What Separates a Man from a Boy

A boy practicing martial arts to become a man
The answer I propose is probably not what you had in mind.

Ask 100 people on the street what separates a man from a boy and you may get 100 different answers. If the respondents are anything like my inner circle growing up, many of the answers will have something to do with traditionally masculine attributes–like toughness, assertiveness, and physical strength. A man, they say, is someone who embodies these attributes, a boy is someone who doesn’t. Traditionally masculine attributes have their place, but in this post I want to take a different angle that I believe far better captures the essence of manhood.

The defining characteristic of boyhood is selfishness. Boys are all about themselves. They take whatever they can take, but are incapable and disinterested in giving back to those around them. If you were like me as a child, your universe was centered around yourself. Like a mental baby, you expected adults to take care of you, and you resented responsibility. Sure, you had to obey your parents and help out around the house from time to time, but it was something you did begrudgingly. Life as you imagined it was primarily about your hopes, dreams, emotions and aspirations, even if they were underdeveloped at this stage. Let’s call this stage the taking stage.

Every man I know whom I respect as such underwent a metamorphosis at some point in his life. He went from being about himself to being about the team. He went from living in a self-centered universe in which only his interests mattered to living in a team-centered universe in which the interests of many people mattered. In short, a boy becomes a man when he goes from searching only for what he can take from the world to looking for ways he can give to the people closest to him.

The family is a common example. A man attends to his wife and kids. Their welfare is chief among his considerations. In fact, a man’s welfare is secondary such that he would sacrifice it for the good of the family if it became necessary. A boy can’t relate to this thought process. His concept of being a part of something bigger than himself to which he is expected to contribute is weak or non-existent. There are many examples in addition to family and romantic relationships. I know many single, unmarried guys who are highly motivated by a desire to add value to their family, friends, and communities. If boyhood is the taking stage, then manhood is the giving stage.

A boy becomes a man when he goes from searching only for what he can take from the world to looking for ways he can give to the people closest to him.

I’m not suggesting a man doesn’t look out for his own interests. The difference is a man recognizes that his interests are inextricably connected to the interests of other people. I recall Hall-of-Fame Defensive End Michael Strahan, when asked on TV about an award he had won, said something to the effect of “It meant nothing until I handed it to my mother.” This quote captures what being a man is all about–measuring individual success by the effect it has on those closest to oneself.

A team gives a man purpose in life. Something greater than himself worth fighting for–a why behind his life’s occupation. Having a why actually makes a man more masculine even by traditional standards. There’s only so much an individual will do for himself, but when you put him on the right team, his fighting spirit exponentially increases. In fact, I know many fathers who wouldn’t think twice about running into a burning building for their children — or working long hours and making small sacrifices on a daily basis. That is evidence that a maturation process has taken place. That is manly behavior.


  1. Very interesting take on it, you’d find Robert Moores work on the masculine psyche fascinating if this interests you. I’d recommend the book – KING, WARRIOR, MAGICIAN, LOVER.

    Essentially it is a map towards the mature masculine.

    Thanks for sharing Ben, really good read – I agree!

    • I’ve heard of these four archetypes—I didn’t know they came from a book. Going to freshen up on the contents this evening. Fyi, if you’re interested in writing a Guest Post about the topic feel free to shoot me an email.

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