"Well, of course he's a fine companion," my friend said. "You raised him to be."
I felt a sharp urge to deny that, as if she'd accused me of something selfish. But I have raised a boy who's smart and observant, sensitive and kind, who listens well and is remarkably honest and articulate about the way he feels.
Lest you think I'm bragging—oh, never mind, I am bragging—there are many more mothers like me who've broken what William Pollack, PhD, calls the boy code, the persistent, largely unspoken but pervasive belief that we should bring up boys to be stoic, to hide their feelings, to become quickly independent of their parents (their mothers especially). In short, not to be like girls. Pollack, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and author of Real Boys, believes that for boys to be happy and healthy, they must be allowed to have feelings, to show empathy, to be able to express the range of emotions encouraged in girls. Until I had a son, I thought, well, naturally you want to raise your child—boy or girl—to have a full emotional life. Then I tried to. And I discovered that there's a big difference between believing a boy should show his feelings freely and actually having a boy who does.
When my best friend's older son and my son were both around three, her boy delighted in swathing himself in glittery tulle and prancing around with a fairy wand. My friend took it in stride, providing generous amounts of fabric and making aesthetic improvements—more sparkles, a bigger star on the wand, etc.—to her son's great and often delirious satisfaction. On the face of it, I supported her and her boy, but I confess I was also relieved that my son didn't express quite the same level of interest. It was such a small thing: A boy, barely out of babyhood, innocently enraptured by clouds of tulle—why was it even the slightest bit threatening to me? For the same reason that when my mother (an adoring grandmother in every way) saw my son weepy with hurt feelings when he was ten, she asked me reprovingly, "Do you think it's good for him to be so sensitive?" Or that when a friend who noticed him at 14 snuggling with me on the couch later asked, "Is he interested in girls yet?" A sensitive, affectionate boy risks being perceived as a "mama's boy, tied to her apron strings." Isn't it interesting that we have no such phrases to describe a girl who is attached to her mother? And that "daddy's girl" completely lacks the pejorative connotation?
My mother's and friend's questions scared me because they suggested that the closeness between me and my son was in some way inhibiting his path to a healthy manhood. Should I have sent him signals that I expected him to reject the intimate bond established between us? There are many reasons mothers might feel the need to withdraw from their sons, says Olga Silverstein, family therapist and author of The Courage to Raise Good Men. We're afraid that we'll contaminate our boys with "female" qualities. We believe that boys must grow away from their families, and so we want to protect ourselves and our sons from the inevitable pain of separation. We think we're incapable of modeling qualities important to becoming a man, or that our closeness will make him homosexual. Or we believe that because he is male, he is unknowable to us, or that our affection and bond will be construed as seductive.
"It's absolutely necessary to shift the way we think of those qualities we call feminine," says Silverstein. "As a culture, we perceive empathy, nurturance, talent for friendship and relationship as belonging only to women and less valuable than independence and other kinds of strengths traditionally associated with men," she says. "Women have to believe that feminine strengths are valuable not just in women but in humans. Then we won't worry about feminizing boys." This isn't to say that we shouldn't respect the differences between boys and girls, whatever we perceive them to be. But the idea of defining male and female as opposites (as we do in this culture) is misguided and leads us into trouble, Silverstein says, because it implies that boys must not only separate from their mothers but reject the qualities associated with them. Does this sound unfair? Even misogynistic?
We know what we get when a boy is raised with the code, says Pollack: a mask of masculinity, false bravado, the need to be aggressive and to win, and to ignore or repress feelings of vulnerability. These are the men who seem strong but who are, ironically, weakest in many ways because they're hiding or are unaware of their neediness and are poorly equipped to engage in any kind of honest relationship. But those boys who get affection, love, respect, and compassion, grow up whole, not unconsciously seeking what they needed from their parents. I see these boys everywhere among my son's friends. They have pals who are girls. They are friendly with their mothers. They like their mothers.
One afternoon when my son was a senior in high school, a group of his friends gathered in our living room to play video games. From the kitchen, I was aware of a sea of voices, deep and loud. Exclamations of playful frustration and surprise rose and fell in waves, over a steady undercurrent of exchange about schoolwork and teachers. After a while, I waded into their midst. They all glanced over at me.
"Hi, Reid's mom," one of them said.
I had a question for them, I said, related to a story I was writing: "You guys are 18, right?" I said. "Do you still tell your mothers that you love them?"
There was an earsplitting commotion as the game players wiped out the enemy. The playing stopped and silence swept the room. I stood there uncomfortably.
"Well, sure," one of the boys said finally.
"Of course," said another.
"Why not?" said a third.
A fourth boy, whose mother is a doctor, stretched his legs and leaned back in his chair. "My mother raised me and my brother and sister pretty much by herself," he said. "My mother is a goddess." No one snickered. It was a statement of fact.
How did our boys turn out like this? Silverstein suggests some important ways to ensure that our sons grow into whole human beings. We must continue to talk to them about our feelings and their own and not let them get away with putting us off. We should not be afraid to demonstrate our affection or anger or disapproval. We need to be honest about what we like and don't like about the way they act, supporting empathy, self-knowledge, and respect for feminine qualities. We can help them understand that both men and women can model how to raise a good person.
A child who is fully and deeply loved, who learns to acknowledge his feelings and is well equipped to express them, and who learns to take responsibility for his actions, to value compassion and live it daily—this is the boy who will grow into a man who'll make a loving companion. That's good for the woman he marries. Even better for the man he becomes.
More great parenting advice: