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7 moms talk about turning boys into good men

Claire Zulkey wonders when she'll ever get used to the idea that she has two boys. She is the author of two books for young people, An Off Year and Best Frenemies. She and her filmmaker husband live in Evanston, IL. You can find out more...

Real moms reflect on how to turn boys into men they’re proud of

I’ve seen many stories lately about the fear of raising boys. It seems so easy to do it wrong. From Brock Turner to Donald Trump to Billy Bush to Bill Cosby to men’s rights activists, this year has been awash in stories of men whose words and behavior (including rape, misogynist language, general spinelessness and victim-blaming) are nothing we want our kids to emulate. And yet all these men were little boys once — boys who somehow got steered wrong on the path to adulthood.

As the mother of two boys myself, I feel a sense of fatigue and sadness by the hand-wringing stories about how to raise good boys in the age of bad men. So I asked women who have just recently ushered their sons into adulthood how a mom can raise a good man.

What I’ve learned is that while childhood is short, the journey of transforming a child into an adult is a long one and often has detours that you wouldn’t expect. It’s evident that the best lessons aren’t learned from how to avoid challenges but what to do when they’re encountered. If I can give my sons a fragment of the strength and versatility shown by these women, then, I hope, I’ll be boasting about them in time as well.

More: I know exactly what I need to tell my sons about rape

Q: What makes your son or stepson a good man?

My son is a good man because he cares about other people, and he works hard. He's responsible. I'm so relieved that he is capable of being out in the world. He was surrounded by a lot of good men — his father, his grandfathers, his uncles. He saw the men around him doing the right thing, even when it was hard, and he saw them respecting the women they knew.

 — Annie L., mother of a 19-year-old

My sons were raised to be independent, to volunteer their time to people in need, and to learn the difference between a want and a need. After their dad and I divorced, money was tight. Their first Chanukah when it was just the three of us, I was completely broke. I bought a pack of gum and we lay on the bed while I taught them how to blow bubbles. Years later, things were more stable financially, but when I asked what the boys wanted for the holidays, Jonathon answered, “A cool rock, some of your best recipes written down for me and your good food.” 

 — Bonnie C., mother of sons aged 16 and 19

Q: What principles were important to you that you tried to instill when raising your children?

Work ethic is very important to us, along with treating people well, and good communication. We talked about EVERYTHING ad nauseam. If an issue came up in school or at home, they knew we were going to sit them down and have a discussion. I know this was not their favorite thing to do but we found that if they could articulate the problem, look at all options for resolution, and let us share our life experience, they were able to work things out. This took years of course, but I do believe this approach has helped them in their current relationships, especially with women.

 — Kristina Z., mother of sons aged 23 and 20

I believe in the saying, "Give them enough rope to let them hang themselves." My oldest taught me from a young age that he was going to be who he was going to be. I learned to accept his choices, not try to micromanage him, and let him feel his natural consequences, which were a lot of times a lot worse than any punishments I could give him. There was a time that he forged a check of mine when he was around 10. It cashed in my account and I found it when I reconciled my account. I had my husband take him to the police department and my son was to talk to the officers. I made it very clear to my boys that if they went to juvenile hall at night, to not call me. I also made it clear that if they were ever to bring drugs into my house I would call the police about that. My boys knew that violence or any other law breaking would not be acceptable while they were living under my roof.

— Jade, mother of sons aged 7, 17 and 19

More: Why I've avoided telling my son the hard truth about being black

I let my sons fight with each other. People would ask me, “You’re not going to stop them?” Nope. I know that sounds awful. They would fight and stop fighting b/c guess what, fighting hurts. They learned to defend themselves, they learned “Hey, when I hurt somebody and somebody hurts me, that’s no fun.”

 — Amanda B., mother of sons aged 26, 25 and 24

I just wanted [my son] to be better than me. I was 17 when I had him, so as long as I was not a grandmother by the time I was 34, I was all good. I also wanted him to do his best to understand before reacting.

 — Lily, mother of a 20-year-old (who is biochemical engineering student attending University of Illinois Champaign Urbana on a full-ride scholarship) 

I'd say it was responsibility and respect. We let Drew make decisions if it was appropriate. One year, he thought we should make paper reindeer antlers for everyone to wear for Christmas dinner, and so we did. It's not one person ordering around everyone else. I also tried to make sure he knew that we wanted him to work hard, but that we did not love him because of his accomplishments. That was really important when we went through the stress of high school admissions.

 — Annie L.

Don't expect them to know chivalry. Demand it from a young age. Tell them to shake hands when meeting someone, stand up on the train if an old person needs seat, be kind to their friends and siblings. Teach them to treat a woman with respect and demand as a mom that they always treat you with respect.

  — Deborah M., mother of boys aged 17, 21 and 22, Chicago

Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice when your son was younger/more difficult, what would you say?

Don't be so hard on yourself in front of him because you can't give him everything he wants. He's paying attention and will not resent you for it.

 — Lily B.

Our younger son was a difficult child, with a lot of learning problems. I wish we hadn’t been so hard on him. Kids have different approaches to learning, but it was hard for us to recognize this and not worry that he did not fit into the “normal” mold. Also, I would tell myself to have more fun and cherish the time. As the cliché says, it goes fast.

 — Kris Z.

When I yelled at my kids, they never forgot it. I might have stopped and thought, "What do I really want out of this? What behavior do I want from them, and how can I get it without yelling?"

 — Amanda B.

Find more good male role models in many areas of life — education, spiritual, adventure, health, etc. — for them to be mentors.

 — Deborah M.

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