On Raising Sons

For weeks, I’ve been trying to write something about raising boys to commemorate the birth of Caroline’s son. Then, I realized I’ve only been a mom for 18 months, and I still don’t know what I’m doing. So, I was thrilled when I ran across this editorial written by one of my favorite Exponent II women, Ann Stone. Ann passed away from cancer a few months ago. She was always gracious and eloquent. I thought the questions she asked in the fourth paragraph were particularly thought-provoking. Click here for the complete article

A woman was asked her thoughts on raising a son. She replied, “With any luck, he’ll do some yard work.”

This rather facetious reply reflects some of the frustration and the fear that many mothers feel as they take on the job of raising male children. Besides the obvious physical differences that can be alienating and a bit scary (there is nothing quite like the fright of stumbling into the bathroom in the middle of the night and falling into a cold toilet whose lid was left up by the males of the family), mothers must also face the centuries of cultural definitions that tell both boy and mother what it is to be a man. And what if a mother sees that some of those old definitions do not work—in fact, may even be detrimental to the eternal progress of her son? If she chooses to follow her heart, she must then worry that the change in the way that her son is raised might mean loneliness or even ostracism for him in a society that is still ruled by the old definitions.

Often I feel such sadness for my boys. I think that to be a man is not an easy thing—regardless of what would appear to be his privileged position, particularly if he is middle-class and white. What men often get with this position of privilege is a lot of responsibility and little instruction on how to share that responsibility, how to say no to it, how to express fear of it, or how even to use it in an even-handed and unselfish way. Recently, in the physical therapy section of a children’s hospital, I saw a boy of about six struggle as he attempted to meet the expectations set out for him. He was working to straighten out his crooked body; the simple task of standing straight was obviously very painful to him. Even though he was trying not to cry or even complain, the tears began streaming down his face. As they flowed, his mother repeated, “Be a man. Be my little man.”

Although I am convinced that we mothers of sons are not responsible for who our boys are nor for the men they become, we obviously have great opportunities to influence the process of their growth and their ability to deal with the position in which they find themselves. I have worried about what I am doing with my own sons. Am I giving them the right messages, providing the proper role models? Is my teaching, teaching, always teaching of benefit to them? I have no girls, but I assume that I would be worrying about the job that I was doing with them as well. Maybe I would even worry more because I know so well the wrongs done to females. I find comfort in reminding myself that my boys’ father—an enlightened, gentle man whose eyes never glazed over when women wanted to talk about feelings—was neglected by both his mother and father. He, however, did remarkably well figuring out what kind of a man he wanted to be. I hope that my sons will follow his lead as well as listen to my voice…

…it seems that what we are all hoping for and working toward is raising better human beings, Christian human beings, not better men or better women. And as one of my boys might say, “That’s awesome!”

Ann Gardner Stone
Evanston, Illinois
Volume 14.2 1988


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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4 Responses

  1. Lucy says:

    I admit that when I discovered that my first baby was a boy I was bit nervous. I wasn’t sure I could relate to things he would experience, and I worried about teaching him the right things. I worried about the things mentioned in the article; violence, intimacy, and the priesthood. Perhaps my uneasiness stemmed from him being my first born, but I know that the idea of raising a boy had always scared me.
    After he was born, however, I realized that he was like any baby, with the same needs and wants. As he grew his personality blossomed and I realized the my boy was very sensitive and caring. I still worry about the message society gives about ‘manliness’. I know the messages have already reached him. He is an amazing dancer and I suggested signing him up for a modern/creative dance class. He refused, explaining that dancing is for girls. I was a bit shocked because his dad is a great dancer and I never imagined that he would consider dancing a feminine activity. Well, he still dances at home, but only for mom and dad.

  2. Caroline says:

    Emily, thanks for putting up this great article. I enjoyed it!

    Lucy, I had similar feelings about having a boy. I was very nervous when I found out his sex, but now that I have him, I wouldn’t trade him for anything. I hope I can nurture good qualities and talents in him that go far beyond the traditionally masculine.

  3. Brooke says:

    Thanks for posting this, Emily. As a mother of 2 small boys, I am constantly asking myself questions about how my husband and I are raising them, teaching them, and showing them what it looks like to be good, kind, sensitive to others in all kinds of circumstances, and to love and care for another person.

    I think in many ways, I’m trying to encourage whatever they are inside, despite the sorts of traditional expectations and roles that are laid out for them by society–but it really takes effort on my part. I have to be thoughtful of my actions and reactions every day and it can be scary and overwhelming (especially if I’m thinking about it late at night–something I should personally avoid), especially if in retrospect I feel I should’ve done something differently in that one moment or some other such thought.

    One thing that has been good for me lately is that my older son has started Kindergarten and I’m able to see how (with word from his teacher) he handles himself when I’m not there. And I’m pleased with what I hear. It’s good to know that after not being sure what he has picked up in all those teaching moments with my husband or myself, that he has learned something good.

  1. March 11, 2011

    […] Check out some of these blogs on the subject. This beautiful piece by Ann Gardner Stone and discussed at Exponent II in a post by Emily Clyde Curtis. Another fantastic […]

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