Years ago I read the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. First published in 1992, the book chronicled the classic communication disconnects between men and women and provided us with pearls of wisdom such as, "Men are motivated when they feel needed while women are motivated when they feel cherished." Decades later, Martians and Venetians are still battling communication breakdowns, and the latest technology doesn't seem to help. There is often truth in the stereotype that men don't share their feelings. So how do we Moms teach our boys to defy the conversationally-challenged cliché -- and help them learn to be themselves, feelings and all? How can we model conflict resolution, communicating with our mouths and not our thumbs? Texting, emailing, Tweeting and posting may fill the hole of how they want to be perceived -- but how do we as parents teach them to fulfill their souls?
Given that Mother's Day will soon be approaching, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the role of mothers in our sons' development on a more human level than virtual. We are definitely seeing a shift in culture as the Millennials join the workforce. They are more accepting of differences on a broad scale -- such as race and sexual orientation -- but may have greater difficulty working through differences on an interpersonal level. This means our role as moms is changing too.
On Mother's Day in the past, I wrote a blog about mother/daughter relationships -- the tempestuous, intense closeness and push for distance that characterizes many mom/daughter bonds. But some of you asked that I not forget about sons. The importance of raising boys should not be lost in the drama of bringing up girls. So I asked my sons -- now men aged 24 and 26 -- and some of their best buddies the following question: What are important life lessons that us mothers are particularly poised to teach?
Here's what they said:
•Set clear limits. Structure and rules set boundaries boys need, but explain and talk about the reasons behind the rules. Your sons might just internalize them as their own morals and self-discipline.
• Step back. Give your sons lots of love and encouragement, but let them fight their own battles; don't swoop in with the helicopter or the snow plow. It won't help them if you solve their problems.
•Look past their exterior. Try to understand what your sons are feeling, even if they are disengaged, remote or apathetic. There may be a lot just simmering under the surface without an outlet.
•Talk to your sons. And I mean really talk, not just chit chat -- about their daily life. If you put the distractions down, they might too.
•Ask substantial questions. Don't be nosy, but show you really want to learn about your child. Who are their friends? What are their social challenges? What are their views on the world? They may only give you snippets, but this may force your sons to reckon with hard questions and feelings they are otherwise trying to suppress by looking at a TV or computer screen.
•Set high expectations. Make them within reach, but high enough so they might embrace failure as a good teacher.
•Don't try to be super Mom all the time. Show your vulnerability and cry once in a while.
•Say you're sorry. If you make a mistake, it's OK, but say you're sorry. That is really hard for people to do in relationships and it helps to start somewhere.
•Teach empathy. Look for opportunities as young as possible.
Which reminds me of a story. Years ago, when my son Daniel was 3 years old, we were vacationing on Cape Cod. Little Daniel came upon an old thick glass coke bottle that washed ashore. Inside the bottle was a crab that must have become trapped inside as it grew larger. We all struggled with what to do with the poor crab. We tried shaking it out, then poking it with a stick, but it didn't budge. We even considered smashing the bottle on the blacktop to free the crab, but the risk of harming ourselves or others did not seem warranted. So, we explained to Daniel that we were going to have to throw the crab back in the ocean, as sad as it was, and hope that he (or she) would find a way to survive inside the bottle that had become its home. Daniel took this news very hard. With quivering lips, he approached my father and said, "Opa, I have good news and bad news." "What's the good news?" my Dad asked. "The good news is that we are all going to die." said Daniel matter-of-factly. "The bad news is that the 'cwab' is going to die 'foist'." And so the oft-repeated tale of the crab at the beach was a powerful early life lesson for my son, who may not have been able to save the crab, but like many Millennials, is off trying to save the world.
So this Mother's Day, give yourself and your sons a gift. Find time to talk and listen. Put down the smartphones, turn off the TV, share your insights and get some insight into their world. You may just learn that as mothers of sons, we too are both needed and cherished. Although they may not always tell us so.