"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.
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