Boys to Gentlemen

“Please grab the door for me, son!” I  implore as, laden with Sunday bag and child, I attempt to make it through the perilous double set of doors at the church with three kids in tow. “This is how to be a gentleman,” I whisper and wink as I pass him in the breezeway.

I have three sons. Growing up I only had one sister, so this realm of boys is new to me. Sure, I have a degree in child development, but that doesn’t seem to give me any edge in raising these somewhat foreign creatures. I’ve come a long way in nine years of boy-momming. I’ve learned to handle Venus fly traps, master knowledge of Star Wars planets, build amazing Lego ships, make parachutes out of tarps, and embrace loud noise and dirt. Still there is a long way to go to get them from where they are now to where I hope they will be as men.

I feel ill-equipped for the job. I don’t know what it’s like to be inside their minds. And to make matters worse, the world is different than it was when I was young (I grew up pre-internet generation). I find myself desperate for a crystal ball to foresee how the parenting decisions I make now will impact their tomorrow.

I struggle to find the way to raise my boys to survive in modern culture, yet still place value on the things I think are important. How do I raise them to have values in a world that doesn’t share these values, to be gentlemen, when it is never expected and not reinforced by society? I was embarrassed to ride public transit and see a very pregnant woman get on a full rush hour train and find no one willing to give up their seat. How do I teach my boys to give up their seat when they’ve never seen it done?

When I look at the cultural expectations of teenage boys I find them fairly dismal. They are, after all, expected to basically hate their parents, to be rude and self-centered, and to spend their time engaged only in texting or playing video games. And I don’t like what’s out there for boys (don’t get me started on a lot of boy-marketed toys—the violence and crudeness of it all). I want more for my boys than that. I feel that our expectations of boys and men have dropped off in a lot of aspects, while at the same time our religious expectations are very high. I live in a place with a very small LDS population, so it is difficult to even find modeling of the ideal here.

I want them to become men who are disciplined, who work hard, who are thoughtful, who have good hearts. Men who can succeed in families, in work, in church, in their communities. I want what every mother wants…

I want them to develop their talents, have confidence, care about important things, be happy. In a world of so many pressures and pushes and pulls, I feel torn between these constant pairs of opposites—pushing vs not, control vs freedom, expecting too much vs expecting too little, a lot of structure vs a little structure, work vs more play, more time at home vs more activities. I feel like each day I am sliding back and forth on these tracks trying to find the right balance—the right balance for each of these three very distinct personalities. What limits do you set? How do you protect and nurture while developing necessary autonomy and independence? Am I the mean mom for not letting my kids on every cultural bandwagon? Is it just me bucking against ever pervasive cultural elements?

So tell me, I have a lot of years ahead of me still… What are the answers?

How do you feel about the cultural messages sent to men and boys? How do you fight against it? What are the secrets to raising good boys?

About Leslie

(Art Director) In her pre-diapering days, Leslie earned an MS in Marriage and Family Studies from BYU. This entitled her to mold the minds of impressionable college students in rambling six-hour lecture courses and travel the world as child life specialist. She now passes the seasons in a quaint Massachusetts town with her husband, Allen, and three young sons. She spends her days encouraging play, championing global causes, and whipping up a mean R2D2 cake. She savors her nights, stealing away to her studio to paint.

10 thoughts on “Boys to Gentlemen

  1. Whatever gentlemanly qualities I have I think I got from my mother. My self perception is that it was largely simply a matter of her own example of kindness to others and her expectation that I would at least try to follow that example.

    But it can be difficult in the modern world. The other night I was filling my car with gas, when I saw a woman in a wheelchair speaking on the pay phone by the street, no car or other person in sight. I was worried that she was stranded and needed help, but I was also concerned about the creep factor, about whethet approaching her to offer assistance would be perceived as a potential threat. I thought about it as the tank filled, and decided not to approach her on foot, but rather to swing by in my unimposing Corolla with the window down, which I thought might be less intimidating (no one gets intimidated by a Corolla, right?). I asked her if she needed help, and she said no, she was fine.

    But the very broad smile and the genuinely appreciative thank you were all the reward I needed to validate my decision to at least offer assistance to her.

  2. You have already done the most critical thing you could in raising boys, you chose their father. You have until middle school to do what you can and then peer pressure takes over. At this important juncture the example of a male role model, hopefully a father cannot be overstated.

    Develop relationships that make it possible to communicate with them while you can and continue to cultivate it and then maybe they will come to you before they accept the messages coming from their peers and other sources. When they are mature enough to see the value in what you taught them the influence of their peers will be very small.

  3. Great post. Great questions. In my opinion, a mom has amazing influence over her sons. Yes, they definitely need their dad and/or other significant male role models in their lives. But, the moms are the ones who normally get to spend more time with them. So, there are lots and lots of opportunities we have for teaching moments. My oldest is turning 13 in a few months, so I have lots to learn and experience still. A few thoughts…I really think there is great value in talking about everyday situations you’ve witnessed where a man or boy did or did not act kindly. Our values need to be continually reinforced. I think that asking questions about their lives is essential. My son is in middle school. I like to ask about teasing at school and how his friends respond to it. I remind him how important it is to treat everyone kindly, especially those who are left out and excluded. I gave him a challenge this weekend to try to do a few things to make one of the deacons feel more included at their campout. A sidenote about these discussions…they normally happen in a car while we’re driving somewhere. Boys generally feel less threatened if you’re talking to them while you’re doing something else. A few other things we’ve chosen to do (clearly, these will not work for every family). We don’t have cable or satellite. We watch DVD’s from the library or Netflix. I realize this is not something that everyone would want to do, but it works for us…just to cut down on some of the cultural media influences. No cell phones for our kids yet…at some point, we’ll give in. I realize that it might seem absolutely prehistoric to do this, but my boys are really okay with it at this point. Once we do get cell phones, there will need to be limits and rules. I feel like many teenagers and young adults have little sense of etiquette about texting while talking to someone else or talking on a cell phone for long periods of time when they’re with someone else. I think our boys need to work hard. We need to have them take out the trash, wash dishes, babysit, and join in the everyday mundane tasks of life. We don’t need to continually reward them or pay them for doing these things either. I think it’s good to just have a sense of pitching in and contributing to the greater good. Yes, we have allowance in our family, but much of what we ask them to do is not recompensed in any way. Finally, I think our boys need one-on-one time with each parent as often as possible…doesn’t have to be long or involved. It can even be going to the store together just the two of you or playing a card game once everyone’s in bed. They need to feel valued as individuals. Now I promise that I’m stepping off my soapbox! Thanks for raising these questions.

    Lastly, a few books that are fabulous….”Raising Cain”, “Real Boys, “Boys Adrift”, “The Minds of Boys”, “Wild Things”, and “Boys Should Be Boys”.

  4. Just for fun, because I know you know this stuff, I separated the stages into just the positive side– Autonomy, Initiative, Industry, Identity–these are the stages you are going through and headed towards. Separated like this, the best answer that comes to mind is that our children will learn by our example whether it comes from mom or dad or both. We moms can be polite and chivalrous (I open doors, help others with groceries, give up my seat for an older person) and my girls will see that. Your boys will see that in you, and they will also see their YM leaders and other priesthood holders doing the same things. Example is the best teacher, right? You are probably doing a better job at this than you think. :)

  5. I believe that example is the greatest teacher, and quality of relationship is the greatest predictor of whether that example will be followed.

    So, as a mother of three grown sons, my advice to you is to cultivate that mother-son relationship every chance you get. Talk to them about things that matter to both of you, have fun with them, laugh with and tease them, show interest in their friends and other things they find interesting, listen to them, accept them for the people they are, and expect the best of them without being unreasonable in those expectations.

    Boys love their moms, and they want to please these all-important women in their lives. But they also need space to be guys, and they need to know that their moms “get” that. So it’s important to direct without dominating, teach without sermonizing, and counsel without nagging. Moms can earn their sons’ respect by loving them unconditionally but not being a pushover. And using lots of humor definitely helps the mommy medicine go down.

    My sons have given me plenty of nerve-wracking mom moments, but I’ve enjoyed being their mother more than I can say. And having adult sons is an even greater blessing! They are so enjoyable for me at this stage in my life, and I am proud of the man each one has become.

    Good luck. I know it’s not easy. But it’s not brain surgery, either. Just kind of pray and feel your way through, and things will work themselves out.

    I think if there were any one piece of advice I could give to young mothers it would be to worry less, trust your instincts more, and enjoy the ride! After all, they’re not alien beings. They’re just guys…Right?

    ;)

  6. I fight culture with culture! My sons and I love movies, and we have several favourites that are regularly watched and even pop up in conversation. “The Iron Giant” is one movie – the phrase of choice is “You are what you choose to be. YOU choose. So choose.” Same deal with books – I find/search out books with strong male characters for my boys to read and we discuss it.

    We talk about advertising, what the aims are, what the stereotypes are within them, the point of stereotyping etc etc, and how that affects/applies to them.

    I’ve exposed my boys to all sorts of different music so they can develop their own taste and not just follow the emo cloud or whatever.

    More than anything, I’m trying to teach them that they don’t have to accept any stereotype, image or behavior “just because [insert reason, fact, emotion etc]“. It’s hard, but I don’t want my sons to drown in the world.

  7. Having scripture heroes early–from Lego play time to story-telling bedtime–those character traits can be exciting and important seeds.

    Most children will embrace ‘those’ and ‘that’ which make them feel valued and loved the most (even when a child does un-valuable and un-loveable things at times).

    The best comfort in parenting is that we may merit guidance through the Holy Ghost who knows each child perfectly. My advice is to try to live worthy of those wonderful whisperings that will come! (Oftimes as we raise ourselves-we raise our sons)and give lots of high-fives, hugs, caring eye contact, and smiles.

  8. The thing that has made the most difference with my three sons has been not buying into the idea that “boys will be boys”. I haven’t found that my boys are less emotional than my three girls. Quite the opposite: they cry a lot more than their sisters. They are no more rambunctious than the girls either. I really believe that this is because when they were acting wild as very young children I didn’t just shrug my shoulders like many moms of sons do.

    If you demand good behavior, mutual respect and kindness then you are a lot more likely to get it.

    I agree with Mom O’ Boys, too. A lack of TV and strict criteria for videogames and DVDs has made a big difference.

  9. I loved mom o’ boys comments. I have four boys and often wonder how I’m doing at teaching them to be kind and good and stay that way as they grow up. We too gave up cable because of its poor influence, and it brings a lot of peace to our home (another family nearby with many boys did the same thing). Developing realtionships is so important, and sometimes hard for me since I don’t always enjoy what my boys do, but they love it when I take interest in the things they love, and when we do those things together. I enjoy reading to my boys, and we often discuss what the people in those books do that is good or not so good. I hope that I am teaching them by example and word to do what is right and kind and good, and I am thankful for others’ good examples.

  10. My MIL raised 5 boys and 1 girl. All of them are incredibly different in personality, but all are upstanding citizens and good people. And they all share a love of sports, including my SIL. :) Another thing they all had that I admire is a lot of time to play outside. They were also allowed to use their creative minds and encouraged to cultivate their unique abilities. While she wasn’t the perfect mother, she and my FIL did a wonderful job. I think a lot of what they did came from the Joseph Smith thinking, of teaching them good morals and ideals and then letting them figure the rest out by themselves. Not letting them run wild, but also not restricting all of their behaviors. I just hope my son(s?) grow up to be like my husband, BILs, FIL, and FIL’s father.

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