Dear Nadine, What’s your advice for moms of sons? — Debbie, Madison WI
In the week when my son captained his soccer team and scored the winning goal, he also tapped his way through his first dance recital (to a round of enthusiastic applause), received a thank you note from the Children’s Hospital for the cuddly toys he’d collected for the kids, and supported (with jokes, hugs and prayers) his sister through surgery. That same week, we caught him throwing stones at our roof (which caused some damage) and watched him run headfirst into a moving cart, resulting in cuts, bruises and tears.
Raising a spirited boy isn’t a cakewalk, but it’s always meaningful and often magical. And yet, somewhere along the line, our spirited boys who are creative and scientific, who are just as happy dressing up in their sister’s fairy costume as well as their Spiderman outfits, who are quick to laugh and quick to cry, who love chess and Legos and watching baseball, but will also rub chalk on the driveway, practice the piano, read and volunteer — change. Those open little boys grow into teenagers who are not so open — mentally, emotionally or spiritually — resulting in a painful set of problems that affect our boys — heart, mind and soul.
How bad are those problems? Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Raising Cain and host of the PBS Documentary Raising Cain: Boys in Focus, notes, “American boys are 15 times more likely than girls to abuse drugs and alcohol and twice as likely to die in a car crash. Boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of high school. Women are currently earning 56 percent of the college degrees in the U.S. and 55 percent of the graduate degrees. Though the epidemic of violence that gripped young men in the U.S. from 1975 to 1995 has diminished, young men in America are still the most violent in the industrialized world. And boys are not just a threat to other people; they account for 85 percent of completed suicides.”
For parents, these statistics are grim, but unsurprising. Why? Because we’ve witnessed: Columbine; Sandy Hook; the Aurora Movie Theater shooting and the Virginia Tech’ shooting. We’ve read about the Maryville High School footballer rape case, the Steubenville High School footballer rape case and the Calhoun High School drinking and post-prom rape case. And that’s why it’s our responsibility to intervene in our boys’ lives and alter that downward trajectory that seems to begin with the onset of the teenage years, so that our boys’ futures are bright and beautiful and filled with hope and not declining into drugs, drink, depression or despair.
To support our spirited boys through their teens, it’s useful to understand what these years are about. Psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that the teens are characterized by a search for identity. Basically, as our kids hit 12, like caterpillars, they enter their own psycho-spiritual cocoon and embark on an inner odyssey that sees them struggle with and negotiate through their many social interactions to develop affiliations to ideals, causes and friends and acquire their own moral compass.
To navigate that journey successfully, our sons must develop traits of trust, independence, competence, confidence and control, and be able to listen to the voice of their soul. If they do this, our spirited boys will be ready to plan for and then move onto the next phase of their life, where they will emerge as the 20-something butterflies embracing a young manhood, where they will embark on a career, enjoy a fulfilling relationship, and perhaps raise a family. In comparison, Erikson says that the spirited teen who fails to find himself will likely “sink into confusion, unable to make decisions and choices, especially about vocation and his role in life in general.” As parents, it’s our job help our boys cultivate those character traits which will ensure success. So how do we do that?
Ensure that your spirited boy has weekly access to strong, positive male role models — father, cousin, minister or teacher, for example — who will pass on their inner male wisdom, skills and knowledge. Have grandpa take your son fishing every Sunday, encourage dad to teach his son to be handy around the house, ask your younger brother talk to your son about adolescent issues like friendships, school and the future. As your spirited boy learns new skills and competencies from men who inspire him, he will feel good about himself and begin to see the man in himself that he can become. Literally, a few good men in your son’s life, equates to a lot of great medicine!
Dr. Laura concurs, “Teenage boys need a good adult man to be a role model. There are many studies on the detriment to boys due to the lack of a father in their lives.” And if you son doesn’t have a positive male role model, encourage your son to join a group (sports team, interest group or ministry, for example) where he’ll see men leading, teaching and role-modeling those positive traits you want your son to learn.
Next, keep the love (and the communication of it) flowing. As Sai Baba said, “Love one another and help others to rise to the higher levels, simply by pouring out love. Love is infectious and the greatest healing energy.” So give your big kid a hug or kiss if he’ll allow, rub his head, provide a back scratch, a shoulder massage, offer a friendly high five or gentle bump as you pass him each day. And ensure that you make an effort to tell your spirited kid what you appreciate about him and why.
Even though your teen may say little, he’ll feel a lot. Your communication of love and appreciation will bolster his self-worth and foster confidence. And confidence will ensure that your son can cope with tough issues like standing up to bullies or refusing to try drugs or alcohol or speaking up when life at school is going downhill.
Michael L. Stolley, LCSW, agrees: “In today’s society, teenage boys get very little acknowledgement from their parents, teachers, and peers for the gifts, talents and strengths they possess…(In contrast)…I try to make it a practice to focus more on their strengths than their weaknesses…It is fascinating to see how boys respond when I get excited and praise them for their successes.” So vocalize the love!
Third, build your son’s independence with daily chores! Work democratically with your son to decide what his responsibilities at home should include. You might agree that he should clean his room, wash and put away his laundry, clear the dishwasher, carry down the trash, vacuum, help cook and complete his homework each day. Also, agree on fair consequences for incomplete chores and, like Moses, write those Ten Commandments down, enforce them and thank him when he’s done. As Matthew Jones Jr. writes in Raising Boys to Become Responsible Men, “Teenagers need the security of knowing where their parents stand and what they expect of them.”
Your spirited boy’s contribution is important. It teaches your son that he can make a meaningful difference to the quality of his family’s life, provides him with a sense of accomplishment and that clean room and completed chores will increase his sense of control and groundedness. For a teen on a mini rollercoaster of physical, emotional and mental changes, groundedness is simply the next best thing to Godliness!
Fourth, encourage your kid to climb outside of his teenage box and lend a helping hand by volunteering for a couple of hours each week during summer. Like any teen, your spirited kid can get focused on his phone, friends and football. Volunteerism provides an inspiring counterbalance to that inward looking kid — worldview — and will challenge his thinking about himself and his life, develop his kindness, character and compassion, teach him new skills and remind him of his blessings. Literally, in giving to others he will give to himself, as the research shows.
In a controlled, randomized study of 100 high school students in British Columbia who volunteered weekly for three months, Drs. Hannah M. C. Schreier, Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl and Edith Chen found that volunteering left students happier and healthier than their non-volunteering peers. Specifically they noted that, “Student volunteers show improvements in both academic and well-being outcomes and have reduced cardiovascular risk, too.” Volunteering is simply great for our son’s heart, mind and soul!
Finally, teach your spirited boy to pray! Everyone needs that personal space to switch off from the outside world and tune into a peaceful inner world, and receive hope, help and healing. And our spirited boys (whether they realize it or not) need it too. If your son doesn’t embrace formal prayers, encourage him to use informal ones like music, writing or art to open upwards and connect to God. And show him how to meditate by focusing on what he’s grateful for, allowing his worries, fears and concerns to fade away.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine, found that when we pray or meditate, the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breathing becomes calmer and more regular, increasing relaxation and reducing stress. For our night-owl, testosterone-laced, caffeine-guzzling boys, that’s a mind/body win. And though helping your son access his spiritual nature flies in the face of typical teen boy behavior, meditation and prayer is a gift that will soothe your son’s soul and ensure that he’ll have a tool that will help him deal with those pressures he faces now, and in the future.
Our spirited boys are born bright, beautiful, fearless, loving, creative and enthusiastic for every day. So, let’s pledge to keep them that way. And though there is no one solution to ensuring our sons walk a positive, empowered path during their teenage years, there are certain steps we can take as parents that will ensure their journey is a good one — so they emerge as men who become kind, caring, responsible, generous fathers and husbands who will raise equally spirited kids!
Raising Boys to Become Responsible Men, Matthew Jones Jr.
Raise a Good Son
Raise a Good Man
Fathers and Sons
Raising Boys to Men
Survival Guide for Teenage Boys
Fathers and Development
Prayer Ideas for Teens
Stages of Development
Stages of Development II