Boys need strong relationships with their parents. Period. Every boy, without exception, wants a better relationship with his mother and his father because his physical and emotional survival depends on you.
Boys spend far too little time with parents and they suffer because of it. And we all know it. In one survey, 21 percent of kids said that they needed more time with their parents. But when the parents of these kids were polled, only 8 percent responded that they needed more time with their children. We become so absorbed with keeping up with our daily lives that we miss seeing what our boys really need, which is simply more of us: our time and our attention.
In our earnestness to make up for lost time, to help our boys, we give them all the wrong things. But our boys don’t need things, they need us, even just being around us, watching how we handle life, how we talk, listen, help others, and make our decisions. Every son is his father’s apprentice, studying not his dad’s profession but his way of living, thinking, and behaving.
Boys need to see fathers who behave as good men so that they can mimic that behavior. They need to see men at work. They need men who set standards—and if you don’t give them standards to live by, they’ll pick them up where they find them: MySpace, YouTube, or the wrong kids at school. A father needs to give his son the model of a man to measure up to. That’s what a son wants from his dad; he wants to admire him and be like him. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a father, but that’s what being a dad is all about; and the good news is that all dad really needs to do is to be available for his sons; to share time with them and let them watch him and learn from him.
When Jason was ten he came in to see me for his annual physical. I have become so convinced of the central role that healthy parental relationships play in a child’s overall health, that I began asking questions about life with his father early on in his appointment.
“How’s your dad?” I asked as I peeked into his ear.
“Good,” he said, succinct as only ten-year-old boys can be.
“What do you like to do together?”
“Anything. Just stuff I guess. Problem is, dad’s got a new job and he’s really, really busy….”Jason’s voice grew quieter as his sentence trailed off.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I bet his new job is hard for you. I bet you miss him a lot.”
“Oh, he’s not gone. That’s the good part. He’s home more. But he’s just busy with his work while he’s at home. He’s on his laptop all the time. I hate it. So does my mom. She complains a lot. She shouldn’t, you know; he’s just doing what he needs to do.”
Then, in his wonderful boyish wisdom, Jason said something quite extraordinary.
“Here’s the thing: you know, Dr. Meeker, dad and I used to do a lot of chores outside when he was home. Like chop wood and stuff. He doesn’t have much time for that anymore but I guess it’s okay. The thing is, I can still be with him. When he goes into the living room to work on his computer, I go in too. I do my homework or read whenever he’s in there because, well, it just feels so good to be in the same room with my dad.”
That’s a ten-year-old boy who understands his dad has a very demanding job, and a dad who understands that letting his son sit with him as he works is one of the best things he could do for his son. What Jason needed from his father, he got. He had his presence. He worked alongside his father. They were, in a way, a team.
I can guarantee that nights doing homework beside his father made Jason a better student. Would their shared time have been more meaningful, more enriching, if his father had set his work aside and helped Jason do his homework or shot hoops with him in the driveway? Perhaps. But his father didn’t have much choice. Shooting baskets would certainly have been more fun, but the thing that matters is that Jason had his dad.
By the time their sons become teenagers, many parents feel intimidated at the prospect of spending time with them, or have unrealistic expectations about what that time requires. As a result, they often avoid their teen sons altogether, thinking they don’t need time with mom or dad any more. Don’t do this. Your teenage son needs you more now than he did when he was six. He just doesn’t want you to know it.
It’s also important that you don’t set yourself up to fail by treating time with your son as “teaching time” where you set him straight about his friends and his tastes. That almost always leads to nothing but frustration. So does expecting time with your sons to be consistently fun and light. Divorced fathers fall into this trap routinely. They want to create positive memories for their sons. They try too hard and when something inevitably goes wrong, or there is a conflict, life feels as though it is falling apart. But it isn’t. The reality is that stronger relationships are forged in painful times as well as joyful ones and parents must be willing to persevere. Stay with sons in the midst of battles. Resolve the battle, leave it behind, move forward, and create more enjoyment ahead.
The key thing is the simple thing: just resolve to spend more time with your sons, whether that time is filled with tension, argument, laughter, or silence. All of it is important. Nothing replaces life lived alongside of you, his mother or father, nothing. And don’t be fooled into believing that you can be substituted, because you can’t.
He doesn’t want you to buy him stuff, haul him to hockey games, or work longer hours to buy a nicer home (though he might try to convince you of all these things). He needs to see you smile when you are proud, see how you work through problems, and how you deal with tension and frustration. And most important, he needs to know that you will be there when he needs you. Once he knows this, the center of his world will feel tight and secure. Give him that security, and he will feel free to work hard at school, pay attention during his piano lessons, and enjoy all the good things that can be a part of boyhood.
Your son will also want you to teach him about God, and you should. It’s a fact of life that children and teenagers with a strong religious faith do better in school, are at less risk of dangerous behaviors, and are more likely to be happy and well-adjusted. It’s worth reiterating here that research has consistently shown that religion:
■ Helps kids stay away from drugs
■ Helps keep kids away from sexual activity
■ Helps keep kids away from smoking
■ Gives kids moral guidance
■ Gives them significantly higher self-esteem and more positive attitudes
■ Contributes to their growing maturity as they pass from childhood through adolescence
■ Helps them set boundaries and stay out of trouble
■ Helps teens keep a good perspective on life
■ Helps teens feel good and to be happy
■ Helps teens experience fewer depressive symptoms
■ Helps most teens get through their problems and troubles
■ Helps kids feel better about their bodies and physical appearance
■ Helps increase “learned competence” in leadership skills, coping skills and cultural capital
Some parents are uncomfortable with the subject of religion, but religious belief and practice is one of the best protections you can give your children. God matters to boys, as it matters to many people, because it provides an anchor, an ultimate authority to whom they can turn, a sense of purpose, a way to place themselves in the cosmos. As such, faith in God builds confidence, is a powerful guard against depression, and provides moral instruction. Having a moral framework is extremely important for boys. As we will discuss in later chapters, boys intuitively have a moral code. Even at age three boys know what is right and wrong. They gain security by having that moral code defended and enforced.
Spending time with your son and teaching him about God are two vital steps to putting first things first. But there’s one more. Your job as a parent also entails maintaining a stable home with a minimum of sibling rivalries. Of course, all boys fight with their siblings. Normal sibling rivalry is part of the maturation process and can actually strengthen a boy’s character. But whether it helps or harms him depends in large part on how his parents handle the rivalry. If mom or dad acknowledges it, deals with it in a simple, non-threatening way as normal competition, that’s one thing. But if parents fuel the competition between siblings or ignore it when a son is consistently bullied by his brother or chided by his sister, the results can be devastating. Your son shouldn’t have to compete for a place in your heart; his hold on you shouldn’t feel tenuous and frail. If it does, he won’t enjoy school, his playtime will suffer, and his personality will become more brittle and fragile.
Boys must learn how to negotiate healthy relationships within a family. This experience sets the ground rules for his future relationships. Boys who feel rejected by their siblings, grandparents, and parents, will expect to be rejected by others. But if they grow up in a family where there is mutual trust and respect, where they feel like they fit in, they will grow into confident young men. More important than succeeding at work is succeeding with your family. Of course, life is a balance between competing priorities, but mothers and fathers who want strong, healthy children should always put their family first.
Throughout a boy’s life, from preschool to high school, the most important things are keeping a healthy relationship with mom and dad, having faith in God, and having a solid family life. If we want to truly give our sons the best boyhood, the best preparation to become a man, this is it; these are the building blocks on which all else depends.