Before mothers can protect, or even become over-protective, they must employ each of their sensibilities in order to engage the protective action.
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.”