December 12, 2013

Turn Those Christmas Blues to Gold

Christmas is a joyous but also painful time for many. My nurse just told me that she wasn’t sure if she was going to put up her Christmas tree because it reminded her of her husband who recently died of cancer. Another young woman in our office is grieving her baby boy’s diagnosis of eye tumors. Over the holiday, she will bring him to the hospital for eye surgery and pray for him not to lose his sight. Christmas may feel like more of an annoyance than a celebration to her.

What is it about Christmas that makes us so sad? We see uplifting Christmas movies on television, advertisements of folks busily buying gifts for one another and we work hard at creating an atmosphere of celebration. Lights sparkle on doorways, candles light up windows and neighbors give one another cookies and chocolates. My neighbor pulls his sleigh out, hitches up two enormous draft horses and gives the neighbors rides through his fields. With so much delight abounding, why are we so blue?

After six decades, I think I’m beginning to understand. The sadness, I believe, comes from many places and from different levels. First, when we see delight around us, we are reminded what we don’t have. Grandma is no longer here to make her famous fudge, a father may have left and his kids are reminded that their friends have fathers who are still home. Loved ones get sick with terminal cancer and happy times tell us that others don’t have cancer, we do.

Then there’s the ache of longing for what we used to have. I ache for my mother and father at Christmas. Christmas day was my father’s favorite day of the year and he spent months thinking of unique gifts for each of us. My mother decorated every nook and cranny of our home. I see the look on their faces when we came down Christmas morning. I see my nephew sitting on my dad’s lap. We ache for what we have no more and we mourn what we never had- these are the roots of sadness at Christmas. But I think there is something deeper too.

There is a spiritual component that disturbs us. We are reminded that a beautiful man-God came and locked himself inside the body of a little girl only to be born so that he could die. That confounds us on a deep, spiritual level. We are not conscious of it, but the sadness of Christ’s birth hovers over us. I know that this is true for me. A perfectly innocent child brought into the world to be the ultimate scapegoat. The cruel nature of his story makes us think that God might be mean.

That is exactly why we must drive through the sadness and the blues-however deeply they have gripped us and move past them. And we can move past them. Christmas happened, Good Friday came but then- the fulfillment of the mission came Easter morning. The perfectly perfect baby grew up, died, collapsed under the weight of darkness and evil because of me and you. BUT then, he finished the story. He walked out of the tomb. With one blow, he crushed every sadness you and I have ever held onto. He turned our blues into pure gold.

I was speaking with a priest recently when I went to EWTN to film Life on the Rock. Father Mark looked at me after half an hour and said, “With so much pain and sadness out there, how do you stay so hopeful?” I simply looked at the cross on his wall and pointed to it.

“Easy,” I said. “We win.”

Christmas is about us winning. It is a joyous celebration in the midst of our sadness because it lets us know that sadness, the blues and death itself all go away. So this Christmas, when the blues move heavily into your heart, focus on this truth. They all go away. You and I know the end of the story and we’ve read the end of the book and it says to each one if us- don’t worry about anything- even death itself- because God has our back. He helps us win.

Merry Christmas friends

November 26, 2013

Bullies Run: Beth Maday Is On the Loose

Beth Maday is no ordinary high school counselor. She seems to have single-handedly tackled the problem of bullying in her high school and won. At least, that‘s what one young man, Jeremy Flannery, says. From grade school through high school, Jeremy was mercilessly bullied. By the spring of his junior year in high school, his mother, Robin, was seriously considering moving her family of across the country so that Jeremy might find a school where h wasn’t bullied.

Seven years ago, Jeremy’s father died of cancer leaving his mother with three young children. In addition to grieving her husband’s death, she had to help Jeremy keeps his spirits up at a school where kids verbally chided him for being different. Robin tried homeschooling him. That helped but he missed other kids. He tried one public school and then another. He would place his lunch tray down at a table and kids would move it to a table where he was forced to sit alone. Once he was shoved into his locker but refused to tell his mother of his school troubles because he didn’t want to worry her. He tried telling teachers what was happening, but many told him that there really wasn’t much they could do because the bullies came from “troubled homes.” When his mother did find out what was happening, she advocated for him but ran into the same problems. Teachers knew what was happening but felt impotent to do anything about it. At one school the principal got up at all school assemblies and lectured students on how destructive and intolerable bullying was. “That actually made things worse” Robin said. Because there was so much focus on bullying but no consequences given for mean behavior, the bullies actually felt empowered.

Then a friend suggested that Robin take Jeremy to St. Francis high school. She figured that she had nothing to lose, so she visited the school. Fortunately for them both, one of the first people she met was the high school counselor, Beth Maday. Seizing an opportunity to help Jeremy, Beth went to every junior class that Jeremy would take. She stood before seven classes filled with his peers and told them that they were receiving a young man who had lost his father and who had been bullied. She talked about how Jesus never bullied (the school was a Catholic school) and how they were expected to act in kindness. Then, she asked students who among them would commit to have Jeremy’s back. She waited. Then one student raised her hand. Then another and another. Soon, the entire junior class at St Francis High school decided that they were going to take responsibility to help Jeremy. And it worked.

Jeremy told me that he has never been so happy. The entire football team (with a history of being state champions) asked Jeremy to be their media person and he travels with them to all of their games. Beth Maday told me that seeing Jeremy at school is a real delight. “You can’t believe how much kids like Jeremy” she said. “They encourage him and look out for him.”

Jeremy was having a bad day once and a girl in his class sat with him at lunch and noticed he was down. “What’s the matter?” she queried. “Is someone giving you a hard time? Just let me know.” No one was giving him trouble he told her but her concern lightened his load.

What made St Francis so successful in driving down bullying were two things, Beth said. First, students were challenged to be active participants in the process. They weren’t simply given a lecture; they were challenged with a cause and a person to care for. She even went so far as to tell the students that they had permission to be very assertive against bullies. No, she didn’t advocate violence, but she told the students that they should stand in the gap. Second, she asked the students to collectively participate. One student alone might not stand up against a bully, but when the entire class knew that they had one another’s support to act against it, they felt empowered, she told me. That’s why St. Francis has been so successful she believes.

Sure, St. Francis is a Catholic school which can teach what God would do but any public school could implement Beth Mayday’s plan. Challenge the kids who won’t bully to collectively stand for those who are being bullied and against those who bully. Positive peer pressure can be a force to be reckoned with; we just have to use it. So Beth Maday, on behalf of all of the Jeremy’s out there in our schools, thank you for a work well down.

November 22, 2013

Your Daughter Needs A Hero

"What are you going to be when you grow up?"

You probably started hearing that when you were eight years old. Chances are, your first thoughts were about Superman, or you wanted to be a cowboy, a fireman, a knight, or a football star. What you really wanted to be was a hero.

Well, I have news for you. Your daughter wants a hero—and she has chosen you.

Think about heroes: they protect people, they persevere, they exhibit altruistic love, they are faithful to their inner convictions, and they understand right from wrong and act on it. No fireman counts the odds when he runs through sheets of flame and showers of concrete to save just one terrified person.

Heroes are humble, but to those they rescue, they are bigger than life.

So how do you become a hero to your daughter? First, you should know that she can’t survive without one. She needs a hero to navigate her through a treacherous popular culture. And you should know that being a twenty-first-century hero is tough stuff. It requires emotional fortitude, mental self-control, and physical restraint. It means walking into embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even life-threatening situations in order to rescue your daughter.

You might need to show up at a party where your daughter’s friends—and maybe your daughter—have been drinking, and take her home. You might need to talk to her about the clothes she wears and the music she likes. And yes, you might even need to get in the car at one in the morning, go to her boyfriend’s house, and insist that she come home.

Here’s what your daughter needs from you. Leadership

When your daughter is born, she recognizes your voice as deeper than her mother’s. As a toddler, she looks up at your enormous frame and realizes that you are big, smart, and tough. In her grade school years, she instinctively turns to you for direction.

Whatever outward impression she gives, her life is centered on discovering what you like in her, and what you want from her. She knows you are smarter than she is. She gives you authority because she needs you to love and adore her. She can’t feel good about herself until she knows that you feel good about her. So you need to use your authority carefully and wisely. Your daughter doesn’t want to see you as an equal. She wants you to be her hero, someone who is wiser and steadier and stronger than she is.

The only way you will alienate your daughter in the long term is by losing her respect, failing to lead, or failing to protect her. If you don't provide for her needs, she will find someone else who will—and that’s when trouble starts. Don’t let that happen.

Nowadays, the idea of assuming authority makes many men uneasy. It smacks of political incorrectness. Pop psychologists and educators have told us that authority is suffocating, obtrusive, and will crush a child’s spirit. Fathers worry that if they push their kids or establish too many rules, they’ll just rebel. But the greatest danger comes from fathers who surrender leadership, particularly during their children’s teen years. Authority is not a threat to your relationship with your daughter—it is what will bring you closer to your daughter, and what will make her respect you more.

In fact, girls who end up in counselors’ offices, detention centers, or halfway homes are not girls who had authoritative fathers. Quite the opposite. Troubled young women spend most of their time in counseling describing the hurt they felt from fathers who abandoned them, retreated from their lives, or ignored them. They describe fathers who failed—or were afraid—to establish rules. They describe fathers who focused on their own emotional struggles rather than those of their daughters. They describe fathers who wanted to avoid any conflict, and so shied away from engaging their daughters in conversation, or challenging them when they made bad decisions.

Your natural instinct is to protect your daughter. Forget what pop culture and pop psychologists tell you. Do it.

And be ready. Your daughter wants you to be an authority figure, but as she matures, she will likely test you to see if you’re serious. Dads, as a rule, know adolescent boys will eventually start to challenge them. The one-on-one basketball games will get more competitive, and the son will start to buck dad’s authority.

Let me tell you a secret: many daughters challenge their fathers too. They’ll dive into a power struggle with you, not to see how tough you are, but to see how much you really care about them. So remember that when she pushes hard against your rules, flailing, crying that you are mean or unfair, she is really asking you a question: Am I worth the fight, Dad? Are you strong enough to handle me? Make sure she knows the answer is yes.

October 29, 2013

Does France Protect Their Girls better than we do? It appears so

The French Upper House of Parliament just voted to ban beauty pageants for girls younger than 16. The reason? Many are concerned that young girls are being hypersexualized and objectified. They protest public scripting and reinforcement that a girls’ worth comes largely from her looks- which by the way, aren’t the looks of children, but the looks of adult women stuck in children’s bodies. This is extraordinary for France considering the fact that they are the epicenter of fashion and that they take pride in being sexually “progressive” with peep shows located next to grocery stores and Starbucks cafes.

My hat’s off to them. How is it that we, who champion equality between the sexes and pour millions every year to educate our children’s minds, keep these ridiculous pageants alive? I think that I might have a clue. We think they’re entertaining, harmless and (as mothers of the tikes might say) a good way for girls to boost their self confidence. If these are entertaining, then shame on us. Many who watch Honey Boo Boo, I believe, do so because they think the show is funny. And others who tune in to Toddlers and Tiaras would protest that they think the contests are cute and just fun to watch. Let’s tease these arguments apart a bit.

First of all, is it morally acceptable to watch a small child on television in order to laugh at her? It’s one thing to laugh at an entertainer’s jokes, but I don’t think that’s why Honey Boo Boo is on television. As a parent, I would abhor millions of people laughing at my child. Second, the idea that we watch because the pageants are cute, harmless and entertaining. Who are we trying to kid? Every American adult with an IQ over 80 knows what television eventually does to female entertainers- they make them sexy. We just witnessed Miley Cyrus make a fool of herself with an obnoxious attempt to shock us old people by acting like a prostitute. Remember, when she was young, she was the cute Hannah Montana. She started out as a nice girl who wore age appropriate clothes. Over time, she decided she needed more attention.

Pageant girls start out at a more provocative level than Miley did. They wear frilly dresses (OK) and then cake their faces with their mothers’ makeup. They wear adult high heels and learn to walk like a sultry Vogue model. At least Miley got to wear jeans on television when she was 13. Not to look like a fuddy-dud, let’s track these pageant girls a year or two into their “careers.” The heels get higher, the walks more seductive, the clothes sexier and pretty soon, they learn that looking sexy gets more attention.

Child beauty pageants might look cute to the passing viewer, but make no mistake, once girls step onto the stage, they walk on a slippery slope with a gentle incline. Each girl will end up looking too old, too sexy and garner attention for both. She will quickly learn that attention makes her feel good and liked. So what will she do? Push the envelope just a bit more to attract more eyes so that she will feel even better about herself. And that is very, very sad.

When, America, are we going to get sick and tired of our obsession with sex- even to the point where it hurts our little girls? Are we so empty that we have resorted to finding the sexualization and objectification of little girls fun? Come on, let’s follow France just this once.

October 24, 2013

Halloween: Where Did Nice Sponge Bob Square Pants Go?

It’s here. That ghoulish-goblin, orange time of year. I have always loved fall because of the colors, the smells and because there is a reminder that God ordains change. Whether we like it or not, life appears, then it fades in beautiful glory before it reappears again after a long period of quiet.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Halloween is a part of the fall and here it is again. Costumes with warty cheeks, distorted mouths and goolish hair jump out at us in grocery store and drug store aisles. So, you who have young children, beware, even a trip to the store for paper towels can be frightening to little ones.

You and I have seen dramatic changes over the years in Halloween costume styles. Once upon a day we threw an old bed sheet over our children, cut out eyes, gave them a flash light and out into the neighborhood they went. No more. Costumes have become a source of anxiety for children if not parents. Young kids want to be the character that they want and if they can’t be him, well, they might just as well stay home. That’s easy enough to deal with, but when it comes to elementary school and middle school children, we need to be on our toes. Make a sweep down the costume aisle at any big chain store and you will find dresses adorned in black and red which even some pole dancers (maybe that’s an exaggeration) would be timid to wear. Yet, we actually consider buying these for Halloween for our young girls.

Feminist shake their fists because the costumes aren’t “gender neutral” and portray young girls as “too girlie” or as inferior to boys. Seriously? We’re going to argue about whether Spiderwoman should wear pink or black and red? Remember, people, Spiderwoman doesn’t really exist. But I am amazed that few men and women are insulted by highly sexually charge styles of our children’s costumes. Who cares if a girl looks too girlish, she shouldn’t look like a prostitute on Halloween (or any other time of the year.)

I strongly encourage you who are scouring the stores for Halloween costumes to make a few simple rules. First, you choose two or three costumes that you feel are acceptable for your kids and then let them pick one from those. That way, they get to have a choice, but you have control. Second, refuse to buy your girls sexy, skimpy, skanky clothes no matter how much they want them because their friends have them. Do you want other trick or treaters looking at your daughter as a sex object while she picks up her candy at the door? Don’t set her up for that. Third, remember that even though many boys act tough and want to wear ghastly, ghoulish masks and carry bloody heads with them, avoid these. Being goulish and being scary are two different things; so stick to scary. We forget that many boys are very sensitive and bloody stuff frightens them. I see many boys in middle school and junior high having sleep issues because of bad dreams from seeing too much violence.

Halloween can be a time when neighbors come out and chat with one another and kids run around in fun. But stay in charge. Keep a lid on sanity this Halloween particularly when it comes to costumes.

October 23, 2013

Warning: Oreos Under Attack

Nuts. Now researchers tell me that when I dunk my Oreos in milk, my brain acts just like I took a hit of cocaine. Seriously, now I can’t even love Oreos anymore? The ones with orange centers are my favorite; not because they taste any different than the white centered ones, but because they’re pretty.

A new study from Connecticut College revealed their findings on the effect of Oreos on rats’ brains. In one chamber, the rats were offered Oreos. In another chamber, they were given rice cakes. Even rats aren’t fools. They tore the Oreos apart and devoured the cream filled centers but wouldn’t even finish the rice cakes. Then the researchers gave the rats a shot of either morphine or cocaine in one chamber and then gave them a shot of saline in the other chamber. They observed that the rats who were given the drugs wanted to spend as much time in the chambers where they received the drugs as they did in the chambers where they received the Oreos. Thus, the researchers concluded, that the rats’ pleasure centers were stimulated as strongly by the cookies as they were by the drugs.

For those of us who crave chocolaty goodness, this might be bad news. While I am not ready to call my love for sweets akin to being addicted to cocaine, I get their point. High fat, high sugar, highly processed foods are bad for us. I knew that. But I do think that there’s something here that we can’t miss, as much as I’d like to dismiss it.

Very sweet fatty foods can become addictive. I am the first to admit that I am a sugar addict. As a young pediatric resident, I wore one of those long white coats so I could carry all of my necessary “tools” and keep my clothes clean. I learned early on that if I stuffed one of the huge white pockets with bit-o-honeys and fireballs, I could skip meals without starving. I didn’t want to, but I was so busy in the hospital that I frequently missed meals so I had to find a way to quiet my hunger. And candy worked. Unfortunately, those habits became very hard to stop. When I finished my training, I decided to break my sugar habit and found it very, very difficult. One time after I fasted from sugar for an entire week, I took my kids to buy school supplies at Staples. While in the store, I spotted a plastic bucket full of Swedish fish, ripped the thing open and downed the whole thing before check-out. My kids were mortified. Sugar addiction is real.

The second point is that high sugar, high fat foods trigger pleasure centers and can act to alter our moods short term. This can be real trouble for kids who are struggling with anything from school issues to family or friendship troubles. A spoonful of sugar indeed acts like a medicine to help their troubles go down- for a bit.

These two points are very important because while we think that cookies and sweets are “treats” for our kids, we must be very careful. A little is fine, but if you find that your child (or you) is constantly reaching for the Oreos, roll up your sleeves. There is work to be done and some serious sugar weaning may be in order. It’s hard to wean kids off of sugar but it’s very important because you don’t want to set your child up for a tough addiction that will only get harder to break. And- equally important, you want to make sure that your child learns to self soothe with other things beside sugar and fat. If you think your child may be addicted, I would go so far as to say, find out if he is eating to release some tension or frustration. Then, help him deal with it in other ways. Turning to sugar is easy, but it solves nothing and it will only make him heavier and more frustrated in the end.

Oreos are an iconic American kid-friendly food. So let’s respect the chocolate buggers and make sure that our kids (and we) dunk them in a healthier way.

October 18, 2013

Why We Hate Jesus

I dare you. The next time you have dinner with friends, enthusiastically tell them that God recently answered your prayers. (That is, if you are dining with atheists, agnostics or even Christians.) Most will look at you and nod in agreement or out of politeness. Some might even ask you to elaborate or offer an anecdote of their own. Friends will eat, laugh and the chatter carry on easily. Then, pick up the conversation again and mention that Jesus did something wonderful for you.

The room will go silent. You will feel shivers go up and down their spines and no one will know how to respond; for one good reason. Talking about God is almost socially acceptable, but say the name Jesus, and folks cringe. This phenomenon has always intrigued me. Why is it that speaking one name of the same deity is easy, but using His other name stops conversations dead? We know that this is biblical. After all, Jesus said himself that He will be a stumbling block. I get that. Those who love him will say that they try to follow his teachings, ask him for guidance and believe that it is through Him that we come to know the Father. To those who want access to God without reconciling the person of Jesus, this doesn’t sit well because when we keep God vague, He can be all things to all people. Or at least He can be what we want him to be. This is crucial to those with a faith who don’t want to deal with Jesus because it allows conversations to be smooth and friends to feel connected on a spiritual level no matter what their faith is. One can worship God who is part Buddhist, part Jew, part Hindu or part whatever a person sees Him to be. When God is this broad, those who worship different parts of Him can stay connected. There is no dissension or conflict and everyone can get along.

But believing that Jesus is God Himself becomes a game changer. If God is Jesus, He can’t be part anything other than Yahweh. He isn’t Allah, Buddha, Joseph Smith or anyone else. That puts us who say we are Christians in an entirely different camp and this makes us and others uncomfortable because then, at the dinner table, we must explain not only why we believe that the God whom we worship is the same person as Jesus, but it also makes us say that we don’t believe what they believe. Commonality in our spirituality goes out the window and suddenly we are at odds with them- our friends.

The fact that Christians follow a God who claims that He is still alive in the person of the Holy Spirit carves us out of the religious pack because no other faith believes this. Muhammad, Joseph Smith and Buddha are dead and as far as I can tell, they never came back to life. Hindus don’t have a living deity and those who follow the God who is all things to all people don’t believe that He came back from the dead either. He couldn’t have, they feel, because if He really did, then they are stuck confronting Jesus again.

The real dare for each of us is this: are we willing to stop conversations because we love the One who came to us, died for us and who pulled out the sword and said, “By believing in me you will appear different, a kind of freakish and foolish.” I don’t know about you, but even political correctness has eeked its way into my religious psyche and telling folks that the Christian faith is not like theirs is no fun. I want people to like me. But when I fail to speak Jesus’ name and use God instead, I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m fudging. So why do I (and other Christians) do this? Is it because we really don’t like Jesus that much, or that we’re embarrassed by him?

I don’t think so. I believe that the real problem stems from the fact that we really don’t like ourselves very much. Those who are secure, self confidant and at peace, speak their minds. They do so lovingly but they do it. Those of us who grapple down deep with who we really are find that we don’t want to say anything offensive lest we alienate our friends. Perhaps then, the reason that we hate saying the name Jesus has very little to do with him. It comes from our minds which have been so worked over by our culture to avoid doing, saying or thinking anything offensive that we have become genuine unadulterated cowards.

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t something I ever wanted to be so I intend to correct it. The next time I am tempted to say “God” I will say “Jesus” instead. Halted table talk can be OK with me. What about you?

October 17, 2013

Are You a Yeller?

Mom or Dad, Are You a Yeller? Better Bite that Tongue

Kids who are yelled at by their parents are more likely to have depression and behavior problems, a new study in Child Development finds. This is no surprise, so why do a study? I think we need studies like this so that academics can remind us parents to take our jobs seriously. I know that I do.

Words cut deeply- particularly the words that flow from a parent’s mouth to a child- whether that child is 6 or 66. We listen to what our parents say to us because this is how we figure out who we are. We are wired this way from birth. As young children we scour our parents’ faces to figure out if they like what we are wearing, if they think the picture we colored is good enough or if they like how fast we run on the soccer field. If they communicate that they like what they see, then we believe we are good. If they never pay attention or berate us, then we believe we are no good. That’s how simple life is for a child. Even as adults, we never stop listening to our parents, because we are connected to them by a need-based love.

So when a parent screams at a child, the pain cuts deeply. Some parenting experts say that kids don’t hear parents scream because they tune them out. I completely disagreed. Kids hear alright, they just pretend not to hear because they simply don’t know what to do with the hurt.

Parents yell at their kids for two reasons. First, do so in an attempt to get their kids to listen. If children are strong-willed, defiant or have bad attention issues and never listen, parents amp up the volume to make them hear. Since they feel that nothing else gets their kids’ attention, they resort to yelling. Second, many parents yell because they can’t control their own anger. When we are tired, irritated and overwhelmed, yelling comes easily. We don’t yell at coworkers, our boss or even other adults. We take it out on the easiest targets- kids who know they shouldn’t yell back. And that’s just not fair.

I frequently hear adults complain about how kids talk. Teenagers swear at school and berate their teachers to their faces. Even young children will mouth off at adults. I recently had a 15 year old girls from a private school come up to me after a lecture I gave and insist that I didn’t know what I was talking about. We all interface with rude kids frequently. They may not raise their voices, but they know how to use words to jab when they want to. So we need to do something about this.

We parents need to get hold of our tongues. When we say things like “you’re lazy, worthless or won’t amount to anything” to kids, they become mean and depressed. Some of us aren’t that blatant but cut our kids down in more subtle ways. We yell at them to do their chores, use a tone which communicates that we believe they’re lazy or maybe we swear at them. When it comes to being nasty, we can get mighty creative.

James tells us that if we get control of the way we talk, then we acquire control over our entire bodies. This is extraordinary. I love that he compares us to horses. Put a bit in their mouths and you control the whole beast. I know that I can be a beast.

He goes on to say in chapter 3: 5, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”

Could it be that we can start fires in our children by saying mean things or yelling at them? I believe so. Words are that strong. And if that is true, so is the converse. If we are respectful, firm and kind to our kids, we can put fires out in their hearts. Could it be that many of the problems we experience with our kids stem from the way we talk to them? I think so.

So let’s listen to our pal James. This week try an experiment. Refuse to yell in your home- at your kids, your spouse or another loved one. Use only a respectful tone and refuse to say mean things to anyone in your family. Watch to see what happens to your kids’ moods- and to your’s as well. I bet you’ll be surprised.

October 10, 2013

A Mother's Son, Part 2


Mothers are acutely aware of the need to preserve theirs sons’ dignity as they mature into men. Mothers embody pride for sons and their daughters from the moment they are born. They are proud because the child belongs to them, but beyond that defensive ownership a mother feels pride for her son because he is male. She sees herself as the one who must transfer her sense of pride in his masculinity to him so that when he is older he will internalize that pride in his masculinity and protect his dignity for himself.

The beauty of a mother as keeper and teacher of her son’s dignity is that it transcends all aspects of his character and his capabilities. In her eyes his very existence warrants dignity. He may have spastic quadriplegia from cerebral palsy, be bound in a wheelchair and unable to mutter any words, but he has dignity and she will teach the world this. He may be a concert cellist, a professional athlete, a broker on Wall Street, or a janitor; in every case she will see, expose, and protect his dignity because he must have it. She is his number one fan, and will demand that others honor him because he is a boy transitioning into a man.

I am implying nothing about a mother’s lover for her daughter. Mothers most certainly love their daughters and value them (or they should) equally with their son. My explanation of a mother protecting her son’s honor does not imply that she feels any less toward her daughter. My point is simply that her feelings—and therefore her behavior towards—her son is different than it is towards her daughter. Sons are different than daughters. Gender differences matter and they are good.

Sometimes a mother’s diligence in demanding respect for her son can go overboard. I had a patient who was quite small for his age through elementary school and junior high school. He was a likeable, rambunctious boy and performed well academically. But his mother was extremely sensitive about his size. Her mannerisms told anyone near her that they best not make fun of her son. She felt that she must teach the world that while he was small, he was masculine. One could sense when they were near her, particularly with her son present, that she was anticipating a slur against his maleness, an affront to the dignity he deserved.

To keep his friends and their parents, teachers, and coaches aware of his masculinity, she followed him everywhere he went to make sure that no one made fun of him—that everyone respected his masculinity. She was room mother or at least co-room mother in every grade in elementary school. When he played sports she watched from the team side of the playing field, rather than the parent side. Every game, she argued with the coaches about equal playing time for her son.

And much to the child’s dismay, she made him play football in junior high. He didn’t make the weight cut so he played a level down but she didn’t care. When the poor boy was invited to birthday parties, she not only brought him, she stayed to “help out” at the party. Interestingly, if girls were there she would leave, but if there were only boys she stayed.

Fortunately for the poor child, when he was sixteen he started to grow. And he grew and grew. By the end of his junior year in high school, he had acquired androgenized muscles, a hint of a beard, and he could buy thirty-two length blue jeans. And guess what happened to her following him around? It stopped. She felt vindicated and proud—in her mind she was finally secure that she had “transferred” her son’s dignity to a permanent place on his shoulders.

Of course, her son grew and matured despite this over-mothering. By gluing herself to her son she only reinforced to him that his masculinity was fragile. It was up for grabs and since he wasn’t able to stand up for himself, she had to be the replacement. Her presence was a constant reminder to him of his inadequacy. This was something that he had to deal with as he grew up. Perhaps it is because mothers are not male that they guard maleness so fiercely in their sons. They do not take it for granted. The same way a father intuitively protects his daughter, a mother preserves her son’s dignity.


Grace is love that is undeserved. Because a mother can see through a gnarled physique, a low IQ, a beast-like temper, or a chronic disease right to the soul of her son, she can spot the beauty within him, which allows her to love him. She can forgive him, excuse him, accept him, and love him when no one else will. Because her eyes pierce through the layers of this ugliness and find the lost part of his self, she can extend him grace when no one else can. While fathers can do this with sons as well, in my experience mothers have this ability in far more abundance than fathers do—or at least impart it far more frequently. I believe this to be true because mothers don’t expect as much from sons as fathers since they and are not in competition with them.

Every son needs to experience grace. I don’t think that any human experience changes a boy’s character as dramatically or elevates his sense of self-worth so clearly. To know that he is not good enough, not smart enough, or too mean to be loved is devastating to a boy. But the experience of a mother’s embrace and acceptance is life changing for a boy. When a mother extends outstretched arms to a son who has failed in sports, or school, or socially, or been deemed not smart enough, “manly enough,” or just plain not good enough, he begins to understand what love is all about. The moment a mother extends her grace, he begins to understand that goodness in being a man isn’t all about his performance. It isn’t about his successes or his failures. It is about being able to accept love from another and then return that love. He learns this lesson when his mother accepts him in the midst of life’s lowest points. And when he learns to accept love when he feels humiliated, he learns to stand a bit taller. He learns to trust in himself as a man.


The very qualities which cause men to be attracted to women can often become the very qualities which men come to hate later in life. And the reverse is true. Some women are attracted to men because they are hard-working and show great commitment to their work. Later on, those same women complain that their husbands are workaholics and never around.

This is true for men. Studies reveal that most women talk about twice as much as men over the course of the day. Women are expressive, and that expressiveness helps mothers become the emotional connector within a family. Fathers are good at setting rules and finding solutions. Mothers are better at understanding. At first a man is attracted to a women because she is expressive—she talks about the relationship and its positives and negatives. Years later, he leaves home frequently because he is talked out.

The fact that women use more words and are in general more openly expressive serves sons very well. Mothers teach sons about their feelings and thoughts and help boys become comfortable with them. This lends itself to helping boys establish healthy connectedness with their mothers and, importantly, other people. Her words help him become a better man.

She can teach him to become comfortable putting words to his feelings and that he has a choice as to when and how he verbalizes his feelings. A mother can teach her son about girls, because a son respects his mother even when he finds it hard to tolerate the girls at school. She teaches him to tolerate girls at various ages, to excuse their feminine behaviors that he finds ridiculous, and to appreciate that the differences between boys and girls are not good and bad, but two beneficial aspects of human nature. Later, she can help him understand and, therefore more easily accept, how women think and why.

Sometimes mothers pain their sons by explaining and talking too much, and women do need to understand that while they, mothers, are responsible for helping sons to understand others, to love them and connect with them, boys may choose to do this in different ways. Grown men don’t always bond through verbal communication. They often bond with others through action, which can be anything from athletics to shared hobbies to work, rather than through sharing feelings and emotions.

Mothers need to remember that her goal is to help her son be comfortable enough with himself to form deep bonds and respect his way of doing it. Mothers earnestly teach lessons by talking more but it is important to realize that as their son matures his thinking does as well. As he ages, his cognitive skills help him think more pragmatically. This allows him to see what she is trying to say and absorb it quickly, if he can identify the lesson she is trying to teach.

Beyond words, her physical affection allows him to feel more comfortable being affectionate with others. Her open communication lets him understand his own thoughts and appreciate those of others. As she makes herself trustworthy, he learns to trust other women. All of these aspects and many more of her femininity open a path for him to connect more soundly with others—both men and women. Mothers ideally bring all of these qualities to their sons. They love adoringly, protect until death, guard their son’s dignity, extend grace when it is needed, and ensure healthy relationships for him in the future.


The reality of a mother’s love is that it sometimes comes out sideways. Mothers are often tired, manipulated, and they make mistakes. They scream when they mean to apologize. They feel guilty that they have to work rather than stay at home with the children. They worry about all the things that can go wrong.

But there’s an easy way to take some of the pressure off—and that is to allow both you and your son more time to relax. Some of the most important moments of being a parent consist of just being there for your kids and sharing the most mundane aspects of life with them.

Mothers who spend too much time with other mothers often compare notes and feel they are doing too little. But motherhood isn’t a competition. It is a state of being. Twenty-first-century, post-modern mothers site many reasons they are anxious.

Peer pressure heads the list of influences operating in a mother’s life which dramatically alters how she raises her son. Peer pressure usually has a very negative affect on sons because it rarely causes mothers to make better decisions for their son. It acts against their own instincts and is therefore usually detrimental to the son.

Mothers ungulate ceaselessly about their concerns over the peer pressure their son experiences. But peer pressure that parents feel affects a boy more significantly than the peer pressure he feels from his contemporaries. Usually the mother is influenced more heavily by peer pressure simply because most women spend more time with other mothers than fathers do with other fathers.

Consider the number of scheduled activities boys have. Why does Johnny go to piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time? Because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two to three extra-curricular activities. Mothers want their sons to be similar enough to other boys so that they will be accepted among their peers. This is a healthy desire. But if it leads to enrolling Johnny in piano lessons, soccer, and football practice all at the same time because other mothers have their sons enrolled in two or three extra-curricular activities, then it’s not. The problem is, two to three scheduled events stress some sons unduly. We know that sons who have healthy relationships with their parents fare much better life. Your sons don’t need more activities that separate them from you, they need more time with you. And guess what? A night spent reading at home with your sons is a night that’s a lot less stressful for you and them than a night spent running between this practice and that recital. Further, it decreases the amount of time a son spends with his mother and father and we know that sons who have healthy relationships with parents fare much better in life. But we sign them up anyway.

The United States is the wealthiest country on the planet—but prescriptions for anti-depressants and anxiolytics have soared over the past five years. Why? Because mothers and fathers are stressed by the demands on them—the demands of work, family, and keeping up with the Joneses. And much of these demands come from trying to get to work on time, to make enough money to pay for the shoes, lessons, and tuition for our sons that other boys have. But you don’t need to keep up with the Joneses. You only need to keep a roof over your head and raise mentally and physically healthy children. You’d be better off going for family walks together than working harder to make extra money to pay for more activities for the kids.

Peer pressure perpetuates a mother’s stress to be all and do all for her son in order for him to grow up and be happy. But many times—most times in fact—a son cannot be happy in a home where there is so much stress created because his mother feels an obligation to perform well or at least better than many of the friends that she sees around her.

When Caroline came to my office with her six-month-old boys, I knew the visit would be long: her mother was in tow. I entered the examination room to see her twin boys, Caleb and Connor, sitting on a blanket in on the middle of the exam room floor. Caroline looked tired, her shoulders sagged. I noticed that her shoulders had lost their squareness as she leaned over to give a Cheerio to Caleb. Clearly she had dressed up for her appointment, and wore heavy makeup, as if to disguise her fatigue. She had concealer caked on her eyes and pale tangerine lipstick covering her lips. As we chatted, I noticed movement only on the right side of her mouth. The left eyelid and the left side of her mouth were drooping. There was a crack in her voice. She cleared her throat to conceal it. She wanted to show me and her mother that she was doing extraordinarily well. But I recognized the symptoms and realized that Caroline had developed Bell’s Palsy.

As I asked pertinent questions about the boys’ development, eating habits, and sleep patterns, her answers were encouraging but abbreviated. When I started to place the twins on my exam table, she quickly stood to help. While I examined Caleb, she played with Connor while consoling his brother. When I switched to Connor, she continued to concentrate on the two at once.

Her mother sat patiently on the plastic chair beside hers, but I sensed from the moment I entered the room that she was anxious to speak. Realizing that the visit was coming to a close, Caroline’s mother blurted out, “Dr. Meeker, I’m terribly worried about Caroline.”

“Mother, stop. Please don’t.” Caroline interrupted.

“No, no, this is important. I think we need her opinion” her mother persisted. Caroline complied.

“What are your concerns?” I asked, looking at the mother.

“Dr, Meeker, I’m worried about Caroline’s health. You can probably see she has developed Bell’s Palsy. Her doctor gave her some type of steroid medicine for that and she cries a lot. Her doctor also said that she is depressed so he gave her another medicine for that. She started it a few months ago but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s working or not because she is exhausted all the time. You see, she hardly sleeps. One of the boys is awake every couple of hours wanting to eat. Since she insists on nursing them, she won’t let me help. I can’t give them a bottle and she won’t feed them back-to-back. She lets them eat whenever they want to.” Caroline’s mother paused long enough for Caroline to interrupt her.

“Mother, you just don’t understand,” she said. “Things are different today. Breast milk is best for the boys and they need it—everything I read about nursing says that they should eat on demand. You didn’t feed me that way in your day.”

Caroline’s efforts valiantly attempted to insist that she was right but beneath her words I could hear that she wanted to be convinced otherwise.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me get this straight, Caroline. You nurse the boys whenever they want to nurse, you are taking steroids because half of your face can’t move, and you are suffering from depression, for which you take medication every day.”

“Right.” she complied.

“I can see that you feel confused, exhausted, and guilty. That’s the way any normal mother in your situation would feel.” I waited.

“Yeah,” she nodded reluctantly.

“Do you think the boys need a happy mother or do they need breast milk more?” I asked.

She seemed surprised by the question. “Breast milk. It boosts their immune system, it wards off infections; there are antibodies in breast milk that they can’t get any other way. And it helps me bond better with them. I’ve read that babies find breast milk emotionally gratifying. How can I not give that to them?”

Like any enthusiastic, loving mother, Caroline had scoured the Internet for information on nursing and had found volumes. Most of what she had read was correct, but some was false. But more important, she had completely lost her balance.

Her instincts told her that she needed more sleep, the drugs (which would be present in the breast and the milk) ­weren’t good for her babies, and the four of them (she rarely thought of her husband’s opinion) would be healthier and happier if she stopped nursing.

So why didn’t she? Peer pressure. Most mothers feel extraordinary pressure from friends, doctors, and baby books to nurse as long as possible. Certainly I advocate this but I encourage more maternal intuition and common sense.

After a long discussion I tried to convince her that the boys needed a less sleep-deprived mother more than they did breast milk. I encouraged her to wean the boys, start them on formula in a bottle, let someone else help her (heaven forbid their father gets a little bonding time while feeding them), and get some sleep. She shook her head. I explained the seriousness of post-partum depression and the role that elevated oxytocin, which is associated with breastfeeding, played in the depression. I discussed the potential impact of her depression on the boys.

She dug her heels in. Without words she told me she would sacrifice anything, including her health (and ironically, the health and happiness of her family), for her boys. And giving up nursing was not an option. Mothers are a competitive lot and I sensed that part of Caroline wanted to be Super Mom. Her friends nursed only one child at a time. She could do two. Her mother pleaded with me to convince Caroline to show some common sense.

Realizing that I wasn’t making headway, I finally said, “Well, let me tell you. If they were my sons I wouldn’t want them to have steroids or anti-depressants in their systems for this long.” She stared at me. Her lips were tight, then they relaxed. Her shoulders straightened and she looked at her mom.

“Well, all right. I will wean them a little bit,” she said.

Sometimes mothers of sons get crazy. We just do. In our longing to make our sons psychologically sound, physically strong, and developmentally on track (usually we want them advanced) we toss common sense aside. We believe, usually errantly, that others know a better way to parent than we do. So we follow the lead of our peer group. And, I might add, parents of teenage boys are the worst at committing this travesty.

The fact is, your intuition as a mother is better than comparing yourself to other mothers. A mother needs to take a hard look at why she does what she does. Why does her son do what he does? If she recognizes honestly that her motives stem from peer pressure to keep her son ahead of the others, she must buck that peer pressure. Sons need more stress-free homes—which will dictate how they behaves in school much more significantly than does the behavior of their friends.

And one lesson we should all learn is that while mothers want more for their sons, the truth is that sons need less. Boys need fewer toys and fewer clothes. They need more time with their mothers and fathers, less time in structured events, and more time being bored—yes, bored—so that they can use their imagination and creativity and figure out what to do. Young men need less time face-to-screen with electronic life and more time face-to-face with people. Less television, video games, clothes, telephone bills, sports events, and preschool hours mean less stress for mothers and more time for boys to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.

All of these things—electronics, clothes, sports events, ad nauseum—make their way into a boy’s life because his mother (and his father) yield to life as their neighbors live it, the way they see it around them rather than the way it ought to be.


When a son enters a mother’s life, many feelings from her own childhood are triggered. As she swaddles her new son and pulls him towards her chest, he becomes a catalyst for the eruption of emotions that may have been repressed many years earlier. This isn’t his fault. This is the normal and often healthy reaction of a parent.

Often these feelings are warm and pleasant—a reliving of a sense of trust, affection, and comfort. Sometimes they are painful—a sense of abandonment, fear, and perplexity. Many mothers experience myriad emotions which can seem frightening and perplexing.

Bruno Bettelheim asserts that if a mother had an unhappy childhood, she may see her son’s happiness and avoid responding to it. His happiness feels uncomfortable, so in order to avoid embracing his happiness she becomes aloof and indifferent to him. This is much the same as a melancholy friend becoming irritated by an exuberant one.

Mothers relive their childhoods through their sons. They re-experience feelings of trust, abandonment, affection, and comfort.

But a son can also trigger deep-seated pain for many women. Mothers who have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of men (particularly a father) have serious challenges in their relationships with their son. It is not uncommon for the birth of a son to trigger repressed memories of abuse in mothers along with the concomitant fear and anxiety.

If she had a good relationship with her own father (and has a good relationship with the father of her child), the odds are that these feelings will be positive. But if her relationship with her father was troubled, or if she is a divorced or single mother, and if she fails to recognize what is happening to her emotionally, a mother will transfer the ugly feelings she has from her experiences on to her son. This can complicate her relationship with her son terribly.

Feelings mothers have towards sons can be convoluted, overlaid with conflictual experiences with other men or perhaps other children. But a mother’s goal should always be to keep her feelings towards her son as honest and clean as possible. She should feel affection for him and not confuse her affections for him with her feelings for another person. She should love him as a masculine being and this love should be free from an overlaying of love towards other men. Any disappointment towards her son should stem from something he has done—not from something other males have done to her in the past.

In my experience, four patterns of a mother’s love toward her son erupt when she is unable to emotionally separate her past bad experiences with men from her present relationships with her son. Divorced or single, mothers are particularly vulnerable to any one of these patterns. They are: enmeshment, estrangement, over-dependence, and unavailability.

Enmeshment between a mother and son occurs when a mother cannot identify where she ends and her son begins. She feels his feelings and very often he feels hers. She is compelled to fix his life because she feels that she is living his life. His hurts are her hurts. His anxiety is hers. Because she is unable to “peel” her emotional self off of him, she experiences his trouble and will do everything within her power to fix it.

Mothers who feel that their lives are devoid of substance are prone to enmeshment because they must cling to someone to give their own life meaning. Her son and his feelings, needs, and desires become fused with her in order that she can feel satisfied on a deeper level.

The problem is, satisfaction never comes. He cannot give enough or be enough for her. She cannot shape his life or navigate it to her liking. So he becomes a chronic disappointment. As for her son, he can feel his mother’s emotional entanglement with him, and it naturally makes him uncomfortable. In the tale of the Great Divorce, the mother of Elisha is forced to leave her son. She has attached herself as a leech in her son’s life and when the time for separation comes, she screams in anguish. She cannot let go of him. One can sense a tearing of flesh as he pulls himself away from her. Her fingers are clawing at his back. She screams because she literally feels as though her person is being torn in two. Mothers who feel empty, insecure, or struggle with a longing to fill a deep void in their lives must exercise great caution. The emptiness can be filled and the longing can be satisfied but never through a son.


Though estrangement is the flip side of enmeshment, it is often the result of the same causes: divorce, single motherhood, or a history of sexual abuse. In this case, it causes a mother to feel estranged from her son simply because he is male. She might regard normal boyish pranks as malevolence. When her son wants her affection, she might push him aside to keep him from becoming “a sissy.” When he becomes a teenager she might reprimand him constantly for behavior that reminds her of her former husband, or his deadbeat dad.

There are subtler ways in which a mother can undermine her son as well. She can pay more attention to other women—friends, her daughter, her mother—and brush his needs off easily. She may verbalize affection for a daughter and rarely verbalize affection toward her son. She can use sarcasm to joke about the shortcomings of his father and his own shortcomings as a boy or as a young man. When a boy realizes that he is being rejected because he is a male, he pulls away, and his mother, in turn, pulls even farther away.

Mothers who have had bad experiences with men need to come to terms with those experiences and accept that their son is an individual, and not the representative of the men who have hurt her.

Mothers who are divorced, particularly those who have endured a very hostile divorce, must heed tremendous caution. When there is dissention between a mother and a father, very frequently a mother can unwittingly take this out on her son. Far too many sons end up in the crossfire after a parent’s divorce. Another word of caution is warranted here when considering divorce. Very frequently sons become overly protective towards their mother after a divorce. An oldest son might feel compelled to become the “man of the house.” A boy who does this is obviously well-intentioned, but he remains a boy and shouldn’t be required to take any mental and emotional burdens for which he is developmentally unprepared.

Divorce is a tragedy that takes a very heavy toll on boys, as well as mothers and fathers. Boys who had previously behaved very age appropriately can suddenly behave very age inappropriately after a divorce has occurred. The best gift for any child is a stable, loving home with a mother and a father. If you have that gift, preserve it.


There is a world of difference between a mother having a healthy emotional connection with her son, and a son becoming so emotionally reliant on his mother that he becomes the prototypical boy who is overly dependent upon his mother—a “mama’s boy.” Sadly, many women have misinterpreted this as a state of emotional connection with sons and pushed their sons away far too early. There is a very significant difference between over-dependence and healthy connectivity.

Most infant boys cling to their mothers. Of course, as an infant, he will want to be attached to her, often literally. As a toddler he will begin to wander a little, while always running back to her. During his elementary school years, he will mimic this toddler-type of wandering then reconnection but the psychological distance he wanders and the length of time he allows to elapse between returning to the safety of his mother will increase. Growing boys value their growing independence.

Over-dependence occurs when a mother consistently communicates to her son that he needs her. She must clothe him, feed him, drive him places, help him with his homework, and assist him in every way, and no one else can fill her spot. This is particularly harmful to a son because it communicates to him that his father has no significant role in filling his needs. And it’s terribly painful for fathers. She must help him with his homework because only she can teach him. The lesson a boy learns is that he cannot succeed on his own. Of course, most of what a needy mother communicates is too subtle for a son to identify; but all he knows is that it feels awful.

Mothers who have experienced a poor relationship with their fathers or who have been through a bad divorce are very susceptible to this behavior. But to be warned about it is to guard against it. Since they feel wounded by men, they experience a significant drop in their self-esteem, and they purpose to make up for this loss by being terribly important in their son’s life. When such a mother feels her son (a male) need her, she feels that his neediness of her and her alone validates her ability to be in a non-hostile relationship with a male. Unfortunately, over-dependence blunts a boy’s emotional development.


When mothers entered the workforce with renewed intensity during the last half of the twentieth century, many came under attack for abandoning their families. Numerous research studies appeared on the effects of daycare on children and the effects of maternal absence on the psychological development of children.

Women who worked (without pay) in the home raising their children and women who worked jobs outside of the home felt pressured from all sides. Women who stayed home to raise their children suffered from feelings of inadequacy to lower self-esteem to anxiety about not bringing money home to the family, while women who worked outside the home experienced guilt and sadness about being away from their children. Mine is a generation of women who determined with a fresh ferocity to shift the worlds of finance, law, medicine, and any other workplace dominated by men to accommodate us. We were tired of limited choices, disrespect, and often just plain bored with the mundane task of keeping our homes in order and our children well cared for.

Mothers can find research and books to support and encourage their lifestyle choice, whatever it is. Where parenting is concerned, there is no positive research or advice. That’s why I hold much of it loosely. My belief is that if we mothers are tough enough to be honest with ourselves, we will know what our sons need. We know the moment they are born our sons need to form strong emotional attachments to their mother or their father in order to learn to trust that they will be cared for and that they are worth being cared for.

Many argue, and even some research shows, that as long as any adult consistently provides for a boy’s basic needs during his first one to two years of life, he will fair well psychologically. The problem is, for the majority of mothers, we know better. We believe that our son needs a strong bond with us, and we with him.

Boys need to form emotional bonds with their mothers over time in a consistent manner. We do know that boys who fail to form these bonds in the first two years of life suffer attachment issues for many years and are at risk for of never being able to form healthy attachments to others. And boys can’t form bonds or learn to trust others if their mother (or consistent mother figure) isn’t available or dependable.

We need only to look at the psychological health of many boys in orphanages from the old Soviet Union. Many were adopted by families in the United States. Many of the older boys in particular demonstrated serious attachment disorders and parents of these boys were distraught and frightened because while many of these orphaned boys acted quiet, compliant, and sweet externally, internally they were almost vacant. Many were so emotionally bankrupt that the only feelings they were comfortable feeling were anger and hostility. The circumstances of their infancy years demonstrate why their comfort with only negative feelings makes sense.

When my patient Andrew was born in Ukraine, his mother was very poor and placed him in an orphanage. He was given a crib and fed several times a day, but was removed from the crib and held only one or two times a week, his adoptive mother was told. He walked at age two rather than age one because he never had the opportunity to be out of his crib.

In short, he experienced a profound sense of abandonment. And abandonment, I believe, is the most painful human experience possible. Andrew was deprived of touch, affection, eye contact, and love, and was given the minimum calories needed to survive. He experienced a profound emptiness because no one was available to him: physically, psychologically, or mentally. And I believe that even in those first months of life a child understands his own value on some level. If his needs are met by another, he feels valued. If they are not, in a very fundamental way he feels worthless.

Andrew had no one available for him in any meaningful way. He became invisible, probably even to himself. Lacking emotionally security, he could not laugh or smile. As he grew, he could not show or feel any affection, because none had been offered to him when he was young. He walled himself off from receiving any positive affection from another (even though it was probably never offered) because feeling any affection or warmth would remind him of all the affection he failed to receive.

Andrew felt safe feeling angry and hostile because these feelings do not presuppose a sense of security or value. But they do offer a sense of control, of “getting even;” anger is a safe way of releasing sadness, loneliness, or grief.

Because Andrew lacked a mother to give him physical and emotional contact for the first six years of his life, he locked himself into an emotional glass cage. He was safe there. And because he had been there from such an early age and at such a crucial point in his development of trust, his adoptive mother wondered if he could ever be removed. Even the best child psychiatrist in our area wondered the same thing. Andrew became physically violent by the third grade. He hit another boy so hard he broke his leg. By the time Andrew was in sixth grade, his parents were gravely concerned that he might harm his siblings—or even them—while they slept at night.

Andrew’s upbringing demonstrates the extreme damage done to a boy when a parent is unavailable. But all around us—in our schools, sports teams, and daycare centers—there are boys who suffer attachment issues and healthy emotional development issues because they have mothers who are physically or emotionally unavailable.

Mothers who are drunk are emotionally unavailable to their sons. Mothers who compulsively work or play are unavailable. Mothers who suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and excessive stress are physically and emotionally unavailable at times to their sons. In short, many of us are unavailable to our sons at various points during their lives.

Every mother must examine her life, take inventory of her energy for work and motherhood, and then ask how she can be present more for her son. This is really hard stuff because all mothers struggle at different times with different issues. But raising great sons demands that we take inventory of our energies because boys need their mother’s time, attention, and affections.

There is a good reason why many adult men fail to trust women. They do so because many have never experienced healthy bonding with their mothers. And if a boy grows up with an alcoholic, workaholic, or absent mother, he quickly learns to withdraw from women. But the hurt doesn’t stop with the withdrawal. He pulls away to guard himself from further insult. He subconsciously concludes that she is not available for him because he is not worth her time or affection. And if he is valued this little by his mother, he must be valued less by others who aren’t supposed to love him. Ultimately his affection and respect for himself suffer and he feels quite alone.

The investment of physical and emotional energy which a mother gives a son is very serious stuff. When a mother chooses to be away from her son, regardless of the reason, the impact on her son is greater than she realizes. Sometimes mothers can’t help being separated. My purpose in reminding mothers of this is not to incite guilt—I myself am a working mother—but simply to state a fact: to be blessed by sons is to be called to a great responsibility. Every choice we make as mothers has farther reaching effects on our son than we realize.

The choices, loves, and beliefs of a boy’s mother craft his character. Mothers are a powerful presence in their sons lives. This knowledge shouldn’t frighten us; it should motivate us. Boys need more of their mothers in order to be greater men. And any mother who follows her maternal instincts, examines her own motivations, and does the best she can, will be a good mother. Boys don’t need perfection; they just need you there.

Jimmy O’Donnell was a mean kid. In his short ten years he had successfully and single-handedly terrorized every young boy on his street. The girls in his neighborhood dodged him; one look at him and each of them knew that Jimmy O. was nothing but trouble.

Even Jimmy’s mother feared him. She never admitted it, but it was clear to Jimmy’s teachers, his school principal, and other parents on Jimmy’s street. She avoided him. Like an irresponsible dog owner, she shooed him outside to roam the streets.

Seven-year-olds Mike, Bobby, and Evan lived on Jimmy’s street. Whenever Jimmy hopped on his scooter, one of two things occurred: either they would chicken out and run away, or, if they were feeling particularly tough and united that day, the threesome would stand in a yard and withstand Jimmy’s taunting.

One day, Jimmy made an enormous mistake. He hopped on his scooter and came to terrorize them. “Mike, Bobby!” he shouted at the two of them from his scooter. “Hey, get over here, you mother-loving, booger-eating turds!” The two boys froze. They were not a threesome. Today they were a twosome and each looked at the other anxiously, knowing that they needed to decide very quickly what to do. Should they run? Should they look up and risk making eye contact with Jimmy? If they did, their day was doomed. Or so they thought.

“Whatcha want Jimmy?” Mike blurted. Bobby was stunned. Blood drained from his olive face and suddenly he felt nauseated. “What’s the deal, Mike? Are you crazy or something?

“Let’s get out of here!” Bobby blurted.

Mike shoved his fists deep into his jean pockets and started at Jimmy. “No,” he said. “You don’t scare me Jimmy O’Donnell.”

Jimmy leapt from his scooter and tossed it on Mike’s freshly mown lawn. Jimmy had a fresh velvety buzz cut and Mike saw snippets of his pink scalp beneath the trimmed stubble. Rumor had it that Jimmy shaved. Some said that he could actually grow a beard at age ten—and this made his steps more daunting as he approached Mike.

“What do ya say, punk? Did I hear you say something to me?”

Mike blurted, “Yeah, Jimmy. I did.” Mike stretched his neck and pushed his bony shoulders back. Without a shirt his scrawny frame looked like it could snap like a chicken bone. Bobby stood beside him with a short-sleeved madras shirt buttoned to the neck. He was still frozen.

“I’m sick of your bullying everybody. Me and Bobby here, we want you to get lost. And now.” With that command, Jimmy darted toward Bobby, chasing him like a rooster chasing a chick. Bobby’s skinny arms flailed as he ran and screamed, Jimmy pursuing him easily.

“Knock it off Jimmy,” Mike demanded. “Why don’t ya go chase someone your own age? Suddenly Jimmy turned towards Mike, spit flying from the sides of his mouth, beads of sweat erupting from his scalp and resting atop his buzz. “I’m gonna make you eat that. Come over here, you weenie!” Jimmy shouted at Mike. Mike ran out of his yard and into the McNally’s next door. Jimmy followed. Without a thought, Mike threw himself up into a branch of Mr. McNally’s maple tree and scurried toward the sky. His heart pounded in his palms and now he felt sweat running down his bare back. When he reached the branches that could no longer hold his forty-five-pound frame, Mike stopped. He was ashamed that his heart was racing so fast and that he was panting.

Suddenly Bobby jumped into the tree and climbed up to Mike. They sat there like frightened cats, while Jimmy snarled below. Mike looked down and there stood Jimmy, standing guard at the foot of the tree.

Little did they know that Mike’s mother looked out through her kitchen window at just this moment. She searched her yard for the boys. When she couldn’t see them, she opened her back door to get a better look. Then she saw Jimmy, standing there in front of the McNally’s big maple tree with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face.

She watched for a moment to see what the two would do. She saw Jimmy look up and yell something at the boys then turn and laugh. Enough was enough, she thought.

She slammed her back door and marched over to the tree. Her glare fixed on Jimmy O’Donnell’s face. Mary ­wasn’t a large woman, but one thing was certain. She was bigger and stronger than Jimmy and she was a mad mother.

Jimmy never saw her coming. He was too engrossed in his glee. When she reached him, Mary grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around. “Just who do you think you are, Jimmy O’Donnell? You think you can come and bully younger kids whenever you want? Well, those days are over. You won’t scare my son or his friends anymore.”

With that resolved, Mary grabbed his elbows and locked his arms in an “X” behind his back. “Come on down here, you two,” she yelled up to Mike and Bobby. “I’ve got a job for you.” The two stunned boys scampered down the tree and saw Jimmy desperately trying to wiggle from Mary’s angry grip. When they landed on the ground, Mary marched all three away from the tree and into her backyard.

“Boys,” she started, “Jimmy won’t be bothering you anymore, because if he does he has to deal with me. I’m going to hold him here for a minute. I want each of you to take a swing at him.”

Mike’s mouth fell open. Hit Jimmy O’Donnell? Was she out of her mind? “Come on boys, step up here. Take a swing. Mike, you first,” she insisted. With that, Mike balled his small fingers into a fist and swung his birdlike arm smack into the center of Jimmy’s belly. “One more, a little harder, Mike, then it’s Bobby’s turn.” Again, he readied his aim and smacked Jimmy in the belly.

Bobby followed and took two swings, just the same. Jimmy didn’t cry. The punches were so weak and his muscle so strong, but still Mike thought he saw tears tucked in the corner of Jimmy’s eyes.

After Bobby swung, Mary released Jimmy. He ran from the three of them back to his scooter. As he ran away, Mary thought she heard him utter, “Just wait, Mrs. Winter. My dad’s gonna come and beat you up.”

From that day forward Jimmy left Mike and Bobby, along with many of the other neighborhood boys, alone.

This incident occurred many years ago and if it happened today, Mrs. Winter would probably have been charged with assault and battery. She wasn’t a violent woman and she knew that two scrawny boys couldn’t hurt any part of Jimmy save his ego. Forty years ago mothers seemed to understand more about young boys. There is a pecking order at work in male groups regardless of a boy’s age. And in the periphery of each group waits another boy watching for opportunities to push his way in and pounce on whomever he can. He doesn’t want to join the order, he wants to crush it and crown himself king.

Mary saw this and she responded. With no intention to negotiate she identified a problem and allowed her maternal instincts to drive her actions. Bullies must be confronted and she realized that she was the one to dethrone Jimmy.

I’m certainly not advocating that mothers follow their young boys and make their sons punch the lights out of bullies. But we mothers have become confused by listening to too many experts and over-reading and over-thinking everything about young boys’ behavior. Just follow your instincts, use common sense, and remember that not only should boys be boys, but mothers should be mothers. Papers have been written in journals on bullies. Teachers have lectured and parents have argued with each other over the behavior of their boys. But bullies have remained on their thrones on playgrounds across America, because we refuse to confront very real truths about boyhood behavior and then do something about it.

Mothers view sons differently than they do their daughters. They have an instinctual desire to preserve their son’s masculinity and this means preserving the perception that her son is physically and mentally strong. She will never allow him to be at the bottom of the pecking order.

October 3, 2013

A Mother's Son, Part 1

Beneath the ethereal joy a mother feels at the first sight of her son, lies a nugget-sized ache wrapped in fear. Her infant son needs her. She loves him unconditionally. But she also feels the ache of knowing that he will grow into a man and leave, and one day belong to another. The juxtaposition of elation and fear is different for many mothers than the joy and fear they feel when a daughter is born.

She knows from the moment her son belts out his first wail that she exists to love him. She is needed because he needs her. He needs the nourishment, the security, and the love that she provides which will not only keep him alive; but also keep her knowing that she is needed. So she will protect, adore, and nurture this tiny boy until he becomes a man and then, the ache will feel overwhelming. As a man he will leave, and life as a mother will never be the same for her. She will continue to love her son, but the connection will be reworked. Not because she has changed but because one day, he will belong to another.

This knowledge did not exist before his birth. But it presents itself the moment his mother sees him and as her maternal instinct draws her very close to her son. That is the way mother-son relationships are meant to be. From the moment she clings, she prepares herself ever so slowly for the eventual release.

This tension doesn’t exist with the birth of a daughter. A daughter can stay connected with her mother forever; mothers and daughters have genetic, hormonal, and psychological bonds that cannot be broken. She can become another’s, but her mother can still keep her. They are female together in that bond, and they can stay connected even while life changes the circumstances around them. But the tie a mother feels with her son is more fragile, more tenuous; he is different because he’s a man. But for as long as he is a child, he is ours and we feel we must protect him.

There is another difference mothers experience with sons which they don’t with daughters. Because he is XY and she is XX, they are disconnected. His maleness is separate from her femaleness and as much as she would want it otherwise, he is distanced. He has a different mind. He will have different physical sensations—different worries and ideas. Will she be able to understand? Intuitively she knows that in order to protect him and bond with him she must graft him onto her like a branch of a grapevine onto a hearty root. At birth, the grafting begins, and a mother’s instincts on behalf of her son begin to mound and become bolder and clearer as her son grows.

What about adoptive mothers? Do their instincts erupt in the same manner? Absolutely. Whether through pregnancy or not, the grafting begins equally regardless of biological status. When it comes to nurturing our young, the kindest mother can turn beast on a dime.


In the early evening of a hot summer day I sat at the end of a wooden dock, my feet skimming the tepid water, watching a mother swan. Her coat was so white it shone vaguely blue, particularly as she floated atop the turquoise lake water.

What struck me most, however, was not her spectacular beauty but her calm demeanor. She floated, almost rested, on top of the water. Her head shifted from left to right above her long, graceful neck. Her movements were calculated and secure.

Behind her floated three cygnets, looking like puffy cotton balls with beaks. I recognized them as her offspring, not simply by their coal beaks but by her commanding demeanor. She was silent. They squeaked. And when they spoke to her she neither stopped or acknowledged their presence. She just kept paddling along. Neither mother nor cygnets seemed to pay any attention to each other. Always she kept her paddle feet pulling back the water beneath her breast.

As she passed by, I decided to show her beauty off to my three-year-old niece. Quietly I went to the house, grabbed a handful of bread and my niece, and together we padded back to the end of the dock.

When we returned, the mother swan was still floating by, but her triplets had drifted a ways behind. Feeling sorry for them, my niece threw a handful of mashed bread pieces towards them and they scurried over to get them before they dissolved. By the time the bread hit the water, the mother swan had darted like a shot between them and interrupted their eating. Then, the elegant beauty did something frightening.

She didn’t stop when she reached the bread. She raced to the shore and stood up on the sand. Being an inexperienced ornithologist, I suddenly learned that swans not only walk on sand—they can run.

I was stunned by her boldness while my niece simply squealed. Quickly, I pushed my niece behind me. At that moment the mother swan menacingly stretched out her wings in our direction, creating an enormous span of white. I watched her run across the yard, then turn and start, wondering where in the world she was intent on going.

I wondered if she was mad—perhaps she had rabies. No, no; I knew swans couldn’t get rabies. Then the swan turned toward me and started racing down the dock. Her feet slapped the boards furiously. “This can’t be happening,” I thought. “ I’m about to be attacked by a bird.” I wanted to laugh at the sight of the big white thing running and squawking at me, but I screamed instead.

The swan kept running right at us. I grabbed my little niece and we jumped into the water. Too afraid to turn my back on this mad animal, I jumped backwards, trying to jump high enough and far enough not to land on my little niece who was glued to my back. When we bobbed to the surface, I saw her again. She stopped. For a moment in mid-air, I had reached to the back of my mind for Plan B just in case the swan followed me into the water. Fortunately I never needed Plan B. The gigantic bird stopped and perched on the end of the dock, puffy and gloating.

She paused for a moment to enjoy her victory. Then almost as quickly as she had run at us, she turned and flew off the side of the dock to rejoin her cygnets. Neither my niece nor I suffered any physical injury, but the trauma I harbored in my gut took days to clear. Never before had I been on the receiving end of an animal or human so venomously enraged.

But I knew that was a mother’s instinct. What is true for mother swans is true for the mothers of boys. I’ve never been chased down a dock by one, but mothers are invariably their sons’ greatest advocates and defenders.


Inasmuch as boys are different from girls in their characters, states of development, and emotional and physical needs, in my experience parenting sons is more like parenting daughters than it is different.

Mothers are the love-givers. Whether a son or a daughter is the recipient, giving love well is still very difficult. Showing respect, offering protection, holding ones temper, and being fastidious in perseverance of all aspects of good parenting are equally hard regardless of the sex of the child. Being a mother is tough work.

Mothers offer sons many of the same things that fathers do but mothers offer them differently and—very importantly—sons receive them very differently from a mother than a father. And the reverse is true. That is why both mother and father are needed to parent a son well. Advice that is palatable from a mother’s voice may be offensive from a father.

Much of what a mother gives her son is more a reflection of her personality and her character than it is of her son’s character. Mothers need to love. And mothers love to be needed. This truth isn’t tough to mothers. They live it because they as human beings are egocentric. Mothers intuit that life is better when they are loved, needed, and nurtured, so they expend these important traits to sons in hopes of receiving them back. And a child is the safest place to begin this process.

But there are needs which every boy has that any mother can satisfy. Again this is not to disqualify a father as a provider of these needs. Certainly there are fathers who can meet some of these needs better than mothers I have met. In general, however, maternal instincts act sometimes quite peculiarly on behalf of sons, which can leave some fathers a bit confounded. Let’s look at the best of what mothers give to their sons.


During the final scene of the movie Dead Man Walking, a death row inmate, bound at the wrists and feet, is led into a chamber where he will be put to death. Sister Helen, his companion and confidant, asks if she can accompany him into the room. His guards agree to let her walk with him. At the end of the hallway, before he enters the chamber, Sister Helen asks if she can touch him. His guards say yes. Sister Helen turns to him and says, “When you feel the pain and death closing in around you look up at me. I will be the face of love for you.”

Because women are more verbal, they love differently from men. The feeling, the intensity, and the availability may be the same, but the expression of love flows differently from women than from men. Because women talk more, they verbally communicate love more easily. For mothers and sons, the love-giving process starts in infancy. Mothers oogle at their baby boys, make up pet names for them, and tell their sons they love them. Talking to, holding, bathing, and touching their babies help mothers communicate to their sons that they want to be the supreme love-giver. He can depend on her to always buoy him when he is sinking.

A mother may disapprove of her son’s behavior, girlfriend, sports, or music, but she will always love him.

A healthy internalization of a mother’s love is critical to her son because his experience of her love sets a template for how he will regard love with any woman after her. If he has a positive experience with his mother, he will be more trusting of his sister’s, girlfriend’s, or female teacher’s affections. If, on the other hand, he feels an instability or lack of trustworthiness in his mother’s love, these will temper the way he views other women’s love—whether it is romantic or platonic.

Mothers love to touch. This is wonderful because infants, young, and older boys need physical touch. A mother’s embrace tells her son that he is loved: she sees him, she likes what she sees, and she approves. He is validated by her love. Unfortunately, many mothers abstain from hugging their sons as much as they would like because they feel that part of becoming masculine is needing less touch, and that manliness means fewer hugs. This is certainly not true. A father can afford to be stand-offish when it comes to touch, and may refrain from touching

Mothers love to talk to their sons, but they shouldn’t always expect much of a response. Women are comfortable discussing their intimate feelings; boys and men are not, and sometimes cannot. Their own feelings are a bottled up mystery even to themselves. But teenage boys in particular still want to know that their mother is interested in their feelings, even if they cannot articulate them. And while this can be comforting and necessary, at times it can drive boys crazy. Mothers must be sensitive towards their son’s responses. For instance, since women tend to discuss their intimate thoughts and feelings with one another, mothers naturally transfer this behavior to relationships with their sons. If something is wrong, a mother asks what it is. Young boys usually don’t know. And if they do, sometimes they will divulge what it is; sometimes they won’t.

As boys grow into the teen years many don’t want to discuss their feelings, at least with their mothers. But the catch is that most still want to know that their mother is interested in their feelings. This can become something of a bad habit in adolescent boys: a game young men subconsciously play with their mothers. They want their mother to see that they are upset, but they don’t want to divulge what is going on. They do this because knowing that their mother really does care is a consoling.

Another common way mothers love their sons is through food. The stereotypical Jewish or Italian mother loves her son well by feeding him well. There is a peculiar connection between the digestive tract and mothering. In my medical practice, the most stressed-out mothers I have encountered are often the mothers whose sons have growth issues. If a child fails to eat well and fails to grow, a mother subconsciously feels that she has failed. The reverse is true as well: mothers whose teens grow up strong and tall feel better about their parenting because they can see the strength of their son before their very eyes.

Finally, mothers love through sacrifice. They act. They will surrender whatever is necessary to keep their son alive. Whether it is intuitive or not, that is what love does. And mothers need to be needed. They need to express their love because if they can give it and have it received, then their very existence is worthwhile.

Many years ago I worked in a large children’s hospital where we treated children with various forms of life-threatening illnesses. From brain tumors, to muscular dystrophy, to cystic fibrosis, the rooms were consistently full of children in pain and mothers in anguish.

I will never forget a particular eleven-year-old boy I cared for who had cystic fibrosis. His lungs would fill with mucous so thick that he had difficulty breathing. We gave him medicines and therapies to try to remove this thick mucous before it turned into concrete. Very often the mucous would become infected with various bacteria, which would lead to pneumonia. If that happened, we would pump IV antibiotics into him.

Over time the bacteria would outsmart the antibiotics, so we would give him stronger ones. Sometimes these antibiotics worked and sometimes they didn’t. Many times this young boy would be in the hospital for a couple of weeks at a time. He would return home for a few weeks and then come back in for more medication. His mother sat in his room for endless hours. She read to him. She listened. Sometimes in his frustration, I heard him scream at her. He needed someone—the safest one he could find—to blame for his pain. She didn’t cry; he cried. She didn’t return his rantings; she sat quietly.

One day she asked me if she and her husband could meet with me in private. She wouldn’t tell me what she wanted to meet about, only that is was important. We agreed and set a time to meet. My mind reeled with curiosity about what she wanted to discuss. Did she want him to die? Was she so tired of seeing him in pain that she wanted us to give him an overdose of pain medication? I was ashamed to have such thoughts but they were there.

When we convened, the three of us sat around an oval table. “I know that we’re all busy,” she started, “and I don’t want to take too much time or draw this out. So let me be direct and frank. You have seen my son suffer for a number of years now. You understand his dire circumstances. And you understand that his particular prognosis is poor.” I waited, wondering if something horrible was coming next. I was prepared to say: “No, absolutely not—under no circumstances will we give him medicine which that will shorten his life.”

Her words interrupted my shameful thoughts. “My husband and I have thought things over. We have discussed our situation in depth and we have come to an agreement. We would like you to comply with our wishes.” She did not leave room for disagreement.

“I would like to donate my lungs to my son.” I stared at her face. She looked me right in the eye and I could feel myself freeze in my chair. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t agree to her request. First she screamed. Then she cried. Then she pleaded. There is no question in my mind but that she was sincere. And there was even less ambiguity about her love for her son. At first I believed her to be crazy but I realized that day that I had stared at the face of a mother’s love.


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. Discipine 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?