in: Fatherhood, People

• Last updated: March 8, 2024

Get Your Son Out of His Bedroom

Everyone has the general sense that people these days get out of the house and do less face-to-face socializing than they used to. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently dove into the data available from the American Time Use Survey to figure out just how large this decline has been.

The answer? Very, very large.

American men are doing a third less face-to-face socializing than they did twenty years ago.

The drop amongst American teenagers is even more staggering: the amount of in-person socializing teens engage in has fallen by almost half since 2003.

Think about that for a second: today’s teenagers get together half as much as they did two decades ago. 

Today’s teens are not only less likely to leave the house to see friends but to do other things like work, date, or play sports, too.

When it comes to the consequences of this trendline for young adults, the discussion typically centers on a rise in loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

But there’s another consequence that may be part of this fallout: fewer young men stepping into independent manhood.

Since the most primitive age of human history, it’s been observed that males seem to have greater difficulty maturing into adulthood than females. Various theories have been put forth as to why this may be so, from the biological (females receive a more significant signal of maturation in the form of the onset of menstruation) to the psychological (boys must not only differentiate themselves physically, but also in terms of identity, from the female body — the maternal womb — of which they were once a part). 

Whatever the cause, boys have typically been given a greater outward nudge towards embracing mature roles and responsibilities. Traditionally, this nudge took the form of rites of passage — a practice common in every age and across every culture in the world.  

From time immemorial, boys have felt the tension between two impulses: One, the desire to stay in the safety and comfort of the domestic sphere, taken care of by their mother and free from difficult and dangerous responsibilities; the other, the desire to take risks, to explore, to win honor, to adventure — to take a place in the world of men. 

The rite of passage, dictated by their community, compelled young men to overcome the inertia of the first impulse to embrace the second.

Today, rites of passage — going to college, traveling the world, participating in a mission trip — are still possible, but the decision to undertake one, rather than being subject to communal forces of shame and honor, is voluntary and individualistic. 

This has been the case for a very long time now. 

But the ratio between the gravitational pull toward one’s childhood orbit and the attraction to the world beyond its borders has never been more lopsided. 

The time teens spend leaving the house and getting together with others really started to dip after 2010, when smartphones began to proliferate. Technology has provided everyone with a simulacrum of the kind of entertainment, conversation, and exploration that formerly could only be accessed by venturing into the outside world. There’s less incentive to leave the house and more enticement to stay at home.

When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t wait to go to college and get out on my own. Anecdotally, the young men I know now are less enthusiastic about this transition. And this hesitancy about striking out on their own could have a big impact on their maturation — on their ability to develop the qualities that make for an autonomous, self-reliant, happy adulthood. 

In staying within the domestic sphere, the childhood orbit, you’re more protected from the judgments, the risks, the slings and arrows of the wider world — the things that catalyze growth, build strength, and develop character. When you conduct all your communication through a digital device, you can carefully script everything you say instead of engaging in the dangerous dance of improvisation. When your parents are always close by to back you up, you’re never forced to figure things out on your own. The less experience you have in being independent, the less capable you become of escaping a life of dependence — a life that’s small, sequestered, and anxious. 

Get Your Son Out of His Bedroom

In reading about the statistics of how much less time young adults are engaging in face-to-face activities and thinking about the effects that may grow out of this cultural sea change, something Jon Tyson talked about in our podcast about “The 5 Shifts of Manhood” kept coming back to me.

When I asked Jon how to help boys step into mature manhood, one of the things he said was:

“You gotta get your son out of his room. You gotta get him out of his room.”

If boys are ever going to live a flourishing, ambitious, adventurous life — a life where they feel comfortable taking risks, relish being independent, and are able to focus less on themselves and genuinely care for others — then they have to be exposed to the energy of ambition, to the excitement of adventure, to the thrill of risks, to the satisfaction of self-efficacy, and to the challenges and joys of other people!

Everyone relishes experiences that happen in the real world more than those that are mediated through a screen; they just have to be given as many opportunities as possible to register and absorb this qualitative difference. 

As a dad (or other male mentor), you’re uniquely suited for the task of increasing the force that attracts a young man to venturing into the outside world. Since ancient times, it’s been recognized that mothers, on average, are more protective and have a harder time letting go of their sons than fathers do. A mother feels a dual impulse with her son; she wants to see him become independent and honorable, but she also wants to keep him close, as a child’s gain in independence simultaneously results in a loss of her maternal identity. Fathers feel a less conflicted pride in their sons growing up. This difference was actually best expressed in one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time.

All traditional rites of passage included some kind of literal and ritualistic separation of a boy from his mother, as the father took on a greater role in helping him become a man.

Dads today should take an active role in helping expose their sons to the wider world. Invite your son into a bigger life. Take him along on work assignments if possible. Take him to do a service project with you. Take him on fun father/son activities — fishing, camping, going to a ball game. Encourage him to participate in activities that challenge him and get him outside the house, like sports. 

Both Mom and Dad can utilize family vacations as opportunities not only for rest and relaxation, but to broaden their kids’ horizons (daughters need this stuff too, of course). Show your children how big, beautiful, and interesting the world is. While on a trip, try new activities — hiking, skiing, surfing, rock climbing, etc. — that build skill, competence, and a general comfort with being uncomfortable. 

And, while it’s truly weird we’ve arrived in a cultural place where this is needed, parents should encourage their kids to hang out with their friends. If they’re debating whether to stay home or meet up with friends, or deciding whether to skip or attend a school dance, nudge them to go out. It’s normal to worry about the influence of their peers, and you may selfishly want them to hang out with you, but boys need the experience of gallivanting with a gang of buddies. They need to experience the joy of operating independently, outside the orbit of parental supervision. 

Hopefully, the more that boys get a taste of the excitements and satisfactions that can only be found beyond their bedroom walls, the more they’ll feel that an autonomous adulthood, where further such excitements and satisfactions can be had, is something worth striving for. 

For more advice on helping boys move into manhood, listen to our podcast with Jon Tyson:

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