Boys to men: When Mom’s son grows up

I have a theory about boys growing up. It may have been written up in a dozen journals, and a hundred books, but I’ve never read it nor heard anyone talk about it exactly like this.

Admittedly, this is anecdotal and observational, but I think it is valid.

In their younger years, most boys are content to be with their mothers. Nearly every boy is a “momma’s boy” in childhood. Separation anxiety displays itself when little boys cry for their just-out-of-sight mothers. Mom nurses or does the primary feeding. Mom is the one who so often bandages scrapes, soothes hurt feelings, assures little boys everything will be alright. She gets him dressed. The name “Soccer Mom” reveals much.

Then, one day, a switch is flipped. Formerly compliant boys become defiant. “I love you” is replaced by “Aw, Mom,” or sighs of resignation. The given name for this is “teen,” though it can start before those official years.

It’s during this stretch the “smart mouth” shows itself. Gone are gentle responses, displaced by sharp, often disrespectful, cutting, biting remarks. Yelling is the new normal. Surly is en vogue. Slammed doors replace open ones.

Such is not universal, but it is widespread; not endemic, but epidemic.

My theory is this: it’s at this time boys are becoming young men. As their bodies are stretching with growth, so are their minds and emotions. Their ambitions are running ahead of their permissions. They feel like they should be treated more like adults, then fifteen minutes later they are back playing with Legos and Hot Wheels, or wiping boogers on each other. Mom is often the target of hostility due to proximity and femininity. The budding Atlas does not want or need, in his own mind, Mom’s input.

Mom is not always the sole target of this angst. Dad, Grandpa, Grandma and teachers become recipients, but Mom (and other women) seem to bear the brunt.

There is a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird that pictures this growing-up aspect. Atticus Finch is guarding the jail where Tom Robinson awaits trial. A mob of mostly “country folk” of Maycomb County show up to lynch Robinson for his alleged crime. Atticus’s son and daughter, Jem and Scout, along with their summer guest, Dill, have come downtown in the dead of night to check on Atticus.

Note Jem’s demeanor is not rebellious. He is not being sharp or hateful. Even while he defies Atticus’s direct order, Jem is respectful and assertive as he can be.

“No, sir.”

“No, sir.”

“I tell ya, I ain’t going.”

Throughout the brief scene, Jem takes the lay of the land, while simultaneously standing up to, and respecting, his father. He steps forward to confront Atticus in one moment, then back to evade him in the next.

I do not see in this scene disobedience. I see a boy becoming a man. He’s standing with his Dad against a murderous mob, even as his Dad is trying to protect him from their evil intent. Jem argues with his Dad in the same way other men of the town might have a discussion, even if the similarity is in his own young mind. It’s a tipping point of manhood.

The scene is typically called a victory for Scout whose innocent conversation brings guilt and shame to the mob. If Jem, however, had not asserted himself to Atticus, he, Dill and Scout would already have been headed back home. A very different ending may have ensued.

I have a very specific memory of a similar situation.

We were at a funeral home where tensions were high-wire taut. The two sides of the deceased’s family were  estranged, and there were unanswered questions surrounding the death. When the paternal side of the family rolled up the room was immediately at Defcon-4.

In a sacred space where memories were to be shared, tears shed, and assurances given, I feared a literal fight was about to erupt. Several women gathered their small children and made for a back room or the lobby. My wife was among them. My intent was to insert myself between the two fractious parties and, if unable to stop a fight, at least make it harder for one to start.

Suddenly I became aware of a presence just off my right shoulder. I looked to see our 15-year old son–eyes focused and body turned into the action–just to my right. He’d become the wingman without announcement.

After the event diffused without incident, I asked him what he thought he was going to do. He shrugged modestly, “I don’t know. But what else was I supposed to do, go with the women?”

My son was forcing his way into manhood.

During this same time my wife leaned heavily on me. Where sons are concerned, moms may struggle to lengthen the apron strings until they are cut completely. The son’s journey into manhood changes the relationship, and Mom can feel under-appreciated or outright slighted. Mom, I think the best thing you can do during these years is give space. As much as possible treat your son like the man he’s becoming. If Dad is in the home he has a HUGE responsibility now; much greater than yours. If Dad is not in the home, find an uncle, or godly man who can fill that void.

Those of us who attempt to pattern our lives after the Bible face a challenge here. We should be careful not to so narrowly define what it means to “train up a child” that the only expression is “chasten your kids when they need it.” Sometimes it is help exploring new territory that is needed, not grounding, or more and higher fences. Parents try to rationalize with 3 year olds, while ordering around 15-year olds. That’s reversed. The older your child the more they need–the more they deserve–detailed explanations of the decision making process. Sons need to learn adulthood; they need to be walked into it. It is a losing effort to try and keep them from growing up. Adolescence is heavy load for parents, so lets make sure we are moving in the right direction.

So, moms take heart. Your son probably doesn’t hate you. He still needs you. But the need will change at some point, and you should accept that as a good thing. You’ve shepherded him to the brink of manhood. Welcome it and rejoice.

[I am aware much of the teen behavior described is also true of girls. However, the difference I think, lies in a different struggle for moms. As girls mature, they become women with which every mom can identify. Boys become men, which creates a more challenging dynamic.]

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Featured image credit.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.