About the Boys

When I was 28 I had my first son, then two years later I had my twin boys. I didn't want more than three children, so I had to come to terms with a daughterless future. To be honest, before they were born I was a little disappointed by this thought. But then they were born, and my heart melted. I forgot any sadness over not having daughters, and instead rejoiced that now I didn’t have to worry about ALL the penises in the world, I only had to worry about THREE of them. That seemed much more manageable, and I set out to raise three "good men." 
  
For many years I stayed at home, dedicated to that purpose. I gave them backrubs and sang songs to them every night after reading stories. On rainy days we baked cookies, made Shrinky Dinks, and built forts. I made their lunches everyday. I made sure they did their homework. I did their laundry, and then taught them how to do it themselves. As they moved from babies to toddlers to pre-teens and teens, my influence grew less and less with each passing year, while outside influences like friends, teachers, coaches, and the internet, gained more and more influence over their lives. 
  
My boys were very feisty, the twins especially. As kids, they literally climbed our walls. I was vigilant about safety... yet there was only so much I could control. 
They set fires in the kitchen sink and reasoned, “But Mom, sinks can’t catch on fire.” My oldest son once got battery acid in his eye because he hammered a battery “to see what was inside.” When the twins were two, I found them in the kitchen playing with Comet as if it were snow (yes, I had baby locks on all the cabinets). One of them stole a bottle of baby Tylenol and drank the whole thing (the poison control hotline told me he’d be fine, but maybe get a bit sleepy). They did flips off the couch into beanbags. They strapped ice buckets to skateboards with duct tape, got in, and raced down a steep road into oncoming traffic. They ran headfirst into posts with bolts sticking out at forehead height. They got stitches in their heads, hands, feet. They broke bones. They wrestled and they hit. They shouted so much they developed nodes on their vocal chords. They learned by doing. If I told them something was hot, and to be careful, they needed to touch it to believe me. I could write the Zagat guide for ERs. 
  
Now I am in my 50’s and they are in their 20’s, and my work, for all intents and purposes, is done. I will always be their mom, and hopefully they will come to me for advice about the big decisions in their lives, but the days of day-today Momdom are behind us. I am currently in the process of learning how to shift to an adult parent-child relationship. It is no longer my job to make them good men. Now I just have to have faith that I did a good job and see what happens. The ball is in their court, and I admit, it is a little terrifying. It’s terrifying because the stakes are now so much higher. 
  
It’s also terrifying because in the process of raising them, I became increasingly aware that the overarching societal conversation around what boys need to develop into healthy men is seriously lacking, while the majority of focus is on what girls need. And while I don’t disagree with what girls need, and how that can positively impact the world in so many ways (there are statistics on this!), I do have a major problem with simply ignoring (at best) or demonizing (at worst) all boys or men. I think that perhaps we’ve spent so much time focusing on girls (which is very important) that we've unfortunately forgotten boys in the process (which is quite counterproductive). 
  
I’m going to say something that’s unpopular: 
Women are better off than they’ve been in the past, and now men are in crisis. 
  
It’s been awhile since the #metoo movement hit its crescendo, but the vitriol it incited bothered me. Don’t get me wrong; I think men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are horrible. They should be held accountable and punished. And I believe wholeheartedly in the need to continue the advancement of women’s rights, because although there have been great strides, there is still much to achieve. But what are we doing as individuals, or as a society, to raise good men, other than demonizing the bad men? 
  
Think about it. The conversation is always a negative one. “Don’t do that.” “Don’t be that.” “Men are pigs.” “Men can’t be trusted.” We amplify the news about the bad guys, but how often do we hold up examples of good men? And when we do, are we guilty of upholding male stereotypes of power, strength, good looks, and success? Are we doing to them what they do to us? Is it an eye for an eye? How are young boys suppose to know how to love themselves or be “good men” if the societal conversation around them is that men are simply “bad?” How do we define “a good man?”  
  
Remember what happened with the HPV vaccine? At first it was only mandated that girls should receive the vaccine. But at a certain point, someone realized that in order to truly eradicate the disease, both girls and boys needed to receive the vaccine. To me this logic makes sense in a broader context too: If we want a world where girls aren’t marginalized and can achieve their fullest potential, then we need to make sure boys aren’t demonized and can achieve their fullest potential too. 
  
I raised this issue once in a women’s discussion group I attended, and my perspective was not kindly received. It was mostly women younger than me with no kids, or very young kids. One of them shouted at me, “That’s your job as a mom to raise good men!” I replied, “Was it enough for mothers to talk to their daughters to change how society expresses prejudice against an entire gender?” No, it wasn’t. It took the proverbial village. 
  
Some would argue that we don’t need to talk to boys, because men still have the bulk of the power, and often abuse it, and that the levers and wheels must be pried from their grasp. Because they are Wall Street. They are gang members. They terrorists. Women aren’t the ones who show up in trench coats with guns in schools and churches and concerts. Men grab pussy. Men are misogynists. Sexist. Chauvinists. Idiots. Cavemen. And boys? Well, boys will be boys. They like to blow up frogs. Or start fires. Hit things. Boys are so hyper, now we drug them to quiet them down. Men are the problem, not the solution. Right? I don’t think so. I ask you this: has anyone ever stopped and asked why men are so likely to do all these awful things? Have we asked what can we do about it, rather than simply punish them after the fact? 
  
Men are as much the solution to our societal ills as women are. Men shouldn’t have all the power. But neither should women. We live in a post-MeToo era where most men are paralyzed, afraid to do anything at all. This puts a chill effect not only on bad behavior, but also on normal, healthy human relations and conversation. There needs to be a balance, and we need to think about how we are raising and educating current and future generations of men and boys not only as parents, but also as coaches, teachers, the media, corporate America, and society in general. 
  
If you think men don’t worry about how they look or what people – especially women – think of them, then you are fooling yourself. Men think about and question all of it. I know because I am a mother who raised boys. And I know that despite the positive messages I tried to impart as their mother, they still got the bigger message loud and clear. Man up. Don’t cry. Tough it out. Be cool. Don’t be a baby. Don’t be an asshole. But what should they be? My message to them as a mom was mostly follow the important rules, like “Do unto others,” and “always wear a helmet when hurtling yourself through space on wheels or boards etc.” and “write thank you notes” and “do your homework” and so on. Here is one of my favorite quotes I had posted on the fridge when they were teenagers: 

Watch your thoughts, they become your words. 
Watch your words, they become your actions. 
Watch your actions, they become your habits. 
Watch your habits, they become your character. 
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny. 

  
Ironically, this quote is from a woman who used the male penname, George Eliot, in order to be taken seriously as a writer. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans. She was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. I love this quote because it is so true. It’s also much more meaningful and clear that the ubiquitous, “Think positive.” 
  
I see my boys fully… their armor and their mushy centers. I think they are incredibly beautiful human beings, with loads of potential. But I am not naïve; they experienced some shitty things growing up – divorce being a biggy. There was some damage done. But the question for any of us as we head into our futures is how we deal with the ups and the downs. I see the world they are heading into as they leave the nest of home. Yes, it is a little terrifying. It’s a world where they might be guilty before being proven innocent. It’s a world where social media has both brought people together and torn people apart. It’s a world where fake news is everywhere and real news is hard to find. Our national conversation is becoming more and more polarized. And amidst all of it, our society has invested millions in talking to girls, and next to nothing talking to boys. How do we expect women to achieve anything if the men they inhabit this world with are the enemy? 
  
Maybe it’s time to start a new conversation. What do you think? I would really love to hear your thoughts.

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4 comments

  • Joan Fernandez
    Joan Fernandez St Louis
    "It takes a village" -right? The fear of being sissy dominates boys from the classroom to the sports stadium to the courtroom. I think that what we (at least I) fail to appreciate at times is that the Harvey Weinstein's come about because we live in a society that's established a single, ubiquitous dominant culture, and that's the white male. And part of the dominant white male means sexual prowess, even a predator. Being the dominant culture is all about power. So, men/boys grow up to fear being powerless. Perhaps an answer is that the gender conversation needs to extend to defining a broader definition for power in our society. Generosity, humility, unselfishness, open-mindedness, integrity-- these qualities are recognized as good leadership qualities, could they also not be qualities of manhood? It's a way-big topic. Happily, there are good individual role models for our boys to follow out there. Like you, when my son became a teen, college student and then young adult my influence took a receding backseat. I'm grateful that my son had some incredible role models come into life outside of the family. If men are in "crisis" then it could be that these age-old standards of manhood are being challenged. That's a good thing. And perhaps more amazing, our boys can help define what this new definition should be. That's power! (Thank you for the thoughtful post.)

    "It takes a village" -right? The fear of being sissy dominates boys from the classroom to the sports stadium to the courtroom. I think that what we (at least I) fail to appreciate at times is that the Harvey Weinstein's come about because we live in a society that's established a single, ubiquitous dominant culture, and that's the white male. And part of the dominant white male means sexual prowess, even a predator. Being the dominant culture is all about power. So, men/boys grow up to fear being powerless. Perhaps an answer is that the gender conversation needs to extend to defining a broader definition for power in our society. Generosity, humility, unselfishness, open-mindedness, integrity-- these qualities are recognized as good leadership qualities, could they also not be qualities of manhood? It's a way-big topic. Happily, there are good individual role models for our boys to follow out there. Like you, when my son became a teen, college student and then young adult my influence took a receding backseat. I'm grateful that my son had some incredible role models come into life outside of the family. If men are in "crisis" then it could be that these age-old standards of manhood are being challenged. That's a good thing. And perhaps more amazing, our boys can help define what this new definition should be. That's power! (Thank you for the thoughtful post.)

  • Uncle Chuck
    Uncle Chuck St. Louis
    Wow! there is hope for your generation after all. Great read and so very true. Just keep reminding those boys that you raised them right and you expect them to live right. I think you said it all most eloquently. My mother once pulled me aside and said I've been through this ( teen age drama) with your three brothers and I can't do it any more. I expect you to live the right way and do the right thing. Keep up the good work. Love you!!!

    Wow! there is hope for your generation after all. Great read and so very true. Just keep reminding those boys that you raised them right and you expect them to live right. I think you said it all most eloquently. My mother once pulled me aside and said I've been through this ( teen age drama) with your three brothers and I can't do it any more. I expect you to live the right way and do the right thing. Keep up the good work. Love you!!!

  • Patty
    Patty Vancouver, WA
    Ashley-In response to “about the boys,” (IMO well-written, btw), I have a few comments. Both boys and girls have been given instructions about how to be better people. Both genders have received mixed messages, and just plain crap as advice. While boys are being told to “man up,” girls are being told to just shut up and be pretty, and don’t make noise.” Boys are often encouraged to explore, to be loud, and to express themselves in physical ways. Girls who are assertive are often told to stop being bossy, or to “act like a lady.” How many boys have gotten a pass simply because, “boys will be boys?” We can’t have a one size fits all approach to bringing up strong, empathetic, caring, “woke” people. We need to recognize that each person is different, and that no one falls into a category that society wants to claim is the latest enlightened movement. Boys and girls are not the same—they see things differently, they experience things differently, and they respond differently to the same situations. But merely dividing them into gender, and not recognizing the individuality of each as a “Person” does a disservice to all. And what about the LGBTQ community? It just becomes more complex as we try to categorize persons. As parents and guardians we are tasked with modeling the behavior that we would like to see in our children, and what we would like them to share with the world. We can’t control them, and we can’t control the movements, the #toos, the “whyme?, the #myturn... But we can try to live the way that promotes humanity and compassion (I think those two concepts are not mutually exclusive). Well done on the blog. I like that you shared, and that you care. Keep up the good work.

    Ashley-In response to “about the boys,” (IMO well-written, btw), I have a few comments. Both boys and girls have been given instructions about how to be better people. Both genders have received mixed messages, and just plain crap as advice. While boys are being told to “man up,” girls are being told to just shut up and be pretty, and don’t make noise.” Boys are often encouraged to explore, to be loud, and to express themselves in physical ways. Girls who are assertive are often told to stop being bossy, or to “act like a lady.” How many boys have gotten a pass simply because, “boys will be boys?” We can’t have a one size fits all approach to bringing up strong, empathetic, caring, “woke” people. We need to recognize that each person is different, and that no one falls into a category that society wants to claim is the latest enlightened movement. Boys and girls are not the same—they see things differently, they experience things differently, and they respond differently to the same situations. But merely dividing them into gender, and not recognizing the individuality of each as a “Person” does a disservice to all. And what about the LGBTQ community? It just becomes more complex as we try to categorize persons. As parents and guardians we are tasked with modeling the behavior that we would like to see in our children, and what we would like them to share with the world. We can’t control them, and we can’t control the movements, the #toos, the “whyme?, the
    #myturn... But we can try to live the way that promotes humanity and compassion (I think those two concepts are not mutually exclusive).
    Well done on the blog. I like that you shared, and that you care. Keep up the good work.

  • Barb Cole
    Barb Cole California
    I raised two boys and have always thought that boy’s should be taught differently than girls. Boys are all about large motor skills like balance and climbing trees ( not on the report card) while girls use fine motor skills like handwriting and using scissors (on the report card). You are spot on that boys need to see examples of good men!!

    I raised two boys and have always thought that boy’s should be taught differently than girls. Boys are all about large motor skills like balance and climbing trees ( not on the report card) while girls use fine motor skills like handwriting and using scissors (on the report card). You are spot on that boys need to see examples of good men!!

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