Teenage Boys Crave Challenge & Responsibility That Is Real & Meaningful To Them

Teenage boys crave challenge and responsibility that are real and meaningful to them. I’m not talking about making their beds, picking up their clothes and taking out the garbage. Not that there is anything wrong with them doing those activities. I’m the first person to support teenage boys contributing to the household operation. They’re members of the family and giving and receiving are how a family functions.

I’m referring to activities that emerge from their interests, employ the talents, skills and abilities that they’ve developed, and that they experience has value and a larger purpose. By the time a boy reaches adolescence, he has become competent in certain areas: he’s learned some things, developed some skills, can accomplish tasks, has demonstrable abilities. Now he is ready to, not only use them, but to go beyond.

Hah! you say. He only wants to sit around, eat, and play video games, unless he’s talking on the phone, downloading music or Facebook or IM-ing his friends. Yes, that’s true. Not only is that what everyone else is doing (so there is a social context), but what else is there for him to do? From his point of view, there’s nothing else to do and everything else he’s used to: it’s boring.

Very few teenage boys are offered an opportunity to exercise the skills and talents they’ve developed. Rarely can they employ their abilities and be recognized and valued by the larger social community.

Generally, the opportunities they do have are either school or sports related. No criticism intended, it’s just that it is a context that they are used to and they’re still recognized as kids and not having a contributing social value to their communities.

Teenage boys are on the road to manhood, but are not getting any practice as “men-in-training.” They’re just bigger kids. They’re still viewed as kids, just bigger. This flies in the face of reality, a reality that they are well aware of. They’re not kids anymore. They can do stuff, be useful, make a contribution. But, it just ain’t happening. No choice but to just act like a big kid. A restless, edgy, chomping at the bit, big kid.

I met with a thirteen year old teen who wasn’t particularly attractive and his habit was to annoy people. His grades were poor, he was frequently in trouble, and the kids picked on him. To complete the picture, he’d been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to probation and community service. He told me he’d much rather be at the home for older folks than school. He said, “when I’m at the home, I feel important. I’m doing something that matters to people. I feel valuable. When I’m at school, I’m picked on, bored and I get in trouble.”

He didn’t have the most glamorous jobs in the home: delivering food, cleaning up messes, and emptying bedpans. He could do those jobs well and more. His social skills: warmth, friendliness, courteousness, respect; qualities that were absent in the context of school had a positive effect on the residents and employees at the nursing home. They valued his contributions, and so did he.

By time puberty sets in, boys are emerging from the world of imaginative and imitative play. Now it’s time to put their skills they’ve practiced throughout boyhood to use in a real way. They’re ready to push the edge, not just test out their abilities, but to grow them . . . take them to the next level. Biologically, boys haven’t changed that much. Less than a hundred years ago, they were making valuable contributions to society by the time they were teens. Developmentally, they are ready to move beyond child status.

Another boy I worked became a skilled scuba diver during a family vacation. He got good at it very quickly and devoted most of his “free” time to diving. His parents, and the adult instructors, recognized his proficiency and acknowledged it. Simply, his parents, especially his dad, went to him with questions and relied on him during dives. On one dive, his dad got into some serious trouble and the son pulled him out. Basically saved him.

When I write, “real and meaningful” to them, I’m referring to a concrete sense from their subjective points of view. The activity must have a purpose and meaning to them and a value they see to the greater good for which they are recognized. Scuba diving was more than a sport; it was an activity that was dangerous, with life or death consequences. Through demonstrating his skills, this boy’s status changed in his family. He was no longer just “their son.” He now took his rightful place as a “young man” with something to contribute of equal value as the grown-ups.

Teenage boys are ripe and ready to have a useful, valuable place in the world. They’re hungry for contexts and experiences that usher them into the beginning stages of adulthood, where they demonstrate their abilities, receive appropriate recognition, and are elevated to a more developmentally realistic status.

If they don’t get those opportunities, they are going to create them within the context of their peer culture. And the peer culture exists both symbiotically and in opposition to the adult culture. In a nutshell, in ways that are against the grown ups who “don’t understand them” and “try to keep them in their place.” Teenage boys fill that logical developmental need with boy versions of activities: versions that grown ups will view as “testing” and “making bad choices” because the boys are challenging themselves by “trying to get away with” something. It’s a lose-lose situation: the grown-ups either view it as “their just being boys” (which they are, but they’re suppose to be growing into men) or as proof of their immaturity and irresponsibility and lack of trustworthiness.

You can always tell the difference between an activity that is genuinely real and meaningful to them or a version of “what can I get away with.” The litmus test includes: 1) does his sense of self-esteem/self-confidence increase and 2) is he recognized for his value and contribution to society. When it is genuinely real and meaningful, the answer is unequivocally yes to both questions.

In fact, it is so obvious we usually miss it and take it for granted. One fourteen year old I know decided before his freshman school year ended that he wanted a summer job to earn some money. He landed a job at a local restaurant as a dishwasher. After a couple of weeks working I asked him, “so how is the job?” He answered, “great! I get the dishes washed, I’m meeting different people and learning about their lives. The managers like my work and tell me and I get paid to boot. It’s great.”

It’s pretty simple. His confidence grew because he demonstrated new competence, in a new environment, was valued for his contribution and received recognition AND he earned money too.

When the activity is not real and meaningful to them, the answer is no to both questions. When it is a “bigger kid” version of “what can I get away with,” then he gets a temporary inflation of his ego, his sense of “I’m powerful, you’re not” when he gets away with something AND he’ll get peer recognition. The shadow side of this is getting caught. Instead of an increase in self-esteem (real confidence), he gets a substantial decrease in self-esteem (decrease in confidence) and his recognition from the grown-up world is negative twice over: firstly, he screwed up by making bad choices and secondly he demonstrated his “immaturity” and lack of “responsibility” instead of the opposite. This is generally bad news for everyone: the boy, his parents, and the community.

A high school junior I worked with developed a double life. He worked hard at his schoolwork, received very good grades, and was a successful athlete. That had been his practice since elementary school. Midway through 11th grade he started racing cars down the local highway at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour and stealing from stores with a friend. He didn’t need the stuff. He got caught. His parents went through the roof. He’s embarrassed, ashamed, full of ridiculous excuses, and humiliated. It turns out the boy was chomping at the bit to grow in new areas, especially auto mechanics, and establish himself as a young man.

The electronic world offers a fantasy version of the real McCoy. Boys get to pretend they are competent, effective, talented, meaningful and purposeful in a whole slew of games either on-line, computer based, or on video systems. They genuinely develop a high level of skill playing games and like boyhood fantasies, have the freedom to choose either a heroic role or an evil role. The game could care less. They are even free to “cheat,” hunting down codes on websites to “win” easier: a video version of “what can I get away with.” The attraction is powerful: boys of all ages experience a sense of power and effectiveness in a fantasy world. Zero growth in the real world.

Parents are often perplexed, if not shocked, when a teenage boys suddenly stops all the activities he’s enjoyed: sports, Boy Scouts, school and church clubs, anything and everything. It doesn’t make sense and they wonder what is going on with him. Talking with him usually gets no results: “I dunno know. I just don’t want to do it anymore.” The fellow is ready to make a mark, conquer new territories: use his skills in the real world and be recognized for his abilities. He looks to the Real World, the world of grownups to provide challenges and opportunities to pull him further along the road toward manhood.

When the adult world doesn’t come through, the need is met through the dark side: he and his peer culture create activities with real dangers and risks which they intend to pull off outside of an adult view.

All dangers aside, the developmental downside is no growth for the boy. Regardless of the risks, he is playing the same game he’s played for years. It’s just a more “sophisticated” version of the boy game “what can I get away with.”

Let me be absolutely clear: no growth for the boy is unbearable. Teenage boys crave challenge and responsibility that is real and meaningful to them. They are poised forward, on the threshold of what we use to call “coming of age” experiences. They cannot create it alone . . . it requires the adult world’s full participation.

©2012 Ted Braude

Related: Issues, Books

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Youth is wholly experimental. - Robert Louis Stevenson


Ted Braude is an expert on boys: known as “the dragon tamer” and the “boy whisperer.” A mentor, a martial artist, a musician, a writer and a counselor, he brings boys into young manhood. No small feat. He serves their interests, goals and desires, helping them become who they want to be. He’s kind of a “dream wizard.” As a mentor/counselor, he’s served boys in their quest for manhood for 30 years. As a martial artist, he is a second degree black belt in the Japanese martial art Aikido, training with the internationally known Ki master Katsumi Niikura Sensei. As a musician, he has been a professional and amateur multi-instrumentalist and singer since he was six years old. As a writer, he is a former columnist for The Detroit Free Press and The Daily Tribune newspapers and a host of journals & publications. He is the local point man for Boys to Men Mentoring Network in Michigan, a remarkable program that joins boys and men together in a community bringing the boys into young manhood and he is the Director of the BoysWork Project. Royal Oak, Michigan. Contact Ted at E-Mail or or 586-825-6483. An audio version of this column is available at

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