Letter to a godson

Dear Friend,

I know what you are thinking, four books, two of them over 500 pages.  This is a gift?  Who are you kidding?

A little over a month ago, I attended a dinner party in Atlanta, a somewhat formal affair at an old Southern club in a private room, but made special by the occasion and discussion. We were celebrating a young man’s 18th birthday and the attendees were all men who had known the honoree for years. Instead of material presents, we were to bring words of encouragement and counsel about becoming a man. Sounds easy, but would eight older men offer similar or even consistent advice on the topic?  None of the men had experienced such a dinner growing up and most men do not regularly even discuss the meaning of manhood nor how to define or measure success.

We were charged to write the birthday boy a letter, but not a rah rah, you are a great person letter.  The letter was to be serious, insightful and potentially even critical.

As the honoree is my godson, I had the opportunity to visit with him prior to driving to the club.  As a senior in high school dealing with tests, college applications, a new girlfriend and all the other variables for a typical 18 year-old, he was not at all excited about going to dinner with a bunch of men he kind of knew, but none of which he regularly just hung out with. The fact that it was a school night added stress, and he was wondering whether he could be home in an hour.

The dinner took longer than an hour during which we talked and laughed freely. The honoree was visibly moved by the reading of the letters and the general overall discussion.  By the end, he knew he was loved, knew these men had his back, and understood that none of us believed he would lead a perfect life – none of us had – but that when he screwed up he needed to own it, deal with the consequences and move on. Most importantly, he left with a clear understanding that becoming a successful man was going to be hard. We would be there to help and provide advice, but he had to pick his path and do the heavy lifting.

Preparing for the dinner, thinking about what my advice was going to be got me thinking about what I might be able to do that might lead to more such dinners. Or, maybe a bigger goal of what I could do to help younger dads navigate the path of raising their kids in a way that such a dinner would be common, where a son would be looking forward to the dinner and the invited men share a view of the meaning of becoming a man.

The easy solution for me would be to hand out a book that addresses the issue with a to-do list. However, the box has not one, but four books and this memo is rather long so my conclusion is that one book is not enough, and additional insight might prove helpful. I assume you have a Bible, an incredible reference guide on how to become a successful man, providing valuable insight into all aspects of our lives. I would also venture to guess you have other books on this subject because you have a natural desire to seek advice or some loving person felt you might need outside assistance. Please consider these four as a starting point, not an end point. They are reference tools. Think of them as core holdings in your library. You might only reference them once a year, but over the 20 years of raising kids, they will hopefully provide you with answers to critical questions during stressful or emotional periods. You could be read one of them nightly with your son or daughter, whatever their age.

It can be overwhelming to get one book, much less four at a time, but at a minimum read along and see if any of them create a desire to approach life a little more pro-actively.

An Educated Child – A Parent’s Guide from Preschool Through Eighth Grade by William J Bennett and others. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, best-selling author Stephen Covey makes the point we should start with the end in mind.  As you consider the hopes and dreams you have for your children, education will play an important role. A couple will stress about schools. Some couples will go a level deeper and consider the curriculum of the various schools. Who determines what our children learn? We, as parents, should but most of us are not qualified to and many of us assume the experts know best, but who are the experts? An Educated Child is a wonderful resource for parents to at least have a bar against which to judge the curriculum of the school. As your child progresses from kindergarten to 8th grade, refer to it annually to see if there are things you might do at home to supplement what your kids are learning at school. It does not have to be a check every box. This is a guide, not an exhaustive complete or fail your child resource. By being familiar with what your child is or should be studying, you change the conversation at home. Consider reading some of the suggested books out loud or along with your child in order to impact the dinner table or car pool conversation.

Bennett says of the book: “Treat it as a resource to consult during your child’s passage from earliest years to the threshold of high school. Keep it handy on a shelf. Pick it up and browse from time to time. Check to see what sorts of lessons good schools teach. If your child needs to improve homework habits, turn to that section. If you have doubts about your school’s social studies curriculum, spend some time with the chapters on history and geography. This book can be a tool to help you stay a step ahead of the game and spot problems before they have a chance to hinder your child’s education.”

Stated another way: know where your child is in school, why there, what they are learning and what you need to add outside the classroom.

The Book of Man – Readings on the Path to Manhood, also by William Bennett. The purpose of the book is to explore and explain what it means to be a man. To quote him: “In these pages you will find a variety of sources that offer a coherent, defensible, and appealing notion of manhood…these readings define what a man should be, how he should live, and the things to which he should aspire.” Articles, letters, essays, speeches, prayers, pages from books by Shakespeare, 1 Samuel, Plato, Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great, Pericles, Ronald Reagan, John Milton, Longfellow, Emerson, Aristotle and more are woven together to provide a vivid picture of what manhood should look like. Bennett argues that “the virtues, characteristics, and challenges of manhood remain the same today as thousands of years ago and that more than ever we need men who live like men.” The book reinforces that throughout the ages, mankind has wrestled with defining what being a man really means and why it is important.

This is a book that can be read nightly. The essays cover over 2,000 years of literature. Many of the authors your child will read or at least read about in their formal education. Give them a head start by reading their works early.

The Timechart History of the World – Over 6,000 Years of World History Unfolded (literally). First, this is a really cool book. It unfolds to 22 feet long! Depicting the timeline from Adam and Eve to present day, we gain great perspective. We realize we are here for a very brief period, but as we digest this fact we realize that certain people had a disproportionate impact on history. Unfold the timeline on your floor, look at the Biblical ancestry from Adam to Jesus, consider the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, Rome conquering the known Western world, the timing of world-changing inventions and in modern day, the complex world landscape our leaders have to manage. This book will not be as fast as Google in providing an answer, but to sit down occasionally with the kids as they work through history in grades K-12 will add great perspective to the answers.

Raising A Modern Knight – A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood by Robert Lewis.  This is the book that lead to the birthday dinner, a book that challenges men on how they raise their sons by asking the hard questions and providing at least this author’s opinion. You have to decide if you agree or not, but at a minimum, come up with your own definition. In a similar dinner six years ago, the advice given a young man included the following:

  • Take the harder path
  • Be humble
  • Take time to be with your heavenly Father
  • Learn from those that preceded you
  • Always do what is “right”
  • Pursue Godliness
  • Define success
  • Understand true leadership
  • Give
  • Live a life that exhausts you
  • “The world needs more men and women who:
    • Do not have a price at which they can be bought
    • Who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency
    • Whose handshake is an ironclad contract
    • Who are not afraid of risk
    • Who are honest in small matters as they are in large ones
    • Whose ambitions are big enough to include others
    • Who knows how to win with grace and accept disappointment with dignity
    • Who still have friends they made 60 years ago
    • …in short, the world needs leaders.”
  • Great men make enemies


Lewis puts forth a vision for manhood:

  • A real man rejects passivity
  • A real man accepts responsibility
  • A real man leads courageously
  • A real man expects the greater reward

I do not know about you, but I have not done well at all these!

If you have been kind enough to read this far, but you only have daughters you are probably thinking I am rude and thoughtless to have sent you this. Actually, it is the opposite. All of these concepts can and should be applied to daughters but this is from the raising of a son perspective. Fathers of daughters have a harder time. We are relying on other dads to raise men good enough for our daughters to marry. What kind of man do you want for your daughter? As your daughter grows up what will you tell her she should look for in a man. We should encourage all dads of boys to consider this and help provide them with resources so their sons can be the best husbands and fathers. One of my daughters was kind enough to ask me to write down five traits she should look for in a man. What would you write to your daughter? Here is what I wrote to her:

Per your request here are five traits (customized), I believe you should consider in a mate:


1. Faith – it is hard to build a strong relationship when you do not have the same foundation as a starting point. Later in married life when you hit troubled waters you want to be using the same rule book.


2. Even tempered – you have a tendency to migrate to the extremes, so having a mate that has a narrower range will prove healthier for the relationship (your mother may differ on this point as she often wishes I had more range)


3. He has lots of friends – this is a great indicator of his social graces. If he does not have friends now, he will have fewer later and you do not like being a hermit. Boys that lack friends have a difficult time with intimacy needed in a marriage.


4. Ambition – not necessarily financial but definitely someone who wants to excel at whatever he does – you will not enjoy a beer-drinking, football-watching couch potato


5. Strong family – Your road will be easier if his parents and grandparents are still married. It means he does not assume that marriage ends in divorce, which even if he says he does not believe it ends there, if he has seen it, he can fall into it. It also makes for less drama during holidays, raising children, etc.


Minor points I would add:


6. Self Control – if he cannot hold his liquor, it is unlikely he will stop drinking as he gets older. If he overspends today, he will max out his credit card tomorrow, etc….


7. Enjoys exercising – exercising is important and enjoyable for you and it would be best if he was like minded


8. Thrifty – you like to shop, you will need someone who will constrain you. It would be helpful if he was financially astute, since you do not like the financial arena.


9. Not someone attached to his mother or someone who has an overbearing mother


10. Laughs a lot – a good sense of humor makes for a more enjoyable companion


11. How he treats his friends and family – that is how he will treat you.


12. Avoid problem characters, you will not be able to change or fix him


13. Does he possess those character traits that add up to a good human being – the willingness to forgive, praise, and be courteous? Or is he inclined to be a fibber, to fits of rage, to be a control freak, to be envious of you, to be secretive?


14. Does he cherish you for who you are, not who he would like you to be?


Thank you for asking,

Love Dad


Obviously I had trouble keeping my list to 5. The point is that fathers of daughters would benefit greatly by helping dads of sons. I would also mention that my brilliant wife also followed Robert Lewis’s book and crafted a dinner celebration for our four daughters. It was meaningful and appreciated by our daughters. Yes, their dinner lasted longer than the guy dinners I have attended.

Given the opportunity what would you write to a young man? I offer the letter I wrote my godson.

It is an honor and pleasure to be here tonight to celebrate your 18th birthday alongside these other men that have been involved in your life.  Life will start coming at you very fast. You obviously have a solid foundation to grow from given all your accomplishments but this is probably a good time to remind you that your frontal lobe will not be fully developed until you’re 25, so your ability to navigate bungee jumping, cliff diving, car racing, much less alcohol, drugs, sex and rock and roll is very much in doubt.

As you consider the paths available to you over the next few years, you will have to confront hard truths. What kind of man are you? What kind of man do you want to become? Men today are abandoning the role God laid out for them. Men are lost and have gotten lazy.

  • Women now surpass men in college degrees by almost three to two.
  • The out-of-wedlock birthrate is more than 40% in America.
  • Today, 18-to- 34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12-to- 17-year-old boys.


How will you deal with this environment?

I have a present for you. It is a modern technological marvel – a watch. Today we take telling time for granted, but back in 1707 an inability to tell time cost almost 2,000 British sailors their lives in a tragic maritime disaster off the rocky Isles of Sicily. This loss of life led British Parliament to offer a monetary prize to whoever could build an accurate chronometer. In one sense it was an arms race. The Spanish had offered a prize since 1567, the Dutch from 1636 and the French in 1666.

The problem was solved by a simple carpenter named John Harrison and the British would rule the seas for several generations. We should not take the little things for granted, understand history and context.

This watch has a compass. Knowing right from wrong and knowing what direction you are heading is good starting point. If you are like your father or me, or probably like every other man here, you will become lost at some point in the next 7 years. Hopefully having a compass will remind you of the options you really have vs. the options you may think you have.

It has a barometer. It will tell you if a storm is approaching.  Stay sensitive to what is going on around you. You will face storms but if you have prepared and can anticipate them, they are much easier to ride out.

It has an altimeter to tell you the altitude. The higher you go, the thinner the air. As you have probably found in student government, with leadership comes responsibility and few around you really appreciate the challenges you face. The road to higher ground is arduous, but the view from the top of the mountain is rewarding and the sense of accomplishment great.

This watch is solar powered. Humans need the sun. Always take time to rejuvenate by going outside and re acquainting yourself with God’s glory.

The time is automatically updated by a wireless signal sent from one of 6 atomic clocks around the world. While we may live in a bubble, we are impacted by the bigger world around us. Be aware of the signals that friends and family are sending you from a distance.

It has alarms to wake you. In college and in life, learn to take 20 minute naps. They are refreshing and relieve stress. An anesthesiologist told me about them 30 years ago. Don’t go longer than 20 minutes or it is harder to get back up to speed.

And it will tell you the time. If you have not read the book Ecclesiastes, you should:

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet[a] no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Keep proper perspective, control time, do not let it control you.

William, you have been blessed by being born in the United Sates where we are free and have the right to vote, which you should take every advantage of, born to loving parents who have raised you and provided an incredible education as a foundation. God has given you size and stamina. May you use all that has been provided for good and to help make the world a better place.

Use the functions of this watch to help make wise life decisions, but also remember that although it is a technical marvel, you have more than it to call on when you may think you are lost.

Happy Birthday.