Humans are social beings. For most of history, we lived together in small tribes made up of extended families. Within the tribe, a boy had parents, relatives, and elders of all kinds who shepherded him into adulthood. Through rites of passage, he learned what his community expected from him as a man, and he gradually began to take on those responsibilities and their attendant privileges.
Today we live a far more atomized and isolated lifestyle. Extended family no longer lives near each other for the most part, and parents typically don’t stay in an area (or even neighborhood) long enough to establish roots and deep-seated friendships. It’s every man, and boy, for himself, and young men often don’t get much guidance on how to grow into mature manhood.
This disintegration of social connections can have particularly severe consequences for boys and men. Masculinity is essentially an energy created by testosterone — a drive to compete, take risks, and be aggressive. Without a group to belong to — without bonds that channel and direct this energy towards positive ends — a young man will often end up feeling lost. If he doesn’t get the recognition he craves, the training he needs, or the opportunity to prove himself he so desires, he may either act out his impulses in destructive ways or be plagued with a sense of restlessness that develops into a paralyzing malaise or persistent depression.
In The Wonder of Boys, Dr. Michael Gurian argues that boys can avoid these pitfalls if adults are willing to step up and take a more proactive role in creating a supportive tribe for them. This tribe is ideally composed of three different “families” that together raise a boy into mature, well-adjusted manhood. It should be noted that girls absolutely benefit from being enmeshed in these three families, too. Gurian would just argue that because of the general tendency for boys (thanks to testosterone) to disengage and be drawn to potentially destructive pursuits, boys and young men have more to lose if they don’t receive this kind of support (see: the gender make-up of mass shooters, the prison population, the suicide rate, the college graduation rate, etc.). Though you shouldn’t think of the three families as a way to prevent your son from becoming a dropout or criminal either; even if he’s a good kid, growing up within a tribe will help him become his best possible self.
Today we’ll take a look at who makes up each of the three families, and offer some ideas to parents, extended family members, and young men themselves on how to build, strengthen, and make the most of them.
The 3 Families Every Young Man Needs
A boy’s First Family is his nuclear family. The First Family consists of birth or adoptive parents or even grandparents who have taken on the role of raising kids full-time.
A boy spends most of his time with his First Family, and it thus serves as the foundation for his development. Within the home, a child is taught the values of his tribe on a continual, everyday basis. Ideally, it is here he learns how to cooperate with others, to love and be loved, and the importance of contributing to the household economy (through chores or otherwise) and the well-being of his family. What’s more, it is within the First Family that a child receives an education in the skills necessary to survive and thrive on his own.
Study after study has shown that children who are raised in a home where both a mother and father are present fare better than children raised by single parents. They do better in school, they’re less likely to do drugs, they’re less likely to become teenage parents, and they’re more likely to go to college. What’s more, children raised by both parents in the home are healthier physically and emotionally than those raised by single parents. And all of these benefits are particularly pronounced for boys.
This isn’t to say that if you’re raising your kiddo as a single parent, that he’s doomed to a drug-filled life of juvenile delinquency. As we’ll see below, the support of the other two families can help fill gaps that are lacking in your First Family. But the two-parent home is the ideal and a worthy aim for all. If it doesn’t work out after we’ve given it everything, then we can adjust and work with the situation we have.
How to Help Give Young Men a Stronger First Family
Advice for Fathers in Intact Families
Always work on your marriage. The relationship between you and your wife forms the foundation for your family; as the saying goes: “the best way to love your children is to love their mother.” Kids can sense when things aren’t right between mom and dad, and it adversely affects them, sapping their sense of security and depriving them of a good example of marriage. The way you and your wife live out your relationship will shape the way your kids will live out theirs. Make sure you’re modeling a positive partnership. Be sure to check out our marriage category for inspiration and skills to keep your marriage on the right track.
Create a positive family culture. You’ve probably met those families that seem to have it all together. The parents were happy. The kids were all well-adjusted and did the right thing. Everyone in the family seemed to genuinely love, respect, and care for each other. These sorts of families don’t just happen — the parents were extremely intentional about creating and fostering a positive family culture. As the father, take the lead in guiding and directing yours. The tips below offer direction on just how to do that.
Work with your family on developing a mission. What principles do you want your kids to learn in your home? What’s the purpose of your family? You may feel that family members know these things implicitly, but it’s vitally important to make them explicit.
One of the best ways of doing that is by crafting a family mission statement; here’s how you do it.
Have regular family meetings. While a family mission statement can provide the big-picture vision for your family, regular family meetings are how you take that vision and turn it into action. It’s where the rubber meets the road. During weekly family meetings, you ensure that everyone’s calendars are synced and solve problems that the family may be experiencing. More importantly, it’s a chance to reinforce your family’s culture and values with planned lessons and discussion.
Establish family traditions. Family traditions help strengthen the family bond, teach important values, and provide a much-needed source of identity for your children. If you haven’t yet, start instituting memorable, bond-building traditions into your family life. Need ideas? Check out this list of 60+.
Family meals. There’s nothing magical about gathering the family for regular meals; it’s what you do with them that matters. Use mealtimes (it doesn’t have to be dinner) as a chance for your family to slow down, get together face-to-face, talk without distractions, cement your values, create a feeling of support, and build loving bonds.
Advice for Fathers in Divorced Families
Do what you can to work with the other parent in raising your son. Some research shows that it isn’t the divorce itself that causes much of its ill effect on children, but the conflict and bickering that continues to go on between their parents after the split. So prioritize civilly working with the mother of your children to raise them. I know that in many cases this is easier said than done — but do what you can. Strive to play an active role in your child’s life.
If you’re a mother who’s divorced from your children’s father, make their spending time with dad a top priority. You’re helping your kids be the best they can be.
There are a lot of resources out there for respectful collaborative parenting between divorced parents; I recently heard an interview with the author of this book on the subject, and it seems like a good one.
Respect step-parents, but still acknowledge your role as your son’s father. In divorced families, new spouses — and therefore step-parents — often enter the picture. This can lead to anger, jealousy, and competitiveness. Just as your kids will pick up on tension between you and their mom, they’ll pick up on it between you and a new spouse as well. These are admittedly tough situations, but be sure you respect the step-parent, especially when talking about them in front of your kids. Acknowledge that the new man has a role to play in raising them, but also assert yourself as the father as much as you can. You can still establish important and memorable traditions and rites of passage — even if that means only on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.
Advice for Young Men
Prioritize spending time with your family and do your part to encourage a positive family culture. As you enter adolescence, you’re naturally going to want to pull away from your parents and siblings some. That’s a healthy part of becoming an independent adult. But continue to make time for your First Family as well. Ungrudgingly attend your family meetings (and if your parents have fallen down on the job, encourage everyone to do it!); try not to skip out on family dinners to hang out with friends or do other activities; spend time with your brothers and sisters. Encouraging a positive family culture is something not just for your parents to do; you have a big role to play as well.
Be on the lookout for positive First Family traits you admire. Nobody comes from a perfect family, and by the time you’re ready to head off on your own, you’ll probably have some idea of how you might want to live differently than you were raised. In your high school and early college years, take note of what you admire about your friends’ parents and the family cultures they’ve created. Depending on how your own family life was, you might take a lot from other families, or you might just take small bits and pieces. Either way, thinking intentionally about what you want your future to look like and observing the families around you will be a boon to your maturity and family.
While a young man’s First Family should offer a solid foundation for his development, it isn’t enough. As mentioned at the start, for most of human history nuclear families were deeply enmeshed within a community that included close relatives and friends who lived nearby. A boy wasn’t just raised by his mom and dad, but his grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends of the family as well.
Gurian calls this close group of intimates the Second Family. The Second Family reinforces the values and skills taught within the home, and also helps give young men a sense of identity and belonging. This extended family is doubly important for boys raised in single parent households.
Due to cultural and sociological changes in the 20th century, today’s children don’t have the kind of regular contact with grandparents or extended family that was common in centuries past. Increasing mobility has also prevented parents from forming close friendships with other adults who can act as godparents or non-blood uncles and aunts to their children. Consequently, children miss out on the nurturing and insights these individuals can provide, and parents are left carrying the entire burden of raising their children alone.
Author Kurt Vonnegut astutely noted that this lack of supporting relatives and close friends is likely a contributor to marriages and families coming apart:
“Until recent times, human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to. So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he or she was feeling tender again. Or if the kids got so fed up with their parents that they couldn’t stand it, they could march over to their uncle’s for a while. Now this is rarely possible. Each family is locked into its little box. The neighbors aren’t relatives. There aren’t other houses where people can go and be cared for. When we ponder “what’s happening to America—” “Where have all the values gone?” and all that—the answer is perfectly simple. We’re lonesome. We don’t have enough friends or relatives any more. And we would if we lived in real communities.”
Raising a human being is a tough job. And it wasn’t meant to be done alone or even with just two people. It’s become cliché by now, but it really does take a village to raise a child.
How to Help Give Young Men a Stronger Second Family
Advice for Fathers
Stay near your parents and your relatives. When Kate and I were newly married and without kids, we were pretty set on leaving Oklahoma and settling down in Vermont. We loved the Green Mountain State and all the opportunities for outdoor adventure it provided. But when we had our first child we quickly decided that keeping our roots in Oklahoma would be the best thing for him and us.
Gus and Scout love hanging out with Kate’s parents, who actually live just down the street from us. And I love that my kids get to see their grandparents on a regular basis. Nana and Jaju (phonetic Polish for grandfather) have more time and patience for doing crafts, games, and projects with the kids, and Gus and Scout are learning things from them they might not otherwise learn with us. My wife’s sister and her family also live close by, allowing our kids to get to hang out with their cousin several times a week. On Sundays, we all get together at my in-laws’ house for a big dinner. We eat, tell stories, get in some generally good-natured arguments, and then Jaju takes the kids upstairs to do some gymnastics on a ramp built from couch cushions.
Plus, my parents and brother live just 90 miles from us in Oklahoma City. They often come up here and we make regular trips down there to see them. My folks of course love seeing the kids, and Gus and Scout find the trips a real treat.
It makes Kate and me really happy that our kids can see their relatives regularly, and it seems incredibly enriching for them.
Now I know economic necessity might not make staying near your family a possibility. Sometimes you’ll have to take a job halfway across the country in order to support your family. I also understand that maybe the reason you keep away from your parents and siblings is because their influence is toxic rather than positive. But do what you can to stay near your parents when it’s a viable option, and consider making it a priority as you plan your life. You’ll be amazed at how much it benefits you, your children, and even your marriage (easier date nights and child-free vacations!).
If you don’t/can’t live near relatives, be intentional about creating opportunities for them to connect. If you’re already at a point in life where you have kids are separated from family, do your best to communicate regularly via email, phone, and Skype/FaceTime. Invite family to come stay with you, spend the time/money to visit them, plan vacations together — you get the idea. Your ability to do all this obviously depends on your unique means and circumstances, but even if you don’t personally love visits from your parents or the in-laws, your kids surely will, and they’ll benefit greatly from it.
Find mentors for your sons. In addition to relatives, you’ll also want close non-blood friends to be a part of your son’s Second Family. Maybe you have a best bud who still lives near you that can fill that role. If you don’t, look for people in your neighborhood, church, or even workplace. Growing up, I had several adults who served as close mentors to me, most of whom were men from my church who were involved with the youth program. One of them was an older man named Andrew Lester. He was an artist and sculptor who I visited each week to help with chores around the house and in his studio. During that time, he’d share stories from his life and ask me about what was going on in mine. Another mentor from church lived down the street from me. Together we’d go visit families in our congregation once a month to see how they were doing and provide service for them. I learned a lot about servant leadership from watching his example.
Look in your network to see if you can find any adults who could be a part of your son’s Second Family. Don’t foist the mentorship on your friend or the mentor on your son — he’ll just resent it. The relationship needs to grow naturally. My friendship with Andrew began when I was asked by my church to go help him pave his walkway with some new bricks. From there, he asked me to come over every other week or so to help him move busts around in his studio. Over time, we became friends. Find a way to introduce your son to these non-kin Second Family members in a like manner.
Know who your son’s friends are (and treat them like family). Though Gurian’s definition of the Second Family includes only the parent’s relatives and friends, I think a boy’s own friends should be included as well. During adolescence, a young man’s friends can have much more influence on him than his kin.
So as a father, get to know who your son’s friends are, and treat them like your own. Make your home a place where he and his buddies will want to hang out. I was always grateful that I had other “families” to hang out with when I was growing up. And it was always nice to see that my friends were able to cut it up with my folks and feel right at home with my family.
What do you do when your son befriends kids who probably aren’t a good influence on him? That’s definitely a tough one, and something I have yet to experience. The experts say you don’t want to outright forbid friendships because that can spark a “Romeo-and-Juliet effect” in which you just increase the allure of the friendship by making it forbidden. Instead, let your kid hang out with who he wants, but set limits — like he can only hang out with them at your house or something like that. Of course, you can’t know what your son is doing and who he’s seeing all the time. Sometimes you just have to keep reinforcing your family’s values and let him make his own choices.
Become friends with parents of your son’s friends. Another source of non-kin members of your son’s Second Family are the parents of your son’s friends. Your son will likely be spending time at his friends’ houses, so he’ll be spending time with his friends’ parents. Get to know those parents. It doesn’t mean you need to be best chums, but you should at least know who they are and have an idea of their values and parenting system. When appropriate, work together in helping raise each other’s kids.
Growing up, I was a fortunate enough to live on a street with four families that had boys the same age as me. We were in and out of each other’s homes all the time, and the moms and dads became the moms and dads of all the boys on the street.
As I got older and made friends with other kids outside of my neighborhood, my parents somehow connected with the parents of my friends. My mom simply reached out to other moms, talked about their crazy boys and craft fairs, and a friendship developed between them. It seemed like each pair of parents gave the others tacit permission to set their respective son straight if they caught them doing something dumb. You begrudge it as a teenager, but you’re grateful for it when you’re a grown man.
Advice for Relatives
If you’re a grandfather, stay connected with your grandkids. If you don’t live within driving distance of your grandchildren, do your best to stay connected with them. Email or write them a letter once a month. Share stories with them from your childhood. Ask about what’s going on in their life. Skype often. When possible, get out to see them in person. Don’t underestimate the positive influence you can have on your grandkids.
If you’re an uncle, be the best uncle you possibly can be. Uncles have a unique and important role to play in families. They’re older than their nieces and nephews, and so can be positive male mentors. But they’re younger than Gramps, and can be up for goofy fun. They also provide nieces and nephews a look at life through the eyes of someone who branched off the same family tree, but may have a very different lifestyle than their parents. Whether he was married or single, most of us can remember that cool uncle in our lives that we looked up to. As you get older, and your siblings have kids, it’s time to become that cool uncle yourself. It doesn’t take much: be involved in their lives, babysit, write them a letter, visit when you’re in town, learn the tricks of the trade, etc. For more tips on being an awesome uncle, check out our definitive guide.
Sign up to be a mentor. Many boys and young men don’t have anyone who can be a part of their Second Family for whatever reason. But you can fill that role by signing up to be a mentor. Big Brothers is always looking for new male mentors. You can even check with your church to see if there’s a young man in need of a mentor. Just make sure you’re ready for the commitment. This isn’t some nice thing you do whenever it’s convenient for you. You’re there to fill an almost family-like role for that boy, and you need to be prepared for the work that it’ll take.
Advice for Young Men
Choose your friends wisely. In looking at folks I knew from high school, I’m struck by the way in which the friends they chose greatly altered their path in life — for better and for worse. And I’ve seen multiple families in which one of the children turns out great, and the other goes off the deep end — with one of the only differences between the siblings being the kind of people they hung out with in high school. The influence of your friends on your life cannot be overestimated.
Unhappy and uncomfortable with the group of buddies you have now and want to make better-caliber friends? Join activities that tend to attract disciplined, smart, straight-arrow kids like student council and the cross-country team.
The Third Family consists of organizations (like your child’s school), the larger community, the media, and your son’s peers.
This is the family a father has the least personal control over; you can’t usually choose your child’s teacher, classmates, etc. So you may teach your child one thing within the home, but they’ll hear something completely different from the wider culture. For this reason, Dr. Gurian notes, often “the values of this Third Family run counter to the values of the boy’s first family — our values.”
While you have less influence on the Third Family, it doesn’t mean you can’t have any influence on it.
It will take initiative on your part to ensure that the values and culture you’re trying to inculcate within your home are reinforced by your son’s Third Family. When it’s not possible to influence this outer ring of social ties, you’ll simply need to be more intentional about bolstering your own family’s culture.
How to Help Give Young Men a Stronger Third Family
Advice for Fathers
Get involved in your children’s school. Don’t just treat you son’s school as a babysitter. They’ll be spending most of their childhood and teenage years within the walls of a classroom — you should want to know what they’re learning and doing there. Go to PTA meetings and voice your concerns. But don’t just carp. Show your good faith by volunteering to help with projects and events within the school. Many schools now have “Fantastic Father Fridays” or something like that for dads to come to the classroom, eat donuts with the kids, and talk to the teachers. The job of educating your child isn’t just the school’s job. Parents have a role to play too.
Consider private school or home schooling. If you’re not happy with how your local public schools are going about educating your children, do something about it. For example, consider a private school. Most private schools offer scholarships that make it affordable for average families.
If private school isn’t economically feasible, you might consider homeschooling. I’ve run into more and more parents — both liberal and conservative — who are starting to homeschool their children because they’re not happy with the bureaucracy of public schools.
Be warned, of course, that home schooling is a huge time and energy commitment for parents. Getting your kids to do their chores is hard enough. Coming up with lesson plans and making sure your kids do their assignments is even harder. Luckily, the internet has made it far easier to access curriculum resources and to connect with other families to create a homeschooling co-op.
Get the Second Family involved in school. Don’t just make school a thing for the nuclear family. Get grandma and grandpa involved as well as extended family. Invite them to plays and recitals, and share what the kids are doing in the classroom. That way when the kids are spending time with their Second Family, they can reinforce the things the child is learning in school.
Encourage your son to join a sports team. A sports team can play an important role in your child’s Third Family. Research shows that children who play team sports grow up to have better people and leadership skills than adults who didn’t play team sports as children. Athletics are where children can learn firsthand the values of cooperation, friendly competition, losing with dignity, fair play, and hard work. You might even consider coaching a team yourself!
Get involved in your church or community organization. Churches and community organizations are great places to build and strengthen a Third Family. They reinforce the values and principles you teach within your home, and can also be the source of Second Family mentors.
Be intentional about the media that you and your family consume. We don’t have any control over the content the media creates, but we can control the content that comes into our homes. Limiting screen time for your kids is a good place to start — encourage them to actually do stuff.
When the kids are in front of the TV or on the iPad, make sure they only see things that are appropriate for their age and aligned with your family’s values. Use internet filters and parental controls, but more importantly, talk to your kids about what they’re watching and explain how it can shape who they are.
Advice for Young Men
Carefully consider what you consume. Having your parents control your media is a drag, and you and I both know it’s not possible for them to filter out everything. Now’s the time to take charge of your own media consumption habits, and be proactive about what you want to take in.
While it may seem cheesy or old fashioned to believe that what you watch and listen to will affect you, it’s just a psychological reality that what gets into your head influences your thoughts, and your thoughts influence everything about who you are. Carefully curating your media consumption isn’t just about stuff like avoiding porn either; take it from a guy like Thoreau, even letting the time-consuming trivialities of clickbait media lumber your mind will sap its ability to contemplate the true wonder and beauty of the world.
It really does take a village to raise a child. Proactively building and strengthening these three families will provide your son with the love, support, guidance, and examples he needs to develop into his best self and mature into an honorable manhood. If one of these families will always be a weak plank in your lives for reasons you can’t control, work on strengthening the other two even more. The big takeaway from the article should be this: The more you surround your kids — sons and daughters alike — in a community of loving bonds where they are known, recognized, cared for, admonished, and encouraged, the better chances they’ll have of becoming happy, well-adjusted adults.
Last updated: August 10, 2015