A while ago, I was rushing up the street, carrying groceries and my briefcase, barely closed from all I had stuffed inside it, trying not to be late to pick up my daughter from basketball practice. One of her classmates, 13-year-old Damien, was walking from school toward me. I'd known Damien and his family for years, as part of a study I was conducting on boys and moms.
"Can I help you with that?" he asked in a concerned voice.
Although the bag was tearing from the weight of its contents and the awkward way I was holding it, his question almost made me drop everything completely. People were meandering in both directions, and no one else noticed that I was struggling, but Damien saw in one glance that I needed help and immediately offered it. He took my grocery bag and walked back up to school with me. When I thanked him, he just smiled politely, said it wasn't a problem, waved and continued off down the street.
Until fifth grade, he wore his hair short and he dressed in nothing but jeans and T-shirts. Even after he let his hair grow long in sixth grade and wore red bandannas like the Hells Angels, he didn't let anybody's idea of what was "girlish" affect his behavior. In the school's annual musical, Damien stole the show with his theatrical poise and warm response to the loud applause from the audience. His onstage theatrics -- a very liberating experience for boys -- did nothing to prevent him from being the first out on the play yard at recess for kickball, running successfully for class representative to the student council or being a sometimes goofy but articulate class participant.
I call children like Damien "head and heart boys." Years of research on families and parenting have shown me how successful moms raise self-assured and caring sons by nurturing their boy power -- the artful combination of physicality and sensitivity to others' needs and feelings. To help your son grow up with confidence and respect for others:
1. Help him develop a strong sense of well-being and sensitivity to the needs and feeling of others.
Talk and talk and talk with (not at) your son, and then talk some more. As boys discover they are worthy of respect and understanding, they learn to respect and empathize with others. Encourage your son to recognize how he feels and show it, whether the feeling is good or bad. Talk with him about what may be making him feel that way. Learning about his own feelings can help your son connect with others and develop into a caring, sensitive man.
Boys tend to shy away from face-to-face discussions. Connect with him in any way you can, anywhere you can. Use toys to prompt discussion. One mom uses puppets with her young son to talk about events in their lives. Initiate conversations in the car, on the basketball court or in the kitchen while cooking together. Despite feeling tired at the end of her workday, one mom began playing basketball with her teenage son because he seemed withdrawn. She expected it to be all dribble and shoot, but when they started playing, her son opened up, sharing his thoughts and feelings about school and home.
Listen to what your son tells you -- or doesn't tell you. Look for messages even in silence or outbursts. Listening -- not just to the words, but to the feelings behind them -- can reveal the kind of mothering your son needs to help him become a man.
Ten-year-old Caleb struggled with being small for his age. During hide-and-seek, he and his mom brainstormed about the advantages of being small, like finding a really good place to hide. Since people underestimated his superior athletic abilities, he had a secret weapon. Later, when a cousin said he was small for his age, Caleb easily listed all the good things about being small!
And while you're talking, repeatedly share your own values, including consciously challenging gender and other stereotypes, even when your son seems to tune out.
2. Foster his respect for others.
Respect for ourselves feeds our respect for others. So accept who he is, instead of trying to mold him into your vision of what you think he should be.
You can encourage him to be responsible to himself by helping him set his own goals and expectations, and then live up to them. He will also learn responsibility to others by doing his share of household chores and other age-appropriate duties.
Establish clear guidelines for behavior and expectations for how family members and others are treated. Helping your son relate well to family and friends will help him become a reflective, conscious, centered adult with a strong sense of identity and moral fiber.
3. Help him find a variety of good role models, both men and women.
Start with yourself and other moms you know. His respect for you and other women friends teaches him respect for women. He learns such qualities as patience by observing patience in you and others. As his mom, model the kind of strength and heroism commonly associated with men. Your power, leadership, determination and ability to achieve set a strong personal example for your son. Knowing women he can emulate helps erase culturally ingrained gender stereotypes.
Boys benefit by having many role models, so whether there's a father at home or not, actively recruit men as friends and role models for your son. In addition to men in the family, look for babysitters, tutors, coaches and Big Brothers who can play this role. Sports superstars, fictional characters like Harry Potter and other heroes also give boys a range of men to emulate.
One mom makes sure her five-year-old son, Cody, interacts with males as much as possible. "When I'm with my brothers-in-law or nephews, [I say], 'You guys, take him to the bathroom,' or 'You guys, go do guy things.'" Strong mothers give their sons a range of models for manhood.
4. Stay connected. Learning to value intimacy and close relationships will help him succeed with a future wife or partner.
Don't buy into fear of being too close to your son, no matter what his age. Closeness and conversation lead to a natural and lifelong intimacy between mother and son. This means frequently stepping out of your comfort zone to meet his needs, including roughhousing and playing with your son any way you can. Encourage physical and emotional expressions of affection at home even when he tries to push you away. (In public allow him any space he requires.) Adapt the ways you connect with your son to stay close as he grows intellectually, emotionally and physically.
As he grows, you can help him lead a double-life on the emotional front. If he is standoffish in public, he can still enjoy the mothering he secretly still craves in the privacy of home. Allowing boys to show their soft, vulnerable side with you keeps those emotions alive. As your son grows older, be sure to keep the dialogue open even when you don't agree with his choices.
The deep emotional connection between mothers and sons has been demonized for far too long. Just as your son has inherent boy power, you have the mom power it takes to raise a son who is self-assured and respectful of others. By nurturing his emotional IQ, teaching him to care for others, providing him with positive role models and staying close to him as he grows up, you can give him what he needs to become a confident, empathic person and an exceptional man.