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In mom-son book group, everyone's on the same page

If you're the mother of a son and you're looking to do something wonderful for him and yourself in this new year, there are five mothers in Lexington who have four words of advice: mother-son book group. They started one when their sons were in sixth grade. Six years later, the boys are high school seniors, the group is still going strong, and the sons, not just the moms, talk about how much they will miss it.

If the mothers are surprised at this turn of events, they are as respectfully circumspect as they are if one of their sons lets drop an intimate emotional revelation in the midst of a book discussion. They don't exchange meaningful glances across the table and they don't grill their boys on the way home. On the other hand, they know they have achieved something extraordinary. How many adolescent boys look forward to sitting around a table with a bunch of middle-aged mothers to discuss the feelings a book has triggered for them?

Adolescence is a tough time for mothers of sons. Sometime between 12 and 15, the typical boy has absorbed enough of the popular culture to know he doesn't want to be a mama's boy. He begins to put emotional distance between himself and his mother. The typical mother also has absorbed the culture. She doesn't want a mama's boy, either, so she accepts this loss as inevitable and begins to back off.

Only part of this equation is unavoidable. The rest is a stereotype.

"Boys do need to separate, that's true. They also still need emotional connection to their mothers," says Arlington psychologist Michael Thompson, a specialist in boys' development and co-author of "Raising Cain" (Ballentine).

In most families, conversation between mothers and teenage sons is either custodial ("Is that shirt clean?"), supervisory ("Did you finish your homework?"), or achievement-oriented ("How'd you do on the test?"), says gender researcher Cate Dooley, director of the Mother-Son Project at the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley College.

With feelings and vulnerabilities rarely part of the content, personal closeness is the first but not the only casualty.

"Boys are likely to see the world of emotions as strictly a female thing, so they cut themselves off from being in touch with their own emotions," says Brookline educational consultant Barney Brawer, former co-director of the Harvard Project on Boys. "Another danger is that it leaves a boy with the image of his mother that was created when he was young. He misses out on having a more nuanced understanding of the adult woman who is his mom."

None of this was what Gail Liebhaber and Barbara Shapiro were thinking about when they asked their sons' sixth-grade teacher for the names of three other boys who, like sons Jordan Liebhaber and Scott Fleishman, were avid readers.

"Our goal was to be in touch with what they wanted to read. Period," Liebhaber says. Sure, the idea that boys and mothers drift apart lurked in the back of their minds. Could a book group give them a window into their sons' interior life? They weren't about to go there. "There was never a behind-the-scene decision among the mothers to choose a book for its message or conversation potential," says Linda Patch. Indeed, they purposefully let the boys choose the books.

Thompson applauds that decision. "Connections need to evolve naturally from mutual pleasure in the task," he says. "If you have an agenda, it will be transparent to the boys and they'll reject it."

Not that discussions came easily. "Early on, the mothers would go around the table and say, `What do you boys think?' because not one of us talked," says Scott.

Another rule: boys couldn't sit next to each other. Otherwise, says Barbara Caust, "They'd be cutting up at one end of the table and we'd be chatting at the other end."

At this Sunday brunch at the Shapiro's, Ryan Patch ends the chit-chat. "Let's talk about the book," he announces. It is "Sirens of Titan" by Kurt Vonnegut. "This is full of zingers about life," he says. "Here's my question: Is life really this preordained?"

Not everyone loved the book (mostly not the mothers), but everyone has an opinion. There are no lulls in the 45-minute discussion, which is animated and personally revealing. There also is no way to know that the people at the table are related.

Without prompting, Gil Rochbert brings that up: "When we're talking books, we're not mothers and sons. We're just people. We've talked about everything, including things you aren't supposed to talk to your mothers about."

"You know what else?" says Ryan. "We've learned as much about our mothers as they've learned about us."

Brawer is quick to point out that a book group isn't the only vehicle for these connections. It just as easily can be a mother-son cooking group, or a film group. The structure, focus, and regularity are what make them work. "There needs to be an `It,' " he says. "Something other than the two of you that you can both focus on. That enables side-by-side intimacy, which is much less threatening to a teenage boy."

Rituals can accomplish this, too. Beginning when sons Eric and Nate were 4 and 7, researcher Dooley created a dinnertime ritual with candles, dim lights, hand holding, and a moment of silence that would end with someone saying, "Peace." Her immediate goal was to carve out this time as special for the family. Her ultimate goal was to teach them how to be honest and sincere in a relationship. So she added another component when they were about 7 and 10: Whoever ended the silence had to share something good, bad, or ugly about their day.

At first, she had to buck not only her sons ("This is so stupid, mom! We hate it!") but also her husband ("They have so much homework tonight, let's skip it."). Telling them, "It doesn't feel like it now, but this is important for our family," Dooley persisted. "Sometimes you have to open 100 doors before there's a payoff," she says. Eventually, there was.

What worked best was enlisting them as experts. "I might say, `I had this dilemma today; I didn't want to hurt this person's feelings, but I had to tell her what I thought. Here's what I did. What do you think?" Despite the times her sons complained it was hokey and contrived, the ritual persists to this day, even with only one son now living at home.

Dooley has provided other structure and rituals along the way, including a mother-son book group she began when Eric was 14. She admits that starting a group with boys that age is an uphill battle. Maybe it's only working because of her professional group experience, but maybe it's because, like the women in Lexington, Dooley and the mothers in her group have not bought into the stereotype that boys are unwilling or unable to share their emotional life.

This month, her group chose to read poems. Eric wanted her to read "Weighing the Dog" by Billy Collins. It's a love poem whose message is that you can't tell how much you love another person (or dog) until the person is removed from you. Eric had a slightly different take on it. He told her, "Mom, this could be a poem about mothers and sons. About how much you miss Nate," now a college freshman. "Imagine that," says Dooley. "My son teaching me about my emotional life."

E-mail Barbara Meltz at

How to make it work

Suggestions and ground rules for starting a mother-son book group or any group built around mutual interest:

1. The boys don't need to be best friends, but they need to like each other. It doesn't matter if the mothers do. They don't even need to know each other.

2. Serve food the boys will like. If the book you're reading lends itself, cater the food to the story. If not, well, boys will eat just about anything.

3. Include time for socializing. Let the boys decide if it should happen before or after the discussion.

4. Don't do this hoping to make readers out of nonreaders. Don't force a boy to join.

5. Let the boys choose the book, or at least have a hand in choosing it. Keep away from making it feel like English class.

6. If you don't like a book, do the best you can to read as much as you can anyway.

7. If a book doesn't lend itself to a discussion, let it go. When the group (and the boys) are young, look for ways to make it fun: Serve food the characters would eat and cook it together; meet in candlelight, or in costume; write limericks and read them aloud. Boys may mock the ideas, but that doesn't mean they won't have fun.

8. Keep the group small, five or six mother-son pairs at most.

9. If three boys have a big test the next day, be flexible enough to reschedule at the last minute. On the other hand, go even if your son or mother can't.

10. When boys move into different friendship groups, don't let that be a reason to quit. "That's the great thing about books," says Scott Fleishman. "You can still like each other enough to talk about books, even if you aren't best friends."

book selections
Here's a partial list of books read by the mother-son book group in Lexington:

Grade 6
"Watchers," by Dean R. Koontz
"Sphere," by Michael Creighton

Grade 7
"The Firm," by John Grisham
"Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer
"The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien
"Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card
"The Pigman," by Paul Zindel

Grade 8
"Blind Spot," by Barbara Shapiro (book group member)
"Snow in August," by Peter Hamill*
"The Drowning Pool," by Ross Macdonald
"A Walk in the Woods," by Bill Bryson
"Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," by Douglas Adams

Grade 9
"The Osterman Weekend," by Robert Ludlum
"The Truth Machine," by James Halperin
"A Time to Kill," by John Grisham
"Dance Hall of the Dead," by Tony Hillerman
"Ironman," by Chris Crutcher

Grade 10
"Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger
"Kitchen Confidential," by Anthony Bourdain
"Black Water," by Joyce Carol Oates
"The Sorcerer's Stone," by J. P. Rowlings
"Last Shot," by Darcy Frey
"145th Street," by Walter Dean Myers

Grade 11
"Nickel and Dimed," by Barbara Ehrenreich
"High Fidelity," by Nick Hornby
"Catch 22," by Joseph Heller
"1984," by George Orwell
"Macbeth," by Shakespeare**
"Tuesdays with Morrie," by Mitch Albom
"Admissions Confidential," by Rachel Toor

Grade 12
"Brave New World," by Aldous Huxley
"Sirens of Titan," by Kurt Vonnegut

* The group's all-time favorite book, and also a breakthrough book for the group in terms of the discussion.
** The only time the group broke its rule of reading a book required by school; the boys' workload was so heavy, they didn't have time for outside reading.
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