and transparency are crucial to shaping a son into a man. If you want to teach responsibility and surrender to God, there’s no better way to demonstrate it than to apologize. The most powerful way to teach your son to repent, apologize, and own up to his own mistakes is to do so yourself.

And if you really want them to listen to you, tell them about your own failures.  It helps to take yourself off the father pedestal and makes it easier for them to envision admitting weakness and growing to maturity.

8. Remember that you’re raising your son to eventually leave. My mentor in fathering, Don Wallis, once told me that his goal was that, by the time his sons were in their 20s, they would know him fully and he would know them fully.  Yet, he also told me that he deliberately stepped back from them in their later teens to give them space to be their own man … thus allowing them to call him back into their lives as a mentor, more than a daddy. This is astute and helped me.

Which brings me back to Kolby’s Welcome to Manhood trip.  On that weekend I shared a story about one of my experiences as a quarterback in the NFL, when I failed to take the bulk of the blame for a loss we had against the Kansas City Chiefs. A godly teammate pulled me aside and helped me see the consequences of hiding from and not taking full responsibility as a leader and man. Telling the story humbled me, but it blessed my son on his journey to being a real man—a man built for others.

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