The most important thing I’ve learned as a mother of a son is that I had no idea how to be a mother to a son. In the beginning, it was pretty easy. I thought I had it. Then my sweet, smart, compliant, loving, son entered middle school. It was little things at first. Questioning rules. “Bending” small rules. Questioning my parenting decisions. He had never been a passive kid. Since he was little, when I said “black,” he said, “white.” When I said, “salt,” he said, “pepper.” I would say, “The sky is blue.” He would argue that it wasn’t. Somehow, it became different in middle school. Even though I had a Ph.D. in Developmental and Child Psychology, I had no idea how to parent my strong-willed son.
His dad believed our relationship was our relationship and intervened very little. He often told us, “You two need to move apart.” My son was as tall as me when he was 12-years-old. He was four inches taller than me when he started 8th grade. I could not pick him up, and I could not move him. In fact, he would have been able to put me over his knee if he wanted too. My relationship with him began to critically rely on our relationship when he was little. I didn’t know for sure when he was little, but it turned out to be true; the compliance and respect that I had worked on so consistently with him as a child, saved me as his parent in his pre-teen and teen years.
As mother and son, we are very much alike. We have the same taste in food. We both have sensory issues. We are both freakishly intuitive. We both like to be right; way too much. We both like to “debate.” We are both extremely competitive. We can be “know-it-alls” and pretty sure of ourselves. His dad made a remark when my son was in high school that implied he thought the two of us had a terrible relationship. The comment made me realize that other people saw our relationship quite differently than we did. I knew we had always had a close relationship. No one saw the quiet moments as I was tucking him into bed when he was little and he shared very deep, insightful, thoughts and affection. No one saw the many times during his high school years when he would talk about everything from cars to girls. We see our “debating” as a game or sport that we both enjoy to some extent. Others see our different viewpoints as arguing.
Another pivotal day for me as his mom was the day we were having a “disagreement,” and I said, “Don’t talk disrespectfully to me!” His response was, “Why are you talking disrespectfully to me?” The standard parent answer would be, “Because, I’m you’re mother!” As he looked seriously into my eyes at that moment, I knew he was right. The “Wait until your father gets home” days are over. “My way or the highway,” has also lost its effectiveness. The “do as I say and not as I do” mentality of parenting is dead. As soon as parents were told not to spank children, and paddles were removed from schools, fear-based parenting was over.
I never taught my kids the word “spank.” On my son’s fourth birthday, his grandfather said, “Come on over for your birthday spankings.” He responded with excitement because he thought birthday spankings must be something great! I had not raised my son to comply by using physical or verbal aggression when he was little, so why did I think verbal aggression was going to work when he became a teenager?
Respect. That’s what I wanted from him and I felt I deserved it after everything I had done for him. The idea of earning respect is another parenting trap. Young children love their parents unconditionally. It has been well documented that even after being severely abused, more kids than expected want to stay with their parents. Love is given freely, respect is reciprocated. I did not say earned. Earning comes after working. Respect needs to be modeled not worked for. Just like any other behavior, kids learn best when it is modeled by their parents. Kids learn respect by watching their parents model respect for each other and their parents modeling respect for their kids.
As my son was in the most tumultuous time of adolescence (11-16 years of age) I’m not sure if it was possible for me to get anything right in his eyes. It seemed he took everything I said with offense and in the opposite manner in which it was intended. One night he came home from the second night of basketball tryouts. I asked him how it went and he said, “fine.” He was quiet and seemed to be in deep thought. I asked him about five minutes later, “Did everything go okay? You don’t seem as positive as you did last night.” He replied with, “That is the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me!”
Most likely, I had picked up on some anxiety and my comment just made it worse. Two more principles learned. Do not take his behavior personally, and I talk too much. Both of these principles are part of what I call the girl/guy problem. Parents, especially most moms, want to talk about what is bothering their children. Girls may respond better to “talking it out.” Many boys don’t want to talk about what is bothering them. I found out the less I talked, the more he would talk and often offer more information than I would have gotten from him if I would have asked.
Natural consequences work best. During his teen years, grades were the most frequent source of contention. He simply did not like school. I gave up on “making” him get straight A’s. I knew he was smart enough, but he did not care. Since kindergarten, I had suggested to both of my kids school would be easier if they made the teachers like them by being good kids. Teachers will do about anything to help a good kid. He definitely benefitted from his good kid status in high school. Letting the school handle requirements and deadlines minimized fighting at home. Giving him more responsibility and requiring him to speak to the teachers and coaches helped. He wanted independence and it helped him take ownership of his education. It also helped that he could not play basketball unless he met grade requirements and he loved basketball.
As I write, my son will leave for college in a few weeks. I hate it and love it at the same time. I have done a great job being his mom. He called me yesterday after I had traveled for the day and was just, “checking to see that I had made it okay.” Having a strong-willed child means a lot of things: that as an adult he won’t ever be pushed around, he has a very strong, positive, sense of who he is, he is a leader, he has great social skills. He is awesome. It may have been a learning process along the way, but as a mom, and as a professional, I wish I could tell myself when he was little that it was all going to work out.
As an endnote, I want to say thank you to my autopilot daughter who is 18 months younger and 14 inches shorter than her brother. Sometimes, my relationship with her brother scared her. There were a few times when he acted like he was going to get physically aggressive with me, but he didn’t. If I got sucked into the moment and did not monitor myself, there was a lot of yelling. I tried to protect her or “undo” damage to her from his outbursts and teasing. I know it didn’t always work. She has grown into an amazing person just as her brother has, but she did it gracefully and without much ado.