Wild Things: An Interview With a Mama of Boys

jjkillinsphotography headshotsI’ve spent the past few months participating in a discussion group about the book Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. Today, I am honored to share the words of my friend Ann, a mama of two boys herself. Her boys are 17 (a Wanderer, according to the book) and 19 (a Warrior), so while she’ll be the first to tell you she’s not out of the woods yet, she’s come through much of the thick parenting bits, and she has more than a few words of wisdom to share with those of us just starting our ascent into raising sons.

How do mothering and fathering differ?

I take the more emotional component, supportive, listen to them, pat their hand or touch them or pet their head, which when they’re 14-year-old boys they don’t want their moms to do – they don’t want their moms to touch them anymore. I think kids need their parents differently. Sometimes I know he’d (my oldest) do better talking to his dad, and they do prefer to talk to their dad about some things. They worry that I’ll get too emotional. But I probably do a  lot of the Big Talks.

How has your relationship changed from the time when they were little?

Our relationship with our oldest was more of a struggle when he went to college than I expected. I expected to miss him, and I do miss him very much, although as they get closer to moving out of the house, there’s so much of them pushing you away that you do get a little bit tired of them! They’re pushing, working so much on separating. It’s been very hard because he’s very introverted and very quiet, and not very good at expressing feelings. I think because he did miss us and missed being here, instead of having a lot of contact with us, he had very little. We hear very little from him. We got him to agree to Skype once a week. That’s really it. Even when we talk to him on Skype he always looks distracted, like he wants to be somewhere else, like he’s very uncomfortable with our relationship, like he doesn’t know how to be with us as an adult. And we don’t know how to be parents to an adult, really. And so it’s really awkward. You can’t parent them in the same way you parent your other children. There’s been much less communication than I expected, and it’s been much more painful than I expected, trying to work out how do you relate to a college-age child?

Regarding internet rules and safety.

One thing we did right was Mark installing a whole-house internet blocker, so that inappropriate sites cannot be accessed. Also, the internet to the kids shuts off at 9:00. When you ask them to hand over their device that they’ve been texting on, have them hand it to you immediately while they’re standing there. Watch your kids’ emails. Be able to get into those (social media and email accounts) so you that you can go through them, so that you can just make sure that they’re being decent people. Or no, that is incorrect. They won’t sound like decent people, but make sure they aren’t doing activities which are unsafe.

The computer that they use for homework and internet surfing is right there in the family room so it can be where everybody can see. With all the online homework, it’s hard to tell what is homework and what is not homework. You have to be watching. Having the little screens that can get on the internet all the time has made it much, much harder. You can’t tell the difference between the fun stuff and the work stuff unless you are standing behind them watching all the time, because they do flip back between chatting with their girlfriend and the history discussion. These can be happening at the same time on Facebook, or whatever.

So, and this is a terrible answer, I kind of gave up. When the boys got to be in high school, I couldn’t tell the difference anymore so we kind of changed it to, if you’re getting your stuff done and are getting decent grades, and are behaving reasonably, then we will leave it up to you to decide on your screen time, but we still have the 9:00rule (kids’ internet shuts off). I don’t know if that’s the right decision or not.

Regarding the language that comes out of a boys’ mouth.

Boys have always done that. Teenage boys have always talked like that, the fact that as parents we can see that written down now (texts, emails) – that’s horrifying. I think some of that we were never meant to see. Moms are not supposed to see that. That’s hard.

When did you notice that their influence mostly came from peers instead of you?

There’s a book called Hold Onto Your Kids which I highly recommend, and it changed my approach to this. I thought it was life-changing as far as parenting. It’s about how do you keep that connection until they’re ready to sever it (and you can clearly tell when they’re ready to sever it!). We purposely delayed that after I read that book, which basically says kids need their primary influence to be their family until they say, I want it not to be my family anymore. Or until moving them out there is their idea. Their family should be their first thing. Family dinner should be something to do every single night until you absolutely cannot. We purposely delayed having them enter that peer-dominated world. [One of the things the book says is] when you send your kids out to lots and lots of outside activities and book them all up with camps and sports and all this kind of thing, really you’re isolating them with kids their own age. All the time. You’re setting them up so that all day long, all school day, all afternoon and all evening they are only with their peers.  Peers are hot and cold. It’s not good for kids to have their whole influence being peers who kind of come and go and change with the weather. They need to be with their peers during the day and then come home to a family that is stable and that is there for them, until they choose to go out and do other things on their own. We try to delay the peer thing.

Regarding the big mistakes.

You have to leave room for them to make mistakes and to be able to say, dude this was a bad mistake, you could get in big trouble for this, but still somehow have some openness to saying, we do make mistakes and we forgive you and that’s ok and we’re going to help you to be in a situation where this doesn’t happen, or not to be in situations where this is happening. Read the book Coping With Your Defiant Teen.

Write up a contract, give privileges back as they are earned. Sorting out what is really bad stuff that you need to address, from what isn’t as bad, is a struggle.

What has saved your sons?

Boy Scouts. I think that Boy Scouts has been so wonderful because when they get to be middle school age the great thing about Boy Scouts is their troop is multi-age, so all the Boy Scouts are in the same troop – from the little ones who just joined the Boy Scouts in 6th grade up to the big ones who are 18, and having the multi-age peer relationship is not something I could have re-created at home unless I had 10 kids. For 6th grade boys to have 17 year old boys who are good young men – smart, intelligent, giving to the community, committed, service-oriented – as their role models is not something any of us could replace. [Having] other male figures in your child’s life is also something that is really important. To have other people’s parents nudging and pushing and having that relationship between your young man and older boys and other men, who are not you, being a good role model, is just tremendous.

Church. We go to church every week and I think that builds a community. My husband read a book called Sticky Faith, about how to help your children maintain some kind of faith as they grow, which is hard because they are going to move out and say Oh Lord I’m never going to church ever again, get me out of here, which is normal. But in that book they say the importance of other adults in your child’s life who are not you, participating in multi-age groups, not just a whole bunch of seven year olds, because really is a whole bunch of seven year olds all you want your kid to be with?! Maybe not so much.

And music. They all play instruments and I think that keeps them focused and that they meet good kids. That’s another thing as far as saving them…you don’t want to choose your kids’ friends, but I think it’s ok to plant them in places where good people are, someplace you know there are good responsible people who can help you teach your son to be a good responsible man.

Your best advice for raising sons.

Boys are great. I think that they are restless, but they’re also really really great, and they teach you things. Remember how great they are, and that they’re working hard to form themselves. Respect that and see what great things they can be and [what] they can turn into that’s different than you and that’s the same as you.

Stay off the front page of the newspaper, Mark (her husband) always says.

If there’s something difficult for you to figure out, something that’s “manly,” ask your son for help. I’m driving, can you navigate us? Let them do those things where they can feel like a man, because that really gives them a lot of confidence. That makes them feel strong and confident and powerful and helpful, and I get this work done that I need to do!

Connect them with other people. Plug them into groups of people that aren’t you. Plug them into something they will enjoy where they can find a multi-age peer group and other parents who aren’t you that can help you.

Have a good close relationship with them and don’t let them be dominated by unstable peers until they are choosing that. Let them choose when to go to their peers. Don’t you push them into that.

It’s just an adventure, and the rewards are slow-coming. It’s a long slog, this parent thing. I guess try to be patient.

Boys are great.

L o o k   i n   h e r e