Iron Man: Raising Sons, Raising Heroes

As a mom of four boys, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years telling my sons to settle down, look where you’re going, be careful, take it easy, and watch out. Certainly there are girls who also require such cautions. But in my experience with four of one kind and half a dozen of the other, it is the boys who most often fill me with warnings. They’re always gravitating towards challenges. Ninja moves. Stick fighting. Climbing the tall tree instead of the safe one.

I’ve been wondering lately,though, about the wisdom of always counseling my guys to avoid risks. Truth is, there are plenty of times in life that you need a guy around who is bold enough to take a risk. To do something.

Allow me to talk for a moment in stereotypes. Think about the heroes in action movies: Iron Man. Sahara. National Treasure. Any of the Bourne movies. The guys in these movies are doers. Problem solvers. They think on their feet and they know how to get things done.

Why are action movies filled with these guys? Guys want to be like them.

Now think about the heroes in a lot of romance novels. They’re bold, strong, take-charge types. Doers. Pursuers.

Why are romance novels populated by these guys? Women are drawn to them.

Granted, after we marry them, we women are sometimes appalled to learn that they drive too fast on mountain roads and tell vomit stories at the dinner table and stomp through the house in muddy boots. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) But there is something in the soul of a man that wants to be a hero. And there is something in a woman’s soul that wants to be wooed by a hero.

(If you’re arguing with me right now, see above warning about stereotypes– I know I’m not describing everyone here.)

But I want my sons to be heroes.

I want them to be bold enough to ask out that amazing girl, even though there’s a chance she might say no. Strong enough to voice an opinion even if it is not a popular one. Bold enough to pull over and help an accident victim out of a car. Strong enough to get up every morning and go to work, even when it’s not fun. Bold enough to stretch limits and meet needs and exceed expectations, sometimes even at the expense of their own desires.

The question is, how do we do that? I don’t have it all figured out, but my gut says it has more to do with tree-climbing than video games. With creative tenacious problem-solving, not buck-passing. With plowing through big tasks instead of avoiding them. With making sure boys get a judicious mixture of good hard work and exciting and active play.

Don’t get me wrong. I still wish my boys would stop vaulting my couches. I hope they’ll drive safely when they’re old enough. And to be honest, I hope none of them ever get it in their heads to try and scale Everest.

But I do hope that someday they grow up to become men who take risks. Who do hard things.

What do you think?

How do we raise our boys to be heroes?


  1. Great post and something we all need to think about. Not enough boys are being raised to be hereos. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. This is something that I have struggled with quite a bit lately. I don’t have any boys of my own (yet), but I have 55 freshman boys in my high school. Daily we are working with them to be the heroes rather than the followers.

    I think first and foremost they need examples. That could be you and your husband; it could be others in your community. Pointing out exactly what the desired traits are helps make it easier for them to understand what they should be reaching to achieve.

    Most importantly, I think it comes from discussions about how we/they reacted in various situations and whether our reaction was what we hope to achieve. If it was, why was it so? If it wasn’t, why not? What can be done in the future?

    We do this a lot with the freshman boys–I even talk to them about “coaching” their behavior. They’re used to coaches for sports and advisors in academics, so the metaphor works with a behavior coach. But then again– this is NYC, and everyone has a coach for everything!

  3. Great post, Mary! I often think the same things…

    My husband says that boys need a dad for that reason (the vomit and mud), and a mom to civilize them-so that amazing girl will say yes! Biblical lessons are important here, I think. It’s important to understand what God expects out of men and husbands, and for boys to be raised to fear the Lord, and to desire to please God.

  4. Becky Bertram says:

    Have you read “Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge? It is a great book that goes right along with this topic!
    I also wanted to say congrats to the new mother-in-law to be! I wondered when we visited with everyone at Thanksgiving if this was a possibility in the near future. Yeah, God! SMILE! 🙂
    Becky B.

  5. Yes, my Dad gave me “Wild at heart” last Christmas because he said it would help me better understand my son. I have since eased up a bit on the rough and tumble boy stuff (to a degree) and I understand his need to sword fight with paper towel tubes and wrestle’.

    I agree with you that I want my son to be a hero. I want him to dare to be different while being comfortable in his skin. I want him to experience all he wants out of life and not be held back by fear. (I wouldn’t mind if he skipped jumping out of perfectly good airplanes however!)

    He’s four, at this point I don’t know how to raise him to be this way. I’m praying God will show Adam and I the way!!


  6. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I don’t want to coddle my son so much that he has a hard time stepping up to the plate to be the head of his household. Yet, the mommy in me still wants to walk around with a little feather bed for him to always fall securely on. lol

  7. I don’t have the answer, but I have the same desire for my boys. Let me know if you figure it out!

  8. I completely understand. I want the same for my boys. That and to be self sufficient! lol The books by John and Staci Eldredge are really good. I’ve only read “Captivating”, the ladies version. If you haven’t read it, I HIGHLY recommend it. It is a wonderful insight into how God created the heart of a woman. I need to read “Wild at Heart”. Maybe I”ll get some ideas for my two boys!

  9. And that is why boys NEED dads. I will always be telling our son “wait” “stop” “get control of your body” (tremendous case of the wiggles in this kid). but my husband doesn’t so much say that. He watches him, helps him think through, and then says “let’s try it”. I’m not saying mom’s can’t do it but I think God knew a boy needs a mom and a dad; He knew that would be balance in the boy’s life. My husband is wonderful about letting the thrill seeking boy try something but to say to him (and he’s always saying these words) “Boys have to help.” “Boys have to be gentle with girls.” “Boys have to take care of people.” Not in a “women are weak” way but understanding that boys become men who have a force to do good. And its something that God has taught me because growing up it was me, my single mom and my sister- no boys. But we had men that saw our family of girls and came alongside to serve us and to model for us what dad’s do.

  10. Mary, I love this post! My boy’s only almost 2, but I think about this from time to time. I’m linking to you on my next post if you don’t mind!

  11. Very true. My one boy isn’t so much of a “hero” type(he’s more of a brainy kid than an adventurous one!), so we’re definitely trying to help him be more brave and take-charge than he naturally is.

  12. This is an especially hard topic for suburban and city moms, I think. I took my city students to the country to play for the day and was amazed at the number of boys who were hesitant to get dirty, play in the creek, and scale tall things. They caught on quick enough and the school bus reeked all the way home. It was great. That’s coming from a country girl who used to enjoy jumping from the barn loft and swinging from grapevines over deep ravines….. Don’t tell my mom.

  13. The same way we raise girls to be heroes.
    We encourage them to express their opinions, even when we do not agree. We allow them to take risks, even if we have to close our eyes when they do. We help them to evaluate risks–running into traffic is not a risk they should ever take. We help them to grow into themselves, not necessarily who we imagined and planned for them to be. We listen to their dreams and desires and help them find ways to reach for their own stars. We teach them, that although we want them to grow to be their own person, they will always have a responsibility to the rest of the world.
    We teach them that “it is not your duty to complete the world but neither are you free to refrain from it” (Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 2:21).

  14. It is very important for both boys and girls to have both good female and male role models. Although it would be nice if those role models are the moms and dads, it won’t always be. So, providing a role model – as a teacher, coach, neighbor, scout leader, church leader, whatever – to a kid is something everyone can help out with.

  15. I loved this post, too. I have 6 boys and feel I often times try to keep them safe…over doing it. I really like the cd from Vision Forum called Why Christian Manhood must Prevail. It really speaks to the heart of this matter, in the fact that boys need to push themselves. So, I’m seeking a balance in this. Most of all I want my boys to be strong enough to stand up for the Lord and be firm to speak truth. I pray my boys will be wonderful husbands and leaders of their homes. Praying God will guide Arthur and I as we raise the boys, for we know they aren’t truly ours.

    Thanks for this post.

  16. celina in canada says:

    i never ceases to amaze me how somewhere in blogland there is a mommy pondering my thoughts..exactly….

    i will look into the book mentioned and i have also let loose a bit of the strings and let my son get all monkey like…lol…

    may HE guide our steps all of the way

  17. I think about this ALL OF THE TIME. I have 3 boys (1 girl). My oldest boy is not even 5 yet and yet I know I have to think about this. If Jesus is the ultimate man we want them to model themselves after, then they most CERTAINLY can not blend in with all around them.
    My husband is very much this type of man and it often got him grief growing up….but it makes me SO proud of him. He is who is no matter who is around. He doesn’t try to blend in with society just b.c it’s maybe “the better” thing to do.
    I pray all of the time that my boys will follow in his footsteps! =)

  18. Lisa in ME says:

    Excellent post. I just went & requested the Wild at Heart book from my Paperback Swap account. Another good book to help understand boys is the Dr. Dobson one…Bringing Up Boys. I need all the help I can get – I have three boys. It’s interesting to see how my husband reacts & I react to the same situation. Many times I bite my tongue & walk away. It’s just easier than watching. 😉 It’s so true though…I want my sons to be heros. To be the doers when they grow up. I want them to be strong. I want their future wives to see them the same way. Lots to think on….

  19. Yes! You must read Wild At Heart…it’s so good and right along with what you are saying. My husband and I both read it and gained much from it. We have 4 boys and it was the inspiration for my blog.

  20. I have been thinking of how to make my nearly 5yo more bold… I was finding that he was/is often afraid to ask for the simplest things! Then I thought of how I responded to him. I realized that just because I’m tired of him making the same requests of me (over and over and over and…) each time he asks is new to him. When I yell at him to stop asking and to leave me alone for goodness sake, he is taking it as a flat out rejection. Since realizing that, I have been responding more kindly… even the millionth time (it’s hard, but can be done). His broken record has eased a bit and he seems less afraid to “just see what happens” in general.

    Beyond that, I’m learning as I go! I’m watching for other great input. ~:-)

  21. not sure if you’d (maybe more for your hubby) find the book “raising a modern day knight” helpful.

  22. I think that one great way to encourage boys to be heroes is to praise the hero qualities in their fathers. My husband is out cutting wood right now, and you can bet he just got a great meal and he is getting no end of praises from me for taking care of the family in this way. And those praises come in front of the kids. If I have a complaint about my husband, I talk with him privately (and try to remember all his good qualities before that talk!!). The kids hear how great their dad is.

    I grew up in a family where it was exactly the opposite–the faults were aired frequently in front of the children, and the positives, if any were seen, were not mentioned. Sad to see, it is often the case.

    Children need to hear what their parents are doing RIGHT in a positive and loving way. If we can support each other, that goes a long way to raising respectful and responsible children–and that includes boys who tell vomit stories (or fart stories, a current fave with my son) and then dash off to make swords out of sticks and try valiantly to poke each others eyes out.

    We also should remember not to make them ashamed of their inherent “boy-ness.”

  23. Very good 🙂

  24. I have a feeling I will have to try hard to keep my over protective mommyness in check. I’m sure my husband will help with that and encourage our son in the adventerous “guy things”.

  25. Don’t you want your daughters to be able to do all of those things too? I don’t think it’s about teaching our daughters one thing and our sons something else. I think it’s about teaching all children self-reliance, independence and respect. I certainly want my niece to feel confident enough to ask a boy out, or to be brave enough to pull over and help out at an accident one day.

  26. With 5 boys and in the process of adopting 2 more, this is something that I mull over quite frequently.
    That maleness that I so admire in my husband is what turns mothers of boys prematurely gray! I really feel it’s a miracle that any boy survives childhood. It’s the risk-taking that makes life so exciting and it’s the risk-taking that can get them into so much trouble too!

    The world is in dire need of men who will stand up and be strong, men whose lives are governed by self-control and who live in integrity and purity.
    There are so many temptations out there and I could drive myself insane worrying about them all. Right now my boys are all young and in bed safe each night, but the time is coming very quickly when I will have to start letting go. I have a feeling that is going to be one of the hardest parts of being a mother, but absolutely essential in order for them to grow and become the men God desires them to be. I trust God for the wisdom to discern when and how that should be.

    Boys must have heroes ; someone whom they will look up to, respect, and mold their lives after.
    As parents we have a lot of influence as to who those heroes will be.
    Superman or Martin Luther?
    Snoop Dog or William Carey?

    I think it is essential in guiding the moral development of boys to have Godly men to look up to- hopefully their fathers, but also those who have laid down their lives for the sake of others.
    Isn’t that the truest definition of a hero after all?

    Thank God that He gave us the perfect example of manhood through the life of Jesus!

  27. That post is so full of truth. I’m a 19 year-old boy, so I know exactly what you mean. However, I have found myself shaking my head (and smiling) at many of the things my buddies do while hanging out. Some I do, most I don’t. I strongly suggest Wild At Heart (I’m sure you have heard of it before). John seeks to help us men channel that drive to be a hero into practical uses. Instead of climbing the tallest tree, maybe they’ll settle for nesting on three branches and reading a book. :]

  28. I echo the others here who say they want the same things for their daughters. Asking out a boy? Having the courage to voice an unpopular opinion? Getting up and going to work even when you don’t want to? Helping others in a dangerous situation? Taking risks? None of these are qualities that should be left to men alone. Why wouldn’t you want ALL of your children to grow up to be heroic?? I would be a failure as a parent if I did not instill these same values in my daughter. The world needs as many heroes as it can get and I for one am encouraging my sons AND my daughter to grow up to be adults of great courage and integrity.

  29. Right now, today, women only earn about 76% as much as men. The picture is even bleaker for women of colour. African-American women earn only 71%, and Hispanic and Latina women only 59%. Equal pay is is a problem in every occupational category, even in occupations where women considerably outnumber men, such as teaching and nursing. And for those of us holding out hope that a college degree will even things out, the sad truth is that the same is true at every level of education. Female doctors earn a staggering 39% less than their male counterparts. Female college and university teachers earn 21% less, and female lawyers 22% less.

    At the same time, women typically spend almost twice as much time as men doing unpaid work in the workplace, while still spending 2 -3 times more time on housework and childcare than men.

    Given all that, I think it’s exponentially more important to raise women who have strength and courage. They’ll need it.

  30. I must admit I don’t have any sons yet (that I know of).

    My mother-in-law says she had to lock the doors to get her sons to play outside. I would say that moral courage (which my husband has no lack of) is more important than the ability to scale trees. My husband may drive 65 exactly in the 65 mph zone. but he does stand up for what is right. He is also very respectful of his own father. I may not be that amazing girl… but I think he’s wonderful. I think I will need to be careful, though, to not discourage our boys from being boys if they turn out a little rougher around the edges.

  31. I’m not sure, as I have 3 daughters (9,5,3). But I hope my daughters can recognize real heroes when the see them.

  32. While I agree that girls need heroes to imitate too, I also know boys want to imitate different kinds of heroes than girls do. I was the only girl with 3 older brothers as a kid and now have 2 young boys and a baby girl. My husband is an amazing Dad, for whom I’m incredibly grateful; I’d love to believe all 3 kids will succeed with “the same” treatment from both of us. But the facts are most boys interact differently with the world than girls do. Even at 4 my son functions best in life when he has a number of challenges he’s trying to overcome or skills he’s trying to master at any given time. When we hit a lull between accomplishing an old goal and setting a new one he begins to act out; once there is a new skill to work at (it works best for us when at least physical skill is in process at all times) he is more calm and centered. He needs age appropriate risks and challenges or he begins to seem lost. I don’t think that means girls don’t want to be heroic too, it just manifests differently.

  33. Oh, and as an aside I have to say one other thing: the tall tree is ALWAYS more fun than the safe one. Its the childhood equivalent of being attracted to the “bad boy/girl”. But the safe tree is usually more important for use as a hangout or a special place to return to.


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