The Child Is the Father to the Man: 9 Foundational Habits Young Men Should Start Now to Raise Themselves Right

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Awhile back I was driving through the place where I grew up – Edmond, Oklahoma – and happened to pass by my old high school. This wasn’t an unusual event; I now live just an hour and a half from Edmond and my parents still reside there, so I’m back fairly frequently and sometimes pass the school. But this time something was different. On past occasions, I would be hit with a rush of nostalgia and memories of my days there would vividly come back to me. This time, however, I felt…nothing. Cognitively I thought, “There’s my old high school,” but no emotional wires were tripped. It seemed like just another building – my feeling of strong personal connection to it had disappeared.

As I drove on and contemplated this change and the distance I realized I now felt towards my youth in general, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt I had read years earlier came back to me: “The child is father to the man.” When I first came across the quote, it had puzzled me. I couldn’t really grasp what it meant. But as I drove past the home of the Edmond North Huskies, I began to understand it.

Roosevelt, I learned, was not the originator of the quote – he was in fact referencing a poem by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I beholdA rainbow in the sky:So was it when my life began;So is it now I am a man;So be it when I shall grow old,Or let me die!The Child is father of the Man;And I could wish my days to beBound each to each by natural piety.

What Wordsworth had in mind with these lines is the idea that a man’s passions, interests, curiosity, and penchant for awe and wonderment are born in youth and run an unsevered thread into adulthood. While some adults forgot the childlike joy of their younger years, Wordsworth believed it was still within them waiting to be rediscovered.

This is a worthy idea, and one that few men embraced with the vigor of Theodore Roosevelt, who bounded through his entire life with an unflagging boyish enthusiasm. But when TR professed that the child is the father of the man, he had something much different in mind, as he writes in his autobiography:

“Looking back, a man really has a more objective feeling about himself as a child than he has about his father or mother. He feels as if that child were not the present he, individually, but an ancestor; just as much an ancestor as either of his parents.  The saying that the child is the father to the man may be taken in a sense almost the reverse of that usually given to it. The child is father to the man in the sense that his individuality is separate from the individuality of the grown-up into which he turns. This is perhaps one reason why a man can speak of his childhood and early youth with a sense of detachment.”

At a certain point in your life — if you’re like me, it will happen in your late twenties — you will begin to experience the phenomenon of which TR speaks. The person you were as a boy and a young man will begin to seem like another individual, rather separate from your grown-up self. It’s a strange thing to experience. It’s not that you lose memories of your past, or necessarily let go of the youthful ideals and traits that Wordsworth cherished, but simply that your boyhood self and your current self come to seem like two distinct individuals.

Why does this cleaving between youth and adulthood occur? Surely some of it can be chalked up to the simple passage of time; as you grow older, your memories, and thus the attachment you feel to your past, become hazier. But it is also likely has its roots in neurology. As we discussed in our post about twentysomethings, your brain does not finish “setting up” until around your mid-twenties, which is also — not coincidentally, I would argue — around the time that your youthful self will begin to seem more like a distinct entity. The brain of your youth is not the brain of your adulthood, and the latter can remember and view the former almost as an outside observer.

What Kind of Man Are You Going to Father?

All this may be interesting to ponder, but it also has two practical implications that are vital for young men to understand.

First, what your present self wants and desires probably isn’t going to be what your future self wants and desires. When we’re young, we’re typically more present-focused. We worry about what can give us pleasure NOW and not ten years from now. So we spend money instead of save it, eat like crap, and play video games all night long, instead of eating right, exercising, and seeking experiences that will grow our minds and character. Sure, pleasure-oriented pursuits feel good in the moment, but our future selves will probably prefer to have more money in the bank and less blubber around our mid-sections.

Second, at this very moment, you are creating or “fathering” the man you will be in five, ten, and twenty years. So you want to be a successful, financially secure, physically fit, and well-adjusted forty-year-old? What actions are you taking NOW as a twenty-year-old to father that man? Just like one day you’ll need to be intentional about fathering your biological children, right now you need to be intentional about fathering your future self. Will you be an absentee dad who leaves your 30-year-old self feeling lost and adrift? Or will you raise a man who is intelligent, virtuous, and able to tackle life with confidence and vigor? No one can control the kind of biological father they are born with. But every young man can strive to be the best possible father to his future self.

Doing this doesn’t mean taking life too seriously and eschewing the fun you should be having as a young adult. It simply means establishing a set of foundational habits that will serve you well now and that you will thank yourself for later.

As we explored in our series on your twenties, after your brain finishes developing, changing your habits, while still possible, becomes harder. For this reason, your youth is the best and easiest time to transform yourself into the man you want to become. The positive habits you create as a young man will become a solid foundation you can build on for the rest of your life. What’s more, research has found that simply imagining yourself as an old person can increase your chances of establishing positive habits, like saving money. 

Below are nine foundational habits that will help every young man raise himself right.

1. Save 20% of Your Money 

Many young men will say to themselves that when they finally start making “real” money then they’ll start saving. If only that were true. In a post on the financial regrets of college graduates, we mentioned that the majority of men coming out of school wish they had started saving sooner. It may seem hard when you don’t have much income, but like anything, starting small will increase your chances of future success exponentially.

Make it a habit right now, no matter what your paycheck is, to put 20% of your after-tax income into savings. The easy way to do it is to set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account the day after you get paid. That way, it comes right out of your account just like a bill, and you don’t even have to think about it. Don’t be among the 25% of Americans who don’t save at all. If you own a car or a home, you know how stressful it can be when things inevitably go awry – the air conditioner goes out, a tire gets punctured. There’s a great sense of relief (and even pride) when you have the cash to handle it instead of using credit.

2. Exercise Daily 

Regular exercise provides a boatload of benefits — from improving cardiovascular health, to fighting stress and depression, to increasing testosterone. Thus, there are few habits that will better ensure a lifetime of success and well-being than making a daily workout a non-negotiable part of your life. Instead of trying to get on the exercise wagon when you’re a tired, out-of-shape, middle-aged man with a lot of responsibilities and very little time, make it a habit now when you’re at the top of your game. Regular exercise is a tough routine to start, but once it becomes a solid habit, most people continue with it indefinitely. The physical and psychological benefits become almost impossible to give up.

3. Eat Healthy

If you want to avoid becoming a pot-bellied man, you need to establish good eating habits today. Research has shown again and again that diet is the biggest factor in maintaining a healthy weight.

Unfortunately, many young men develop poor eating habits in high school and college. With all-you-can-eat cafeterias and vending machines all over campus, it’s easy for a poor diet to become the norm. You can often get away with subsisting on pop tarts and pizza for a while because of your scorching metabolism. But as you age and that metabolism slows down, the junk food diet catches up with you and the pounds start piling on. Develop healthy eating habits now, so you don’t have to struggle to do a one-eighty when you’re facing down your ten-year reunion with a 40-inch waist. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated; for a good place to start, check out Steve Kamb’s easy to follow guide to the paleo diet over on Nerd Fitness.

4. Plan Weekly and Daily

If I were asked which habit has contributed most to my success and well-being as an adult, I’d have to say weekly and daily planning. The power of planning lies in the perspective and control it provides for your life; it gives you both a broad, birds-eye view of the maze that must be navigated to achieve your long-term goals, and the ability to manage the small, day-to-day tasks that are essential to reaching those aims. Without daily and weekly planning, you end up getting distracted, forgetting what you need to do, and ending each day with the restless anxiety born from knowing you pretty much wasted your daylight – again.

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