When does a man become a man?

February 13, 2011 | By | 19 Replies More

When does a man become a man?

Biologically, I guess it’s when he can reproduce – a point in development that varies from person to person. As does when he can grow a beard. But there are other milestones:

At 16, he is usually eligible to apply for a driver’s license (14 years three months for South Dakota, with restrictions; 17 if in New Jersey, and variations across the spectrum in the US).

source: www.publicdomainpictures.net

The age of 18 is a good one. He can then vote!

Oh, and also sign up to defend his country and maybe die in its service (17 if given signed permission by a parent or guardian, though still not able to vote quite yet.)

In September 2008, 12.2% of the Coast Guard, 14.4% of the Air Force, 18.3% of the Army, 18.6% of the Navy and a whopping 36.9% of the Marine Corps were between the ages of 18 and 21, with an average across all the services of 86% of them being male. It’s a lot of responsibility for those so young.

Why did I pick the range 18-21? Old enough to vote and fight…

…but this man we’re profiling can’t drink until he’s 21.

Or can he? The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C. § 158), only prohibits

the purchase or public possession in such State of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than twenty-one years of age

(or the Feds withhold highway funds for states that don’t comply). But notice the wording! “Purchase or public possession”. The Code section is called “National Drinking Age”, but drinking was not prohibited! According to Wiki, 15 states and D.C. ban underage consumption, but 17 don’t at all, and the remaining 18 have some conditions that allow it. I hope my 20 year old “minor” who can go die for his country isn’t reading this! (Wiki has a summary if you want to know the laws in your state.) Note, said 20 year old already knows the law in Texas, which by the way allows that a minor can drink, not purchase, alcohol when in the physical presence of an adult parent, legal guardian or spouse – “adult” apparently meaning over 21.

The car insurance companies think he’s a man at 25, because that’s when he’s responsible enough to get out of the actuarial grouping of high risk and catch a break on those premiums.

A magic age... apparently

But the real kicker that floored me this past year was one few know about. I obviously didn’t. It’s the age of 24.

My son, who owns his own house and hasn’t been a “dependent” on my tax return for a couple of years was applying online last year for financial aid through FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). He called me and asked for my income information. My answer? “You don’t need that.”

But apparently he did. The site wouldn’t let him proceed without it. I checked. Twice.

Then I checked the law. He was still dependent as far as federal financial aid was concerned. And up the proverbial creek without that stirring stick, because while he qualified hand over fist on his own (which he has since July 2009), factor in my income and he gets diddly.

He turned 24 yesterday (an auspicious day…shares a birth date with Darwin and Lincoln among so many others) thus now is a man. By financial aid standards. And drinking age. And militarily…voting…driving…biologically. (And the dude’s been growing a full beard since he was 15.)

Happy Birthday, son. Welcome to manhood.



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Category: Law

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (19)

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  1. Karl says:

    When does a man not become a man? When they have no desire to take moral responsibility for their actions.

    There are plenty of post 24 year olds that have not grown up in the sense of taking individual moral responsibility for the way they are influencing the culture around them.

  2. Karl,

    I'm with you on this one. Hell, I know some fifty-year-olds that meet that criterion.

    I used to work for a man who had served in the air force during Vietnam. He liked to brag about it and say that he learned how to be a man in the service.

    He was a bigot, he was vain, and he was stupid, in that he managed to lose the business he had purchased, of which I and a few others were employees. He was obsessed with having a new car all the time and frittered away the hours when he should have been drumming up new business by basically fooling around. When it was clear that the end was near he asked me how to save it—I who had never been in the military and had questioned his claims to reaching "manhood" through that mechanism.

    "How," I asked, "do you learn responsibility when everything you do from the time you get up to the time you go to bed is planned out for you? You think marching in good order, keeping your clothes clean, and taking orders you have no choice about teaches you responsibility?"

    I realized that many people mistake discipline for responsibility. I suppose it's an easy mistake to make, but you can be a very disciplined robot.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Humans mature independently on three different axes. Sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. Western cultures seem to deny these in favor of artificially defined "legal ages".

    In the US, these legal ages are arbitrarily set between 14 and 24 years, and are concerned with either sexual consent or business consent, corresponding to sexual maturity and intellectual maturity respectively.

    Sexual maturity occurs during puberty, intellectual maturity occurs when the individual has developed the ability to take or defer action based on knowledge and emotional maturity occurs when the individual reaches a balance between self interest and the interests of society.

    These maturity milestones are different for everyone. Sexual maturation varies between 12 and 17, with the average around 15. Some individuals can achieve emotional and intellectual maturity in their teens, while many never reach emotional or intellectual maturity.

    I must admit that on the 18th anaversery of my birthday, I felt no different than the day before.

  4. Jim,

    I gather your ? was directed at me?

    Basically, I was agreeing with your premise—that arbitrary markers of age, etc, have nothing to do with actual maturity. In an odd coincidence, it seemed Karl was underlining that point. Age has little or nothing to do with what constitutes a responsible, capable human being except in the grossest terms. But a lot of people use those arbitrary metrics to assert an adulthood they have neither achieved nor understand.

  5. MikeFitz17 says:

    Jim: I have found that there is no magic age at which you become a "man." Manhood doesn't magically happen when you grow a beard, lose your virginity, get married, father a child or receive a military medal.

    It doesn't happen if you get elected to public office or start your own business or graduate from a university. It certainly doesn't happen when you get old enough to drive a car by yourself, sign contracts, take out loans or order a beer.

    That's part of the problem with 21st Century, Western society. There are no real rituals for public declarations of manhood. The definition of manhood is totally elastic and ambiguous. It means whatever you want it to mean.

    I'm middle-aged, married and the father of three sons, but I find I am still learning what it means to be a "man." It's a definition I struggle with daily as I try to teach my sons about what it means to become a man.

    One of the things I am finding is that the new definition of manhood is synonymous with becoming "human." For me, a man is an adult male who:

    •Takes responsibility for his actions and admits mistakes.

    •Puts others before himself

    •Nurtures those younger than himself

    •Cares for those who came before him.

    Ultimately, a man is a grown male who cares about the fate of the world he leaves behind.

  6. Mike M. says:

    MikeFitz – Nice summary. Be careful of this one though: "For me, a man is an adult male who:

    •Puts others before himself."

    Potentially very dangerous. This is the belief that the military, cults and other religions, dictators, etc count on in the impressionable and pliable masses to achieve THEIR ends. I believe the first allegiance should be to youself and your immediate family, and then spiral out to extended family, friends, tribe (community) and finally humanity at large.

  7. Jim Razinha says:

    The title was meant to be tongue in cheek, and the text illustrating how arbitrary (and frustratingly absurd) some benchmarks are … not provoke a metaphysical discussion. Need to sharpen my satire pencil. The "?" was for Karl because Mark's post hadn't cleared when I glanced at the thread, but it applies for anybody trying to pin down maturity.

  8. MikeFitz17 says:

    Mike M.: Just to be clear, when I wrote that a true "man" puts others before himself, I meant that such a person has evolved beyond the narcissism and materialism of childhood and popular culture, as personified by the selfish louts who comprise the casts of dreck like "Jersey Shore."

    Sure, those clowns know how to hook up with young women, and they know all about looking tan and getting muscular. But would you describe any of those jokers as models of manhood? Of course not. No one would.

    Yes, selflessness or dedication to a greater cause can be abused and too often is. Maybe we can discuss that issue another time.

    More to the point, I believe a true man is a teacher, a coach, a leader of younger men. True men are role models. They give more back the world than they take away. Who wasn't happy today to see Stan Musial get his Medal of Freedom from President Obama? Sure, Stan was one of the best baseball players ever, a fact that too many fans overlook. But what makes me smile about him is the fact that he was a decent man who apparently spent his life trying to bring joy to others. If you haven't read Joe Posnanski's Aug. 2, 2010 portrait of Stan the Man, take a few minutes to read the link below. It's well worth the time.

    In our cynical age, when money and power seem to trump all, when celebrities of dubious talent rule the media, when scoundrels pollute the national conversation, it's still good to know there are real heroes, real men still out there giving us somone to look up to.

    For the Posnanski story, click on this link: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/ma

  9. Karl says:


    Yes, I didn't fully miss the satire, but the needle was already pulling the thread by then. Satire does have ways of being mis-interpreted, even when you wished it wasn't possible.

    Naturity is all dependent upon what one desires to become in this life and for some, the life to come.

  10. MikeFitz17 says:

    Jim: I don't want to discount the value of your satire. You used it well to make a good point about how society's legal benchmarks of adulthood are silly and arbitrary.

    But in raising this issue, you touched on some larger points that I could not resist commenting on because they've been rattling around my brain for so long.

    For a lot of reasons, our society faces a crisis in defining what it means to be a man. Who qualifies for this designation? And when? And how?

    With our society in flux, sexual roles are being redefined constantly. The answers to the above questions are getting harder to answer, and, yes, the answers I am coming up with by necessity have a "metaphysical" component.

    I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. During my adolescence growing up in the Midwest, I learned to accept the cultural norms that defined manhood: First, that true men are not sexually attracted to other men. Therefore, gay men cannot be real men.

    Second, that true men do things that women are incapable of doing because women don't have the courage or strength or whatever to do them. Things such as taking part in shooting wars, flying jet planes, building skyscrapers, driving race cars, serving as the President of the United States, etc.

    Flash forward 35 years. Now I have learned that all those accepted norms about manhood are baloney. Today I see that the concept of manhood is totally disconnected from sexual preference. I see also that many women are perfectly capable of performing so-called "masculine" activities far more competently than most men can. Our society, as evidenced by the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and acceptance of marriage equality, is slowly accepting these things as well.

    But we still have not come up with a new definition of manhood. Some people might say, "So what? Who cares? It's an obsolete concept, let it die."

    I would disagree with this view. I still believe manhood and masculinity are important attributes of our culture. Historically, they comprise a constellation of beliefs and values that have helped define who we we are going back many centuries, that are still burrowed deep in our cultural DNA.

    Think of the hero quests in the Iliad and the Odyssey and Beowulf, the tests of manhood that faced Shakespeare's antagonists.

    Our culture's need to keep alive the concept of manhood helps explain the opposition many active duty and retired military folks have expressed to the idea of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.

    The presence of openly gay troops challenges their view of what military service — traditionally one of the hallmarks of manhood — means to them. The presence of openly gay troops challenges their notion of patriotism and their belief that America's military is important because it is a Christian military defending a Christian nation.

    It doesn't matter if there is not a scintilla of empirical evidence they can draw on to prove that openly gay service members are not as brave and competent as straight service members, or that the presence of openly gay troops has any impact on unit cohesion.

    The foes of openly gay people in the military continue their opposition for irrational, but deeply felt reasons. So it goes for every other battle front in the cultural wars between conservatives and progressives.

  11. Mike M. says:

    MikeFitz: Thanks for your clarification. Seems like we're miles apart on this one; not sure if we're even speaking about the same subject actually. Well, that's the problem with semantics and the difficulty of two people trying to adjust their individual mental maps in an attempt to understand the territory, and then communicate effectively about the "same thing."

    Anyway, what I was referring to was the self-actualized "selfishness" of ego loss- with the resulting inclusion of others, and I think the "selfishness" you're referring to is the raw, ignorant narcissistic type which excludes others. I believe I get your point, and agree with it, but my point was an encouragement for people to think for themselves, to fully honor themselves, and to not surrender their minds and bodies to the will or cause of another. A call to be a fully conscious and proud human being, and a warning against giving it all away to be the puppet of another.

  12. Jim Razinha says:

    Arbitrary standards. I wrote a post on my personal blog last year that touched on adoption and naturalization tests. Maybe I should repost it here, because it's germane to this broad topic.

  13. Karl says:

    Okay Dan,

    I'll take that as a challege.

    Let's say a very large impactor like the one that is refered to as chicxulub struck the earth's surface during the time human's lived on the planet.

    The impact of chicxlub appears to have been at a fairly oblique angle and from what would be expected it not only struck the surface of the planet but also imparted tremendous energy across a wide area of the planet and the collision provided a cataclysmic amount of momentum into the crust of what were then conjoined land masses.

    Looking down on the north pole the earth rotates in a clockwise direction making the sun appear to rise in the east and set in the west. Chicxulub struck the earth from an slightly southeasterly trajectory (the bolide would have had a slight northwestly vector as it approached the impact sight.

    When the impactor struck the earth, it's fracture zone tore open the Carribean and supplied sufficient stress and strain on the crust to open up the mid Atlantic ridge. People would have felt the earth move from as far away as the Middle East.

    The rocking and rolling could have been more than just a few seconds like in some earth quakes.

    Joshua could have already been in the midst of battle and have felt the ground shake and immediately called upon the Lord God to steady the ground and steady (hold the sun still) in their eyes. Being out in an open field, the slowing, rocking and transmission of a deceleration through the crust would have made those standing lose their sense of balance, if not knock them right off of their feet.

    The atmospheric conditions would have changed within a few hours as the energy in the atmosphere was greatly upset. In Joshua, we read of great hailstoned that killed the armies that were retreating from the battle.

    Most of the particulate material from the impact would have been sent up and over the Southwestern United States, but the momentum would have caused several possible changes to the crust.

    The impact was towards the western edge of the conjoined land mass known as Pangea. The momentum to be absorbed by the crust initially made an explosive fracture in the crust, but then also acted as a hit and stick collision and would have imparted a significant amount of momentum in the reverse direction into the crust opposite of the usual direction of rotation of the planet.

    The entire rotation rate of the crust could have been disrupted for a significant time period before the chgange in momentum was fully absorbed by the planet.

    All the while the Atlantic Ridge was opening which would have mostly occured in a single day, the sun would have stayed in the sky providing for an extended amount of daylight in the Middle East, and also an extended amount of time for darkness in the Americas and even greatly extended darkness over the far east like China as the particulate matter clouded the skys for perhaps many days and weeks.

    This is only a story, with no possibility of reality, or not. I don't think Newton or Einstein would put it past the realm of good science fiction, if not simply good science.

  14. Karl says:


    Sorry this post wound up here instead of under the

    "My growing impatience with creationists: a side by side comparison of evolutionary biology and creationism."

    I also corrected some of the grammar in the last post. I wrote too hurried and didn't have my glasses on either.

    I'll post it in the right place.

  15. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl, as I am always telling you, check your numbers. The Chicxulub impactor was less than a cubic kilometer; an infinitesimal fraction of the mass of the Earth's crust (much less its solid rotating bulk). Yet its impact produced enough heat, steam, and dust to eliminate most species then living. But it could not have measurably changed the rotation of the Earth. Way too small.

    At the scale of our planet and the speed of our orbit and escape velocity, the crust acts more like the skim on scalded milk hit by a raisin than a Crème brûlée hit by a fork. The Earth's crust has negligible tensile strength.

    Pangea first split along the Atlantic rift about 250 million years ago, according to several independent means of measuring. We still don't know exactly why, but anyone who has watched the slag on a large ladle of copper or steel (as I have) knows that these things happen.

  16. Karl says:


    I check the numbers when they are beyond question.

    Someone's current research about a past event that gets published means something to me in the grand scheme of things but I don't consider these findings to be inerrant, holy and above reproach.

    In my estimation, the crater discovered at the Chicxulub impactor location is only a small fraction of what remains of a impact that both formed the Caribbean plate and plowed up the fault that stretches across the region. What remains is also greatly eroded and there are indications of larger circumferences according to some of the research.

    You have just said in so many words that the crust is like an outer covering that is somewhat detached from what is underneath. I fully believe this and consider that parts of that skin could be explosively sent in opposite directions all the while the entire skin was being forced to absorb the tremendous momentum of a large impactor.

  17. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl, your misconception in this case appears to be the inability to understand the difference in scale between the soft, thin crust of a mostly molten planet and the hard shell of an egg. You also don't recall the many times I've gone over some of the many various techniques used for dating events in the past.

    Nothing in science is taken as "inerrant, holy and above reproach". But things that have been proven many times from several disciplines and still are waiting to be shown any contradictory evidence are considered pretty trustworthy. Such as plate tectonics and the age and effects of the catastrophic Chicxulub event.

    Yes the Chicxulub crater has eroded and been covered by sediments, both in the proportion expected for approximately 65 million years. And it is in the North American plate a few hundred miles north of the nearest edge of the Caribbean Plate.

    The crust is not "detached" from the mantle, but it is floating on it in exactly the manner that slag floats on molten metal that is heated from below, subject to eddies and currents in the underlying fluid. Allowing for scale, of course. If you push on a region of crust, you get local mountains rather than a shoving of the plate. The underlying material is sticky, sort of like molasses.

    Boy! Has this thread wandered!

  18. Dan Klarmann says:

    The skin (crust) as a whole doesn't actually absorb the impact. Most of the energy turns to heat, vaporizing the local area. There is also some splashing of material from both the bolide and the crust. This is how it was discovered in the first place; a worldwide layer of peculiarly extraterrestrial chemistry. The 180 mile diameter Chicxulub crater is the area within which the energy was expressed. The plate that was hit was not split nor moved by the impact, or there would be a sign of plate division though the crater area. There isn't.

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