Can you give me some ideas on how to be a better mother to my 15 year old son? I'm a man.
May 13, 2008 3:40 AM   Subscribe

How do I, as a man, show my son a caring and feminine side to life? I've raised my son in classic, tough-guys-don't-cry fashion. I worry that I haven't given him the tools to form the best relationships with the opposite sex or to be more caring and compassionate and I want to redress the very male influences in his upbringing. Are there any other single fathers out there who have the same concerns? How have you dealt with them? Are there any good resources you would recommend? Any women who have experience of young men mainly raised by their fathers? What are your thoughts? Am I worrying unnecessarily?

I'm 41 and a single parent for the last 10 years to a 15 year old boy. My son has very minimal contact with his mother. I have not had serious other relationships throughout the years that my son has been with me, primarily because I wanted stability for my son following a turbulent start to his life. In addition, my son has attended an all boys school since the age of 11. This all means that his world is predominantly male; it is centred around male sports, his male friends and their all-male interests (ps3 shoot-em-ups etc). My son does have contact with women in our extended family but not the mother's love that I think would round him out. I try to be sensitive but I find it hard to switch from "stand up, be a man, work hard" to, "it's ok to cry, take it easy, there there". We can talk for hours about football and boxing but never about emotions and feelings. What should I do?
posted by rikatik to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
i think you're right to consider these issues. it shows you're a caring parent who loves his son. i also think from your description he could use, maybe not a mother figure, but certainly some nurturing, and you would be a great person to give it to him.

15 year olds are very aware of their surroundings, even if they're totally self-centered in them. Have you tried talking to him? After you talk for hours about boxing or cars or what have you, just try to say what you've said here, but tailored to him. you could also just try in those conversations to discuss your feelings about something - show him that you are emotionally affected by the world around you. he's at a hard age right now, and he might not be receptive, but it could lay the foundation for a solid relationship for years to come. if you guys just keep talking about sports then when something big happens and he needs advice or counsel or even just a shoulder to lean on, he probably won't consider you for that.

i do want to say again that it's obvious you love him. also, i think you should be proud of yourself for making it this far.
posted by nadawi at 3:52 AM on May 13, 2008

Try having a discussion about someone showing emotion's on TV. For example, you're watching a soap opera, and someone starts crying. Try directing the conversation in that direction.

He's 15 years old, though. Not many 15 yr old lads want to talk about stuff like that.
posted by Solomon at 3:52 AM on May 13, 2008

I'm the mother of a 17 year old (not a single parent) and we get on very well. Sometimes I press him for details of his emotional life, and he tries, but for the most part, he's not particularly perturbed about anything. I say this, just so's if you try a number of different strategies and you get no response, that might be perfectly normal.

So for the successful times, there's usually little to no eye contact. Like we're travelling together in a car, or walking side by side and can hear each other fine, but he doesn't feel like I'm examining him. He drives the conversation, I just draw him out, ask him what he thinks abou this, what he feels about that. I suspect you probably do that anyway.

Ask him the hard stuff too, with a disclaimer like, hey, maybe you don't want to talk about this, and maybe you always thought I didn't talk about this, but how do you feel about being a kid to a single parent? How has it impacted you?

Lastly, something I noticed in my son when he was about ten that his father might not have picked up on was unintentional chauvinism. He believed that women were not as capable as men in certain (if not all) things. We talked a lot about that for a while. Even if he still believes it (and I don't think he does), it won't be a barrier to him having a relationship. So you might want to ask your boy about what his opinion of women are, and not tell him he's wrong, but perhaps find ways to show him different sides to the story.
posted by b33j at 4:14 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Rather than trying to force emotional conversations on him (which as 15-year-old he does not want to have, boy or girl) it sounds like he just really needs to get to know some women! Can you sign him up for a course of music lessons or something with a woman teacher?

You sound like a wonderful father. I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by miss tea at 4:15 AM on May 13, 2008

My father and I always begin, always have begun, talking about these kinds of questions, "what is a man?" "how do we treat other men?" through books and movies. He has always insisted that we read aloud to each other and watch movies that the other recommends. There is always a discussion period afterward.

Given that, and I encourage especially the reading aloud because in a very unique way reading aloud compels a psychological attachment to the text (if that's not too technical).

I suggest the following experiment:

1. Read aloud Kidnapped, by R.L.S. to your son. Afterward, ask him what he thinks R.L.S. is saying about being a man versus being a boy.
2. Watch Rio Bravo, the John Wayne movie. Afterward, ask him what he thinks of it. Ask him about how the men deal with their fears and responsibilities.
3. Watch Shane, the Alan Ladd movie. Afterward, ask him what motivates the men in the movie.
4. Read A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Houseman, yourself. Select certain poems that you think might raise questions. Then, take turns reading the poems, maybe two or three at a time, with your son. Discuss them. This book of poems is both accessible to readers of all ages and deals with topics like duty and death.

I think this experiment accomplishes many things, but most importantly it begins to build common context for you and your son to discuss male adulthood. Over the next few years you can include things like the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays. Every time you add a book or movie you expand the common ground for discussion and understanding.
posted by ewkpates at 4:21 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try to look for opportunities to model some emotional openess/connection. Watch movies together. At some point in the film, make it a point to open your mouth and say what you feel, like "that's really sad."

And geeze man, boxing. There have to be boxing movies where this conversation can happen. I mean, boxing is like... epic.

Also, you know, it's OK to ask him things. One question rather than a barrage of questions is better because nobody likes the Spanish Inquisition, but look for opportunities - you can find them if you're throughtful about it. Things like "So, hey, 11th grade starts next week. Lots of pressure. Are you scared?" Framing the question this way implies that would be perfectly OK to feel that way.

So, basically: use your vulnerable words.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:38 AM on May 13, 2008

Oh and maybe expand your joint social activites to include some other families or groups that happen to include people who are female? Are there biking groups, single parent groups, church groups, political groups, environmental groups or maybe something like Habitat for Humanity that you guys can do together with a wider range of mixed-aged people?
posted by DarlingBri at 4:40 AM on May 13, 2008

Read through this thread and pay attention to FeistyFerret about getting teens to open up and talk.

I'm using techniques from Haim Ginott's "Between Parent and Child" to help my little boy talk about his feelings. There's a companion book, "Between Parent and Teenager," but I'm not familiar with it.

If you demonstrate that you value what he feels, maybe he will come to understand that feelings are valuable. Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:43 AM on May 13, 2008

Caring and compassion are not female only traits. You probably have a good deal of caring and compassion since you asked this question. Hopefully, that rubs off on him.

The best thing you can start doing now is:

Never discount your child's feelings. Allow him to feel any way he wants to feel. You don't have to dwell on the feeling, or smother him, but do allow him to feel anyway he wants to. He will respect you more and talk with you more often.

There is nothing more frustrating, and sometimes infuriating, than being told, "oh, you're not sad", "that's no big deal, toughen up", "that's nothing to be upset over, that's small stuff", "you're not tired, get back on the field", "You like football. Who doesn't like football?" etc. If you use this kind of language your child will be confused about his feelings and not express them comfortably.

Use affirming phrases such as, "that sounds stressful", "I can see you are upset about this" "that teacher sounds tough", etc. He will talk more and trust you more with his thoughts and feelings and his everyday life.

He will surely shut down and avoid conversation with you if you discount his feelings or tell him his feelings are wrong. I find this is a common mistake parents make, including myself. It's fear. We want to nip any "negative" reaction in the bud. We should not worry, our children will still be even more confident and strong if we allow them to be who they are and respect them for it. If you value his feelings, his dreams, his interests, he will value others, and that includes women.

I cannot stress enough how valuable this book has been to my family:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

I wish I would have purchased it sooner. It has been most helpful with our family.

There is a teen version as well:

How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk
posted by LoriFLA at 6:25 AM on May 13, 2008

He's 15 years old? As soon as he falls in love with his first girl (got to happen soon!) all of these feminine-how to be caring-it's okay to cry stuff will be very apparent to him. Perhaps not obviously, but he's going to be baffled, have questions, and like most 15 year old boys, completely clueless about the opposite sex. Here's your perfect opportunity to guide him through it all - it doesn't have to be done by a woman in his life.

And by the way, you sound like a great dad.
posted by meerkatty at 6:41 AM on May 13, 2008

Try and pick up a book called 'Secret mens' business' by Australian author John Marsden. Pick up two copies in fact, read one yourself and give the other to your son.
The book can be purchased here
posted by steerpike at 6:43 AM on May 13, 2008

Be honest about your feelings and emotions

Validate his expressions of emotion when he does express them

Talk about how you have felt in similar situations to him
posted by idb at 6:47 AM on May 13, 2008

Watch Rio Bravo, the John Wayne movie. Afterward, ask him what he thinks of it. Ask him about how the men deal with their fears and responsibilities.

Um. The two women is this movie are the dancer-on-the-run (who is archetypically about 95% 'hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold'), named Feathers who falls in love with John "old enough to be your father" Wayne after about 10 seconds and rearranges her whole life to stay with him. They speak about 50 words to each other. The other is a housewife who's whole role in the film is to briefly henpeck her husband and then, later, to scream at the right time. I'm sorry that I don't have a better film to suggest in the context of accesible emotional discussions, but I think the weird, archaic gender roles would muddy the water too much for this film to be useful in that regard.

Of course, you should still watch it with your son. In spite of that stuff it is a GREAT, great movie.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:58 AM on May 13, 2008

It might be a good idea to find some way that he could be around the females of his own age pretty soon, so he won't be completely intimidated by them later (as were several boys I knew in college). Ballroom/latin dancing classes (for his own age)? Cotillion? Maybe his school has activities like this, but if not, maybe think about it for over the summer.
posted by amtho at 7:01 AM on May 13, 2008

Speaking as someone who is (still) tangled up with a guy with dad/feelings issues, I think that one key thing for you to emphasize isn't necessarily male/female stuff but the ability to be vulnerable. My guy has this complex, born of many years of his dad not letting him do stuff because they had to be done "the right way", that he has to do everything himself because it's the only way it'll get done properly. He has to take care of himself, and he's very, very control-freakish about his living environment, even though it's nowhere recognizable on the OCD spectrum. He's a great guy who cares a lot about others, but he can be very inconsistent because he doesn't think ahead about things any more than whatever project timeline he has. I get the feeling that he thinks that he'd be a great parent, but that "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" -- in essence, that he doesn't have to start thinking about how a parent might behave until he actually has a kid in hand. That's... not really productive. Needless to say, these tendencies have really done a number on our relationship.

If your son is to understand what it means to be a good partner in life, he needs to understand how to compromise and how to live with what is, not necessarily what should be. Relationships aren't just about doing things for other people; they're about having the strength of character to know when to let go and let your guard down so you can let other people do things for you as well -- when you're sick, sad, happy, need a hand with a small project, need a hand with completely rearranging your life, or just have the opportunity to let someone else in. Being "open" is not the same thing as sharing what really matters to you. If he knows what really matters to him, he will know what it's like to be scared that something might happen to change that. Managing personal risks fits in with this a lot as well.

Rites of passage are good times to explore these things. If he's got the opportunity to do Eagle Scouting, a church confirmation, or even a trip to a sweat lodge kind of thing if that's not too New age hoo-hah for you, I think he might value that experience.

And if you show him how you can be vulnerable, too, that's huge. Maybe start with writing him letters. It's good practice for you to open up and show your feelings, and he can start by reacting in private, whether or not he chooses to respond to you. He can keep the letters; if he's anything like my brother, he will cherish them.
posted by Madamina at 7:27 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

No kid grows up in a perfect environment.

As the (gay*) only-child son of a single father, I didn't feel that deprived of a maternal influence. My dad was hardworking and fairly conservative and, like most men, not often comfortable expressing his emotions, but he always (1) told me he loved me and (2) made it clear that he would (and did) support me however he could through tough times. I'd say the bar is actually pretty low for being a good parent and father; hit those bases and you have less to worry about than you think.

Between our neighbors and my friends' mothers and the ideas/norms that permeate our culture, I think I got as good an idea of compassion and how to relate to women as any other guy. Your son is 15...even when teenagers appear to not be paying attention, they absorb a lot from their environments. Don't force him into some artificial activity he isn't interested in because you think it'll be good for him, and don't concern yourself with being Mr. Super-Mom (you aren't a mother, and that's OK); just lead by example: if you're not chauvinistic--and you directly address any such behavior on his part (e.g. "Do not ever refer to women by that word or you'll be waiting a long time to get near one.")--you're ahead of the game.

*Clearly the relationships I have with women are not going to be the same kind that a straight son does, but the general contours of how to be decent to people are fairly universal.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:33 AM on May 13, 2008

My father wasn't a single Dad, but he was divorced. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the houses. Dad had that same persona, very tough guy, outdoors type of personality. Growing up, we didn't have a lot of long talks about our feelings, that is for sure. However there were a few things he did made me understand the things you are trying to convey.

Despite the lack of long talks, he would make short direct comments occasionally that would make a point, and then drop it. For instance, a guy in my high school committed suicide. Dad asked if I had heard about it. I said yes. He made direct eye contact and then he said "You know, no matter how bad it gets you can always talk to me. Even if you think I am going to be mad about it." He would just do that from time to time. Different comments about different things. They always stuck with me.

The other thing that always stuck with me is that he wasn't afraid to show a little emotion with pets and children. He always made it a point to say to hi to children and maybe be a little bit goofy or take a moment to scratch a dog's ears.

Do with that what you will. Either way I like to see a parent who takes an active interest in their children like that. Not enough of them do. You should be proud of yourself for asking.
posted by Silvertree at 7:39 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

i totally 2nd what b33j says about talking when you are facing the same way and not each other. going on a road trip somewhere is the PERFECT opportunity for that stuff to come up and it wont be forced or unnatural because you spend so long together and talk about so many things its much easier to go somewhere new, so to speak. ive had such great conversations in cars. not looking at each other is a big PLUS. its way less tense.

also try and talk about girls and what he thinks of them. if he uses words like "slut" and "frigid" (or whatever) you can question him about those terms and his views on women and how male society sometimes views women etc and how its not healthy.
posted by beccyjoe at 7:53 AM on May 13, 2008

I concur with everyone here who applauds you for even asking this question. Well done.
I'm not a single dad, but I'm a stay-at-home dad of 10 years to 3 kids. My son is 6 now.

One thing I decided right from the start was that I was going to tell my son I loved him and show affection wherever possible. I never wanted this to be a weird thing between him and I.

Now it's like I can't stop; I tell him "I love you" when he wakes up, when I take him to school, when I pick him up for lunch, when I bring him back, afterschool, bedtime, etc. etc. Sometimes I just shout "I love you!" up the stairs when he's playing in his room and he always shouts back, "I love you too, Dad." It's the best thing. And because of this there's an environment set up that makes it a little easier to talk about feelings and emotions.

He obviously knows that you love him because you've cared for him for so long and you sound like a great dad. You don't mention if you ever say it to him. Would it freak him right out if you said you loved him? Maybe, at first, just tagged on casually to the end of a phonecall or email? Or that you're proud of him? I think you need to take the first painful step, as difficult as it seems to you, to appear open to stuff like this. It might be excruciating the first time, but just go for it. And, ya, a 15 year old boy is a tough audience to say something like that to but even if he rolls his eyes or shudders or makes a puking sound, you've said it. And he knows it. And he'll think about it later. And it will be easier next time.

I think that the lack of women in his life will work itself out. It's you that he has, your experiences and your feelings about things. You have to set a tone where he can approach you and talk to you about stuff, so start with the baby steps of letting him know you love him. Then later you can maybe break the ice by telling him a story about yourself, a situation you dealt with.
It's his relationship with you that's going to establish how he relates to people, female or male, throughout his life.
Really, best of luck and kudos for the job you're doing already.
posted by chococat at 8:29 AM on May 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Talk about your emotions with him. Not just sad, crying emotions, but others too. Watch a sunset or go to a beautiful place (which could be part of a "manly" hike), and talk about what you feel when you see something like that. Talk about things that happened at work that day and how you felt about them, both things that didn't go as well as you would have liked and things that went well.

And if you find yourself feeling proud of your son, be sure to tell him. Tell him that you are proud of him, what he did that you are proud of, what it reminded you of, and the thoughts that went through your head observing or hearing about what he did.

This might require you to get in touch with what you are feeling more than you are used to. You can do this.

Also -- tell him you love him. You've shown him this through raising him all these years, but he needs to hear it said. It's important. When he heads out into the world, he needs to be able to remember at least one time his father said "I love you, son". Not "You know I love you, son." It's "I love you, son." It has to be when he's awake and can hear you, or it doesn't count -- but these would be good times to practice, if you are having any trouble.
posted by yohko at 8:43 AM on May 13, 2008

(I should add that my dad and I have a good relationship now and that he and his fiancee are looking forward to my participation in their upcoming wedding.)
posted by kittyprecious at 8:44 AM on May 13, 2008

It is important to realize that the stuff you are talking about is basically hard-wired. If his life hasn't been too turbulent, you've probably done what was needed to do. When he starts needing this stuff, he will find it ready to use. I think that when there is a problem it is because of abuse, which makes it hard to open up and makes people defensive. Sounds like there has been none of that here.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2008

There was recently a story on NPR about a dad (I think he was in Canada) who let his son drop out of high school on the condition that they watch three movies a week together. Info here. I think there might be info that will help you transition from talking about sports to talking about feelings.

Also, I'm a girl, but I have the world's most sensitive dad - probably even more than my mom. I'm almost 30. But last week, I dissolved in tears when my dad sent me an email that said "I'm trying to attach a picture of mom's daffodils, but you don't need a picture, just know they're beautiful like you!" The knowledge that my dad is out there, supporting and loving me 100% makes everything I do in life easier -- he really thinks I'm the bees knees. And I've always known that because he told me so. And he does it with my brothers - he gives them hugs and tells them he loves them and believes in them. It's clear that this means a lot to them. And they're almost 50! I don't think any of us appreciated my dad's attitudes when we were 15 -- it was probably met with eye rolls then -- but it clearly influenced us. So, even if it seems weird at first, and even if it's met with eye rolls, say I love you often.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:51 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

How do I, as a man, show my son a caring and feminine side to life?

You have to live it, you can't fake it. This means you'll have to change yourself, as most kids copy what parents do.

Make a dedicated effort to find female friends i.e. women you do not have romantic or sexual relationship with, so he doesn't grow up thinking women should be either relatives or sexual relationships.

Learn to do some of those "feminine" things yourself. You like to eat, right? Then learn to cook new dishes. You want to look good to society, right? Develop an eye for fashion and design. This doesn't have to be anything big, but becoming aware, both you and he can learn about them.

There are a lot of emotions involved in football and boxing. Talk about how it feels to do things.

In short become a more well rounded person, who's comfortable doing feminine or masculine things and your son will learn, by watching you, that these things are ok and in fact normal.

Am I worrying unnecessarily?

No, this is a good thing to worry.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:04 AM on May 13, 2008

show my son a caring and feminine side to life

Get a pet, preferably a baby one (puppy or kitten) that you have to nurture together. Nothing will make someone want to be caring better than having something to care for. The cat I got when I was 10 (I'm 27 now) just passed last week, and now I'm really realizing how much having him and his sister taught me to be kind and gentle.

(disclaimers: make sure you have time to care for the pet properly, they're a long-term commitment...blah, blah, etc. etc.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 9:56 AM on May 13, 2008

I agree with what a couple of the above commenters said about it not being a masculine/feminine thing. It has more to do with compassion and understanding the feelings and hardships of others. My little brother is an incredibly sensitive "tough guy" (no crying, no "feelings" talk, but he understands when people or things need attention and care). So is our dad.

Encourage your son to help others in need. Maybe get involved in a charitable organization--perhaps tutoring children or working at homeless shelters. If he volunteers his time and works directly with people, he'll get to know first-hand how certain experiences affect others, and it will definitely affect him for the better.
posted by phunniemee at 10:09 AM on May 13, 2008

I agree with the suggestions that he needs more interactions with women and girls--not because women are more compassionate/caring/feminine/whatever, but exactly because he needs to understand that women are not other or different. He needs to learn to relate to women as human beings and it sounds like his life has given him few opportunities for that.

The men who have the most trouble getting along with women in this world are those who expect us to fit into a role--a wife/mother/hooker/slut/bride/maid/princess--instead of a human being.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:43 PM on May 13, 2008

My father, who was effectively a single father, would always tell me he loved me and signed his letters love, dad. I'm a girl. He never told my brother that he loved him and never signed his letters or cards with love. I asked him about it once and he said it was a guy thing. I think telling your son that you love him would be a good way to get over the machismo issue.
posted by bananafish at 2:27 PM on May 13, 2008

Response by poster: thanks everybody, for your excellent responses. I'm so encouraged and inspired and looking forward to working at being better. thanks again.
posted by rikatik at 10:58 PM on May 13, 2008

Find ways to show your son that there are a wide range of experiences for what it means to be a man and to be a woman.

Masculinity can mean completely different things to a straight christian white male compared to a gay buddhist black man. Femininity also can mean different things to a 50 year-old single female compared to a 19-year-old newlywed woman.

So seek out and experience different forms of masculinity and femininity that you normally wouldn't. If your son looks up to you like I think he would, he'll look back and thank you for setting a good example!
posted by sambosambo at 2:32 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's a good article called cultivating closeness, which features a father trying to talk about emotions with his son (I'm linking to p. 3, but the rest is good, too).

I agree that he's going to imitate you, your approach to others, your treatment of your own emotions, and your reactions to his emotions, so I'd start by trying to learn this for yourself rather than trying to engender something in him.
posted by salvia at 8:52 AM on May 14, 2008

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