By Meg Meeker, M.D.
Before mothers can protect, or even become over-protective, they must employ each of their sensibilities in order to engage the protective action. Before they know how to keep their sons safe, each must identify the enemy. Something somewhere threatens his boyhood every day and because mothers are instinctively protective, they watch and listen for threats to their sons. When mothers respond to these threats—which today are often electronic—they attack.
In our sophisticated, electronics-saturated, post-modern culture, the threats to a boy’s health are insidious and terribly elusive. So good mothers keep their eyes wide open and their ears alert. Then their sons attack them for doing so. Usually this comes in the (manipulative) form of “you just don’t trust me.” But don’t be put off. Just as they don’t want to talk about their feelings but still want you to be interested in them, boys can’t say that they like restrictions; but they do, because that means their parents care. And deep down, it feels good to be watched. Again, like communicating their feelings, even though being watched feels good boys still reject it. This is another push and pull dynamic in a son’s relationship with his mother: do it, but don’t let me know you’re doing it.
Sadly, however, often when mothers hear their sons admonish them about a “trust” issue, they abdicate their better senses. Well, they reason, I guess you’re right. You’re a good kid. I should trust you. And their eyes turn away and their ears go deaf to make the young boy feel more grown-up. Big mistake.
Smart mothers know that the issue is not trust—mothers don’t watch because they don’t trust sons. They watch because life is tough, unfair, and cruel. Mothers have lived longer and endured more blows; they understand more about the dangers to young boys. Boys can’t see what is behind them, much less what will harm them, so mothers must vigilantly guard them.
Maddie came to see me alone because she was concerned about Sam’s moods. Ever since he turned thirteen, she said, he had become more sarcastic and volatile. Prior to thirteen he had been an easy-going, quiet boy who rarely talked back to her and pretty much did what she asked. He was particularly close to his father, a pilot with a major airline carrier. His flight schedule meant he was away from home one week, and at home the next. Her husband was quiet, she told me, just like Sam, and perhaps that was the reason the two were so close.
Maddie was particularly bright, articulate, and caring. She worked part-time as a unit clerk in a hospital and always arranged her schedule to be home when Sam was. They had always communicated easily and this made Sam’s sarcasm and negativity that much harder for her to understand. He was an only child and she was quick to point out that with her husband’s income and her salary, Sam enjoyed many comforts that his friends didn’t.
I queried her about his friends. He had not changed peer groups, but a new boy had recently joined his eighth grade class. Sam had befriended him, and she was proud that he had reached out to the new kid.
I asked what Sam did after school. The usual, she said: track practice, homework, some downtime, then bed. Pretty uneventful.
From all accounts Maddie sketched a healthy, stable home, which she had worked hard to achieve. There was minimal familial friction, except for Sam’s new attitude. She and her husband were role models of polite behavior, and had taught Sam to be polite. They couldn’t imagine what had gotten into him.
Truthfully, I was mentally preparing a diatribe on the normal attitude fluctuations of adolescence, when something caused me to dig a little deeper before I launched into the lecture.
“So what does Sam do with his downtime?” I asked, half thinking of my talk, half awaiting her response. “Oh, I don’t know.” she answered. I waited for her to say something more. She didn’t. Then I realized why: she really didn’t know what Sam did with his downtime. “Does he like to play video games, chat with friends online, listen to music?” I pressed. “Probably.” She raised and lowered her shoulders as she spoke. “I let him be. You know, I respect his privacy. He has a TV in his room, a laptop, an iPod, and his cell phone. Although I know he doesn’t talk on that too much.”
I could tell that Maddie’s speech became more tenuous yet pressured as she continued. Something clearly bothered her about Sam’s free time, so I pressed her on it. Yet, she couldn’t pinpoint her discomfort. “What do you think he does in his room after school?” I kept on. “Like I said, I really don’t know. Sometimes he and a buddy—not a girl of course—will go to his room. I guess they play games.” She looked up at me with a mixture of sadness and fear. “Have you asked Sam what he does?” I said. “No, no, we respect him and certainly trust him. He is a good kid. Since he has never given us a reason not to trust him, we do,” Maddie rationalized.
Interestingly, when I asked about the possibility that Sam might be looking at pornography Web sites (he wasn’t), or sneaking beer into his room (he wasn’t doing that either), or engaging in any activity she thought was wrong, Maddie became agitated with me. How dare I question the integrity of her thirteen-year-old son?
Realizing that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I asked if I could talk to Sam, and she reluctantly agreed. I purposely spoke with him alone first then asked if Maddie could join us. Sam began describing his attitude shift. He admitted that he felt angrier, moodier, and overall more agitated than he had ever felt. When I asked about what he did in his room during the afternoon, he simply said: “Nothing. Just guy stuff.”
“Do you have a MySpace page?” I asked. “Sure, everybody does,” he said defensively. “Who writes to you?” I asked. “Lots of people, I guess. Guys; a few girls.” He spoke with increasing discomfort, refusing to make eye contact with me. He shifted in his seat. “How about you show your mother your page?” I asked, waiting for a dual yelp. “No way. No way. That’s guy stuff!” he answered. “Really, Dr. Meeker,” said Maddie, “I disagree. That’s private. And Mark and I don’t agree with invading his privacy.”
Bingo. We all three realized at that moment that something was awry with Sam’s MySpace page. Sam wanted to keep it secret. I knew that he was hiding something that he was torn about and Maddie refused to budge. She didn’t want to know what her son was doing because she didn’t want to be upset if she didn’t have to be. She didn’t want to see because then she would realize that perhaps she wouldn’t know what to do. She would be upset—she might scream at Sam, take away his laptop, cell phone, iPod, or all three.
But she couldn’t; she shouldn’t, her mind reasoned. It’ll drive a good kid away and mess him up for life. The safest action to take, she concluded, was to remain distant, unknowing, and inactive. When she thought over the bad attitude and sarcasm of the previous months, she rationalized that they were probably just an adolescent phase. Yet in her heart she knew better, which was why she had come to me in the first place.
The truth is that while her mind rationalized, her instincts brought her through my office door. She knew her son; she knew that something was wrong—she was simply afraid to face it. Because if she faced it, then she had a decision to make: what to do about it. This was what frightened her even more. If she made him get rid of his MySpace page, or even his computer, she was terrified that he would rebel—even run away. She was afraid if she handled the problem the wrong way, she would be a miserable mother and turn her son into a rotten kid.
In my experience, Maddie’s feelings typify the majority of parents I encounter around the country. We are afraid to really see what our boys are up to, not because they’re bad kids, but because we’re afraid of disciplining them. Discipline takes energy and it’s unnerving. We want them home, even if they’re engaging in unhealthy activities because we’re frightened that if we stop activities which we know are unhealthy for them, we’ll lose our sons. Let me assure you of one thing: half-way homes and jails aren’t full of boys who have been disciplined, they are full of boys whose parents have left them alone.
Fathers approach these issues differently. Many have difficulty believing in the convoluted thought processes mothers can engage in when making parenting decisions about their sons. When a father recognizes a problem, he usually tries to find a solution, and then decides if and when to implement that solution.
But that’s not the way mothers think. Problems with sons aren’t simply there in isolation. For mothers, all sorts of personal feelings enter into the equation. If the problem is severe, she may call into question her responsibility for creating it, perpetuating it, and then solving it. Because she feels responsible for her son, she fears that his problems reflect her character flaws. Mothers are often a little insecure with sons because they know they cannot fully understand a boy’s mind and experiences.
Most mothers travel many mental miles when confronting their son’s problems. First, because she is female she is disadvantaged in understanding his male mind and experiences. This makes her insecure and ill at east. Second, some mothers (and some fathers too) consistently personalize their sons’ problems. Women are professional blame bearers.
Maddie wanted to be a fabulous mother to Sam. She adored him. His grades were excellent and his character was good. This made her feel successful as a mother. When she realized that he was probably engaging in activities that were harmful, she rejected confronting him for fear that he would not respond well enough and she would therefore fail. So she had two problems on her hands: his activity and her fear of failure as a mother.
The great irony is that she handled the situation beautifully. When Sam showed her his MySpace page in the examination room she went ballistic. She saw lewd and graphic sexual language that he had exchanged with other girls whom he claimed not to know. She rationally yet angrily informed Sam that he had violated these girls and that they had violated him sexually.
She told him that as part of their family, she expected him to speak respectfully to others at all times. Furthermore, she told him, he owed those girls apologies; and those who had spoken so vilely to him owed him an apology as well.
Maddie, in atypical fashion, pounded her gold-braceleted wrists on the exam room table. Sam broke down in tears. He sobbed. I’m sure he felt humiliated, but I’m also certain he felt relief that his secret was out.
Many parents make the terrible mistake of trivializing boys’ mischief. But there’s mischief and then there’s mischief. Boys should be boys when it comes to playing with bullfrogs, and tree forts, and the kindergartner who sprays shaving cream on the sofa. But when teen mischief has a particularly sexual or a violent nature, parents are wrong to brush it off. Mischief that reveals an innocent heart is innocent. Mischief that is sexual or violent violates the innocence that even teenage boys should have. Our culture wants to deny that innocence, to degrade and corrupt it, and to market and sell to the low tastes that result. But we as parents need to protect our sons’ innocence if we care about their mental and physical health, not to mention their character. Watch your son like a hawk. Through an adult’s eyes, a written conversation which is vile in its sexual content can seem silly and just written for shock value—and many dismiss it as simply something boys do.
Maddie’s fearful desire not to fail was ultimately overcome by her maternal instinct to protect her son. If only more mothers would act wisely on their instincts rather than behave as fools and march into their son’s problems, how many more boys could experience the relief that Sam did?