Guest post by Janel Breitenstein (If you’re not reading my friend’s blog yet, this is your bossy reminder).
My dad used to joke about being a “minority in a sorority”. It was fairly legit: We were four girls, plus my mom—and even the dog was a girl.
Imagine my (joyful) alarm when the sonogram of my first child revealed that I was about to plunge into the world of testosterone, sweat, dirt, and Nerf weapons (the latter of which I have now lost count). In fact three of my four kiddos are boys.
Let me just add this hopefully non-inflammatory sidenote/disclaimer: I love the differences God made between the sexes. I am the old-fashioned type that believes that if a building is burning down, the men should get the women and children out first (I loved Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal remarks regarding September 11 and the return of masculinity). In fact, I personally don’t feel pressured to perform the same actions as men to be valuable. I feel like women and men are valuable all on their own.
So when my boys were still quite young and I had a term paper assigned for a class, I chose the topic of moms raising sons—you know, because I was, oh, a bit overwhelmed what with all the jumping off things, unprovoked aggression, and mysterious hygiene habits. Or lack thereof.
I learned a lot as I unearthed studies from researchers like Michael Gurian and others who have uncovered remarkable biological information about how boys take in the world. My goal is not to add fabric softener to my boys’ rough-and-tumble existence (though stain remover is fairly essential). Instead, I’ve become riveted by the plans God has for their courage, leadership, directness, and masculinity. How can we raise boys who will, as author Robert Lewis suggests, reject passivity, accept responsibility, lead courageously, and expect God’s greater reward…men who step up, rather than back?
- Let him know “I can.” Dobson’s Bringing up Boys was the first to demonstrate to me that all the little battles boys make with themselves—“What’s the highest step I can jump off of without cracking my skull?”—are gradual courage-builders. As author Norman Mailer once wrote, “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.”
Gurian does point out that boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities, while girls are likely to underestimate their own abilities. In my interpretation, this means I’m going to think my boys can do less than they can…though at times that’s a good counterpoint to their lofty goals.
Still, I have no idea the “good works God has prepared in advance” (Eph. 2:10) for them to do. As my professor pointed out, I have no idea if God wants to use their courage to cross a jungle to an unreached people group, or stand up in a courtroom for the unborn, or teach in an inner-city classroom. (This was particularly helpful one afternoon as I slouched in tears against a wall, wondering if with my eighteen-month-old baby of the family, I had birthed the Tasmanian Devil.)
Encouraging confidence-building activities that press them a bit beyond my comfort level makes a significant impact on their vision, perseverance, and boldness. My husband, echoed by other men I’ve spoken with, notes that instead of his father seeing his teen years as a time to batten down the hatches, his dad took him kayaking; backpacking up scads of Colorado’s 14,000 ft.+ peaks; cliff diving. And all that quality, push-yourself time made all the difference in not only using all that teen energy to build bravery—but even buoying him through depression.
- Start young with respect of authority. Talking with a mother of six boys, an image popped into my head: My little boys are a bit like lion cubs right now, rolling and wrestling around my living room. (Every room, actually.) I’m bigger than they are. …But I won’t always be. As their independence grows, I’ll have less physical power, so I need to firmly and consistently embed respect for authority now—before the stage where I’m just, you know, throwing them a slab of raw meat now and then. They’re allowed to ask questions, but only following a good-natured “Yes, Mom”; and we get on ‘em pretty good regarding respectful talk (it’s currently tied to their screen time). A boy’s response to authority can open a lot of doors. Or close them.
- Get him active. Gurian’s research has stayed with me: That following the use of boys’ gross-motor skills, their fine motor skills and concentration are markedly improved. So if my sons are driving me batty while I try to swivel those sweaty little heads toward homework, I may actually accomplish a lot more if I send them outside first to run around.
When my boys were little and I was wrangling their behavior problems on bad days, my husband would pointedly ask, “Have you taken them to the playground?” Essentially for me, there is a direct correlation between my boys’ activity levels and their good behavior. I don’t want them to shy away from hard work, either, so I’m going to have reasonably high expectations for them serving our family with chores and extra ways to serve. As they tumble into the teen years, I hope to look for a lot of activities to laser-focus all that extra energy to productive use.
- Encourage his relationships with guys—and let them model nurture. Maybe it’s just me. But I find that as a mom, I sometimes have to work, oh, ten times more to exercise the same authority and presence that my husband does—with his broad shoulders, authoritative bearing, and deep “man voice”—in about 4.2 seconds. And sometimes—his effectiveness in simply being a dad is something I honestly could never reach as a mom.
I have unique aspects to offer, too. But there’s nothing like a boy and his dad; a girl and her father. Different men have remarked to me that it takes them one Little League practice or one campout, and they can tell simply by how boys act what kind of involvement the father has (or doesn’t). This isn’t to give you single moms some sort of complex! I admire so much that woman who’s pouring into her son all on her own. It’s simply to encourage us all to intentionally ensure our boys have excellent male role models and relationships pouring into them in ways we’re often not equipped to do—nor should we, in the Body of Christ. Our boys need true heroes set before them both in their entertainment and life-on-life.
My mom once noted to me that unless boys see a man performing acts of nurture—reading stories, giving the kids a bath—they often see those as tasks that only women perform. I am perfectly okay with my kids playing paparazzi to their dad; I am not jealous (well, maybe a little!) that they are always crowding around the door when he comes home, or talking about him being the fun parent. I’m not in competition with my husband; they need all the dad in their lives they can get.
- Let him lead. I like to give my boys (my daughter not excluded!) practice in servant leadership—whether it’s a prayer at a meal, or weighing in on decisions and problem-solving, or helping plan family nights (my kids have developed their own system for selecting the family movie for movie night). I want to allow them to plan a little budget for family night, or help little kids at the playground. Soon, I hope they can teach VBS or Sunday school, help in church nursery, set goals in Scouts, bang a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, or be a camp counselor. If we’re on a hike, I’m okay with them mapping it out and running ahead. As I describe in this post, my husband and I include our kids in many of our decision-making processes so they hopefully have scaffolding to lead their own families someday. Today, my son and I were discussing an article I read on kids and technology, a workable strategy for his screen time, and what video games are appropriate. In what opportunities might your son enjoy building some leadership muscle?