I have been invited to speak to many boys and young men during the span of my priesthood. Those audiences are usually the same: a group of half-interested males who have immensely low expectations of guest speakers. After the usual greetings, I often present my “See You on the Other Side List,” composed of challenging suggestions that, if taken seriously, can help those boys become good men.
I have included the list here with explanatory comments. It is interesting to note that the chaperones and retreat organizers are typically unsettled by the list, but the boys and young men typically respond with keen interest.
1. Be deliberate
A boy who seeks to become a man must have a vision of the man he desires to become and must be unquestionably committed to making his vision a reality. This will require sacrifice, work, commitment, and maturity. This work will be completely countercultural, as the culture has a fixation on childhood and desires boys to remain boys as long as possible. A deliberate fellow must weigh every action with the question “Will this help me to realize the vision of the man I seek to be?” If not, it must be abandoned.
2. Seek God
God must be the center of a man’s life. A man must make friends with God, who is so often seen as an obstacle or a hindrance. It is a man’s very destiny and purpose to accomplish God’s work and to be with Him forever. Jesus Christ must become his most faithful companion. Otherwise, he will not have the strength and grace he will need to work into the future.
3. Know your father
“And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). Every mentor must encourage his disciple to maintain and grow in relationship with his real father.
The mentor only endorses and reinforces all that his real father is teaching him — provided the relationship is positive and life giving. Fathers must never question their influence and power in the lives of their sons or begrudge their sons valuable time together.
4. Find a mentor (a man or men)
A mentor is indispensable to a boy if he is to negotiate the pitfalls and negative influences of today’s culture. Youth is a time for learning and defining oneself. This work is more effectively accomplished under the guidance of a connected and influential adult.
5. Realize the gift of manhood
Boys have been conditioned to see themselves as problematic and the source of much of what is wrong in the world. On the contrary, boys and young men ought to see manhood as a privilege. They ought to see their manliness as the vehicle by which they will engage the world in order to make significant contributions to their families, communities, church, and world. If adult manhood is not seen as an adventure to be seized (especially for the benefit of others), a young man has not been properly mentored.
6. Be a gentleman
Contrary to popular opinion, being a gentleman is not a concept foreign to most boys. They have only to be taught and encouraged. I once wrote a paper for boys on etiquette. A group of mothers ridiculed the effort and were quite surprised to find their sons following the dictates of gentlemanly etiquette.
7. Do not trust the culture or the political, media, or educational establishments
I teach my boys to have a “sacred cynicism” about most things, especially things learned in school. Counterproductive and conflicting agendas permeate our lives today. A boy must be able to discern what is good and what is to be avoided.
8. Expect more of yourself and push yourself (even if those around you do not)
Boys and young men are quite capable of striving for excellence. A mentor can encourage, push, inspire, admonish, and hold a boy or a young man to a higher standard. Boys and young men respond well to such direction. The challenge tells them intuitively, “This man sees that I am worthwhile.” Rarely will a disciple refuse the challenge if it is presented well.
9. Set (major and minor) goals for yourself and strive to reach them
A boy cannot be expected to reach excellence in a vacuum. Goals keep a boy focused and deliberate. Goals can raise a boy to higher standards and help him arrive at new heights. He must be supervised and must set goals that are both challenging and realizable. Sharing his goals with you will dramatically increase his chances of achieving them. He must also experience the exhilaration of achieving goals (which will motivate him to choose more) and must hear your praise for goals achieved.
10. Have a desire to learn and seek a classical education
Local and federal governments fund our educational system. Bureaucrats want one thing in return for educational investments: future taxpayers. Boys should be exposed to poetry, art, and readings in the classics, and should be taught to reason. Even boys who choose vocational pursuits are capable of reading and receiving a classical education. Certainly, a boy or a young man must be convinced of the value found therein; and if he sees that it is important to you and to your development, he will gladly take up the effort.
11. Read, read, read
Boys learn to hate reading. Teachers push boys to read when they are too young. They are given cheap reading material or material that appeals only to girls. Give boys books about history, war, great men, and science, and watch the transformation. Boys who learn to love to read will have a distinct advantage over their non-reading peers.
12. Explore; be curious about the world and everything in it
A trip to the zoo, a backpacking adventure, a natural history museum, a planetarium, a summer on a farm, woodworking, and other such experiences are powerful enough to open a boy to a marvelous world worth exploring.
13. Take educated risks and engage in prudent adventures
Epic adventures (always under your supervision) can impact a boy or a young man greatly. Young people savor adventures. Frustrated once with two seminarians who were content with mediocrity, I ordered them to pack a backpack and spend the summer in Europe. I provided some funds and the instructions to stay out of pubs and bars. On their return, they talked of monasteries, historical churches, castles, battlefields, restaurants, and people, and had endless stories worthy to be told.
14. Fear drugs and alcohol
I am honest with young people when I tell them that I never tried drugs because I was intensely afraid I would like them. Asking them to say no is an invitation to explore drugs or underage drinking.
Let them know that the day will come when they can drink in moderation as adult men. It could be considered a rite of passage to sit down with you at eighteen and smoke a good cigar or at twenty-one and have an adult beverage. Press upon them the utter stupidity and recklessness of binge drinking. Teach them the military rule (for those over twenty-one): two drinks and you are done.
15. Do not date until you are twenty-one
This dictate usually creates a wildly defensive reaction, until you remind a young man that he has nothing to give a young woman — just yet. If he were to ask me for my daughter, I would ask him, “Who do you think you are?” followed by, “Go make something of yourself and then come back and ask again!”
This, of course, does not mean they must shun the girls or young women in their lives. But they should be encouraged to go on many dates with different women and none exclusively. Women should be respected, and sexual intimacy should be reserved for marriage. The time to date exclusively comes after the age of twenty-one. The development of so many young men is arrested when they forsake the program in favor of “hanging out” with their girlfriends at the mall.
16. Choose friends wisely, and don’t yield to peer pressure
Boys should pick friends who are superior to them. This will ensure that time spent together will be productive and challenging. Playing basketball with someone with superior skills serves only to make you better at basketball. Boys should be told that peer pressure is for the weak and characterless. This includes rappers, narcissistic athletes, and countless other childish boys produced by Hollywood.
17. Respect the automobile
I have presided at the funerals of three young men killed in automobile accidents. Teach your disciple to respect the automobile.
18. Avoid pornography at all costs
Boys must be taught that the pornography industry is sinister and wicked. They may think the activity innocent, but pornographers are looking only to form an addiction in men that will cost huge amounts of money and suffering in the future. It is never free. It is safe to assume that all boys have been exposed to some form of pornography and many languish under the weight of the resulting shame. Delicate and careful instruction (you do not want to teach boys about something they may not yet have experienced) can ease the shame and allow for good and worthy conversation.
19. Keep sports in perspective
Sports can consume young people. They are good and worthwhile, but a boy should not live or die by the success he has on the court or on the field. This will not be a popular stand, but when sports replace Sunday Mass, family activities, or other worthwhile pursuits, they need to be curtailed.
21. Do not play video games
The dictate not to play video games is never popular among young men, and you must be convincing about it. Video games don’t contribute to one’s success or character as a man. If some will not hear it, so be it, but the others have more important work to accomplish.
22. Limit the use of technology (texting, Netflix, e-mail, Facebook)
Soon the culture will learn that solid relationships and real friendships are not supported by technology. Perhaps technology is unavoidable, but it is to the detriment of our humanity to be consumed by technology. Ironically, boys and young men are aware of this, as well as the detrimental effects of video games, and may need only your reasoning to help convince them.
23. Learn a foreign language, a musical instrument, a trade, or a skill
Why not? These activities are more easily learned the younger one begins. They are skills that will be valuable and useful for a man’s entire life.
24. Learn to be a leader and prepare with an eye to the future
This dictate will take a boy or a young man into a valuable and worthwhile future. If he is to be someone worthy to contend with, it begins long before he reaches mature manhood.
Of course, all these directives will require your convincing and uncompromising encouragement. Again, you will not succeed in convincing anyone of the merits found here if you yourself are not living well. Personal integrity is a prerequisite for raising the prospect of the challenges found here. Do not be afraid to challenge young men with well-reasoned and dispassionate arguments. They will surely listen.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in The Mentor’s Handbook: How to Form Boys Into Inspiring and Capable Men, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.