How one mother keeps her teenage son close enough to guide him.
I am the mom of my thirteen year old son who is deeply entrenched in the struggle of adolescence, but so far, in a good way. I refer to this struggle as good, because he is learning who he is more each week and so far, his confidence is growing as he becomes physically stronger, able to exercise his earned independence, and is received in a less childlike manner from our neighbors, teachers, coaches, family members, and strangers. With the good comes the awkward, moody, self-consciousness, semi-intolerant times when he needs his space in his bedroom to listen to his music, reflect on his day, text his friends, or watch stupid videos on You Tube. I’ve noticed this decompression time alone allows him to relax and figure out all those things going through his head. He emerges from his room chatty, silly, questioning, helpful, and hungry—always hungry! Sometimes he stays in his room, but the door opens, and he yells out questions or comments to me, inviting me into his space indirectly, without having to say, “Mom, c’mere. I need you.”
If parents don’t pay attention to the very subtle cues our boys give us, we miss out on a lot of opportunities to listen and share with them. Boys want independence so badly at this age, but they also need reassurance and feedback that what they are doing is right or wrong. They want to hear what you may have done at their age that wasn’t always perfect, to be able to see that they too will make it through the first real breakup, or will survive the temperamental science teacher who they struggle with at school.
In my opinion, the keys to (so far) successfully guiding my son through adolescence are communication, opportunity, and activity. While seemingly basic, we parents need to make a commitment to recognize there are a lot of things that can negatively influence our boys if we don’t make the effort and pay attention to their needs and curiosities.
If boys—or anyone—are raised in an environment where topics are openly discussed in a nonjudgmental way, I think they are less afraid to ask questions, share feelings, get angry (in a healthy way) and feel safe to show their emotions. There will always be disagreements and my role as mom as a dictator may enter, but only when my boy needs to be nudged back into doing what’s right or safe, and being reminded about what responsibility and respect are about. They still after all, are kids, and occasionally need a direct statement with no room for negotiation. “Please call or write your grandmother a thank you card for your birthday present before dinner.” “No, you can’t play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto at your friend’s house.” “Shit is not an appropriate word when sharing your displeasure about your homework. I don’t want to hear it again.”
Parents also need to pay more attention to the opportunities around us every day that we can use as conversation starters or examples of potential embarrassing or critical topics. I’ve raised more issues and had more conversations with my son after walking through a CVS or Duane Reade passing the aisle of condoms, tampons, StriDex, deodorant, an STD flyer at the pharmacy, Preparation-H, a Maxim magazine—the drugstore is the great equalizer and some insightful questions can be raised there!
How about the learning opportunities walking down a street can present—holding the door for someone, returning something inadvertently dropped by the person in front of you, giving directions to someone who is lost, dropping some change into a homeless person’s hand, observing construction workers busting their ass in 95 degree heat, passing all the different ethnicities and styles of dress, reading menus outside of different restaurants, understanding which bus to take, etc.? You can talk to your son about the importance of honesty, empathy, work ethic, patience, respect, sex, tolerance, generosity, culture, music… We as parents just need to pay attention and use the opportunities we see every day to gently work in a life lesson. Show them how choices that are made lead to consequences of their actions. They need to learn what hard work is, how to handle mistakes, know they are not the center of the universe who is owed anything, but regardless, will always be accepted and loved at home.
My last ‘must-have’ I’ve discovered in raising a teen boy is activity. Boys are active learners and need to move! My son is not going to open up to me about a touchy subject while we are sitting on the couch and I’m totally focused on him. He needs to walk, bike, throw, cook, run, swim, paint, climb, shuffle cards, fold laundry—and I need to do some of that with him. Conversations flow a lot easier when we are shooting baskets, mushing up the ingredients to make meatballs, hitting baseballs, or laughing at my inability to throw a football. This, I think, is the easiest thing parents can do with and for their boys—do something with them. Embrace and encourage their interests and skills. Don’t try to change who they truly are. And don’t forget to hug them. They still need affection—not at drop off at school in the morning, but when you won’t embarrass them.
I’m lucky enough to have a happy, healthy teenager to share my time with in a safe neighborhood where his biggest stress is the C+ earned on his grammar test. But I also recognize that it takes a lot of work, time, common sense, forgiveness, and love to have raised my son to be smart and confident enough to handle the pressures thrown at him every day. It is a great gift as a parent to see my child change so remarkably from a small boy in footie pajamas sleeping with his teddy bear in his crib—to a 5’9”, size 13 sneaker wearing, long legged, young man, listening to Kendrick Lamar, still with his teddy bear in bed with him.
Image courtesy of the author