Skip to Content
Advanced Search

Reaching up for manhood


Canada, G. (1998). Reaching up for manhood: Transforming the lives of boys in America. Boston: Beacon Press.


Reaching Up for Manhood was written as a contrast to the numerous books addressing the dangers that adolescent girls face today. Geoffery Canada observes that there is a false sense of security in regard to how boys are managing in these modern times.

Boys find themselves pulled and tugged by forces beyond their control as they make the confusing and sometimes perilous trip to manhood. Some lose their way. While reaching up for manhood they tumble over a moral and ethical precipice and many can never scale their way back up (p. xiii).

He shares his own experiences growing up in the 1960s along with the experiences of some that he works with today. He addresses areas in which contemporary boys struggle and need guidance: healing, risk, self-worth, fatherhood, sex, drugs, faith, work, and mentors.

Geoffrey Canada is the president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in New York City. Its goal is to provide help for young people in critical areas. This help is administered through the public school and consists of homework help, tutoring, and recreational programs. The Center also employs social workers who provide drug counseling and advise parents. His perspective on the subject of boys comes not only from direct observation of the youth with whom he interacts, but also from his own experiences growing up in the South Bronx of New York.

Canada stresses throughout the book the strong influence that role models have in the lives of boys. Role models, however, are not always positive; often, they are negative. Customarily these negative role models are not adults, but peers. Boys learn the ways of the street from the street leaders. In the Bronx while he was growing up, fathers were a rare commodity. "My older brother was the closest thing I had to a father. He didn’t have any money, he couldn’t beat up the older boys who threatened and terrorized us, but he could show me how to face adversity. You could laugh in its face and pedal harder" (p. 44). Through the Rheedlen Center, Canada seeks to provide positive role models for these boys. These role models must show tenderness, care, and love, and must not curse, use drugs, drink, or intimidate children. This list of minimum requirements emerges from a negative experience with mentors he had as a boy.

Masculine and feminine character traits are clearly defined in this country. In the process of raising children, these traits are imparted to them by parents or other adults. Canada describes the process through which boys are socialized to be tough. We teach them early on that boys don’t cry, they must be brave, and they must never show that anything or anyone hurts them. But in teaching boys to deny their pain, we inadvertently teach them to deny others’ pain.

More and more I have become concerned with what boys think they should be, with what they believe it means to be a man. Our beliefs about maleness, the mythology that surrounds being male, has led many boys to ruin. The image of male as strong is mixed with the image of male as violent. Male as virile gets confused with male as promiscuous. Male as adventurous equals male as reckless. Male as intelligent often gets mixed with male as arrogant, racist, and sexist (pp. xii-xiii).

This tough, violent image of men is perpetuated and passed on from generation to generation. This cycle can be broken through an intervention by a positive mentor or role model. An important role of a mentor is to help build within the boy a strong and healthy self-image. Many boys are not taught to withstand the assault of peers and advertising. Canada stresses personal accomplishments and hard work as a means to developing a strong sense of self. Parents must continuously reinforce self-worth based on what is inside—not on the outside—because they will continually be attacked from the outside.

In life, there will always be incidences of failure. Canada stresses the importance of forgiveness and its necessity in the life of boys. It is a dangerous position when parents become so frustrated with sons that they feel like giving up on them. "Children are most at risk when parents have given up hope" (p. 103). It is at this crucial point that parents must learn to tell their sons, "I know you can change." Along with forgiving them, it is important to teach them how to forgive themselves. This prevents them from internalizing their failures and concluding, "I’m no good."

Along with a healthy self-image, a healthy work ethic is also invaluable. Canada learned about the importance of work from his grandmother. Many boys, however, are conditioned to think that hard work is beneath them Girls are required to do housework, so they learn to accept it. However boys’ first experience with hard work is often during their first job. Because they have little or no foundation in hard work, they will often abandon the job. "We should view work, hard work, as a necessary rite of passage for boys early in heir lives. We must teach them that there is nothing demeaning in working hard, whether it’s for money or not" (p. 121). This early foundation in training boys to work will not only get boys to adulthood but will have long term effects on their success and productivity as adults.

The idea of male role models for boys is woven throughout the book. Canada shares his own experiences both with having role models and with being a role model. Along with his own biological son and stepson, he has four "sons" he has helped raise from childhood. He admits that he has been a tough father, but the success that his "sons" have achieved is testimony to his capability as a mentor. The bottom line for Geoffery Canada is that individuals who are concerned for the welfare of young men should seek out ways to be positive mentors to them.



    • How do you respond to this article? What do you agree with? Disagree with?
    • Do we socialize boys in such a way that they learn to place themselves in "risky" situations?
    • Are boys’ lives at greater risk of danger today than boys of the 1960s? Why or why not?
    • Can and will inner-city, low-income boys relate to mentors who are tender, caring, loving, and who do not curse, use drugs, and drink?

      1. The behavior that we model for our boys (especially bad behavior) will be modeled by them. As adults, we must acknowledge that our lives and actions are being observed and learned by our boys, and we must model acceptable behavior.
      2. Unless we modify the way boys are socialized in our society, we will perpetuate many of the risky behaviors in which boys participate.
      3. Fathers can and should be the best role models for boys, but if no father is present, then other positive male role models should be sought to teach and guide boys.
      Timothy E. Marton cCYS