Attention mothers of sons: Women of the future are counting on you. Valerie Monroe tells how to bring up a good, kind, happy, mindful, nongrunting husband-to-be.
I was describing in prodigious, enthusiastic detail the trip to Japan from which I'd just returned with my then 15-year-old son. "And he's so much fun to travel with," I went on to my patient friend. "His observations were really interesting, and when we met new people, he was such a good listener, and he seemed willing to try almost anything," I said.
"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.
Next: Demonstrating empathy, self-knowledge, and respect