04/23/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

It Could Have Been My Boy


It could have been my boy, or yours, that lay in the hospital with wounds and federal charges stemming from the horrendous bombing in Boston. I was touched by similar words making their way quickly around the Internet right after the Newtown tragedy about the young man who shot those children and their adult caretakers in cold blood. The woman who wrote that blog piece had a child who was mentally unstable. Later, I heard a TV producer tell the story about his son who left home to work in Manhattan, receiving phone calls from him, helplessly thousands of miles while he talked about suicide and thus started a lengthy journey to seek help for his son who he feared might hurt himself -- or someone else.

The details may vary from family to family, and perhaps few of us will ever have someone we know to be mentally ill in our family. But the boy who lay in the Boston hospital is the age of one of my own sons. It's scary to think about what may have happened to stimulate such actions. We may never know, but his mother, perhaps to blame, perhaps not, must sit in shock moment after moment, not knowing what went wrong.

I was in the airport recently at a security line. It was long, I was impatient and I started looking at who the hold up on the line might be. I noticed this young man, who was disheveled from head to toe. He had what any mother would consider bad hair, lots of bling, too many non-matching shirts on at once, pants hanging off of him... do you get the picture? He was struggling with taking his shoes off to put in the bin on the moving belt, and his suitcase was overflowing. He kept dropping things, mumbling to himself, oblivious to his surroundings. As I stared at him, and the line he was causing to form from his inability to get organized and get moving, I must have rolled my eyes and as I did, I looked right at the woman behind me. She said quite simply, "He's some Mommy's little boy!"

The comment just about knocked me off my feet. Yes, he is -- like all of our sons -- somebody's little boy. So is the boy who sits in that Boston hospital now, having terrorized a nation, having maimed countless individuals, forever affecting families and communities. What are we doing, we mothers who bear children proudly and brag about them at every turn that we are oblivious to any sign about what might come? Who are we, whether in America, India, China or Russia, that we who are so smart as to penetrate the glass ceiling, who have raised the leaders of nations, who can do 40 things at once, do not know how and when to sense trouble in our own children?

The young men of our generation have it exponentially better than the young men of 1830, or 1861, or 1890, or 1960. And yet their families are somehow failing them. Our girls also suffer of course. Too many of our daughters dismiss the importance and value of their bodies, allow friends to dictate their activities, and later, as best selling author Sheryl Sandberg argues, they lean out instead of lean in to opportunities to thrive in the workplace, thinking themselves not suited to the same challenges as men naturally venture to grab.

Will these young women raise men who are complicit in wrongdoings, because they don't dare to question, to push, or to scream at the top of their lungs when necessary? Will these young women, like many of us today, avoid the need to regularly counsel their boys and demand from them respect for all our institutions, big and small? Have we already suffered this same problem? I know far too many women who are more interested in their boys being their friends than their children, and on the other extreme, I know women who forget that their boys need constant care and nurturing, as if their husband was born to handle them completely. I know women who say they really want their kids to go to church services but they can't do anything about it. "Really?" I say. "Do they live with you? Then they should go, or they should leave. It's your house."

I learned that from a more senior mother I know, who actually put her son's stuff out on the lawn, as she had once threatened -- all of it -- after he failed for the third time to follow her rules while living in her house. I couldn't believe my ears, but she not only never had to threaten again, but he's among the most upstanding, respectful young men I've ever known.

I don't claim to practice it nearly as well as I preach it, but perhaps because I lost a husband at a young age and had to raise three boys by myself (and a girl), I stepped into both male and female roles for a period of time and had to gauge more often whether my sixth sense about what they were doing and how they were doing it was right. I challenged them, pushed them around, made clear I wanted to know their every move and said no 100 times more than yes. I do it still, even though some are grown young men. I don't helicopter parent -- I simply require certain standards, no matter what their age. It's like exercise. You have to wake up and do it everyday, or you fall behind, and the lack of it creeps in and becomes obvious.

Like yours, my boys have all made mistakes. I love them more than life itself. But that doesn't mean they can't fail or I shouldn't admit openly that my children aren't perfect. But if my kids fail, it's not their fault alone. Rather, it is I who failed to anticipate, to act, to steer, to listen, to learn. And if I'm such a great CEO or so valuable in my field, I must be at least somewhat talented; talented enough that I should be able to learn to do well the hardest job of all -- mothering.

I'm still working on it, even as they shed the nest. I'm not convinced I know much but I do know enough to admit that my boys are far from perfect, that I should expect no matter how good I am that they will fall, or do stupid things. And maybe, if we are not careful enough, they might even be capable of doing very bad things. They are just some mother's little boys, crafted both by nature and nurture. But I vow to be in their face, in their business and ever searching for ways to influence them for the better, no matter what.

The events of recent months tell us we must all do that, no matter how incorrect the social scientists believe such behavior to be. Every mother must ask herself -- do I really know my child? Do I understand how he spends his time, what he needs, whether he is masking some hidden hurt? Do I know what the cause of his joy or sorrow is? Can I impact him now at 16, 18, or even 25? Am I willing to intervene to protect the other people around me, regardless of whether he's my son or not? Mothers must take charge of the chaos our boys are creating around us.

Our society depends on it.