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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mothers & Sons & how to keep talking

As the mother of one child who is male, you had to figure that one of the columns on my Golden Oldie List had to be about mothers and sons, right? Here it is. Written in 1997 when my son was 10 -- which turns out to be a critical age for boys in their relationship with mom -- I was feeling extraneous and needed some reassurance that I wasn't in fact. Happily, I got it. And don't worry, the only child column isn't far behind.

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff


Mothers of sons have long had to tread carefully. Too much closeness and you'll raise a mama's boy; too little and you've got a serial killer. Although some of us find this thinking outmoded, there are still plenty of cultural messages that buy into it and plenty of mothers who do, too, even if unwittingly. Happily, new research on mothers and sons says such thinking is a lot of bunk.

Emotional closeness is not only something our sons want from us but also something they need: They suffer when they don't have it. They lose access to their inner feelings. Down the road, our daughters suffer, too, as they live and work with the boys who turn into men who have what gender researcher and psychiatrist Steven Bergman calls ``relational dread.'' ``When you approach them to open up, to talk about a relationship or feelings, they withdraw,'' he says.

It begins when boys are young, between 3 and 6, and they begin to absorb cultural messages that idealize men as strong, competitive, violent, and unfeeling.

``Mothers tell me they feel like a wall goes up between them and their sons,'' Bergman says. ``He stops telling her things, stops sharing emotionally. His answers to questions are, `I dunno, `nothing,' or, `that's stupid.' '' Bergman is affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Stone Center at Wellesley College and is also a novelist who writes under the pseudonym Samuel Shem. His most recent book is ``Mount Misery.''

By 10, the typical boy is in the midst of an internal struggle, says psychologist Evelyn Bassoff of Boulder, Colo. ``Closeness to Mom feels like regression to babyhood,'' she says. ``His internal drive to be independent, private, and separate pushes him to wear a mask to cover his real feelings.''

On the other hand, however, ``he feels bad and empty, to have emotional distance from his mother,'' says Bassoff. A specialist in parent-child relations, she is the author of ``Between Mothers and Sons, the Making of Vital and Loving Men.'' (Plume).

The more her son gets caught up in the culture of boys -- teasing, punching, competing, bullying, pretending not to care, taking pride in being disrespectful -- the more a mother doesn't know what to do, says psychologist Catherine Dooley, who is co-director, with Niki Fidele, of the Mother-Son Project at the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley College.

The typical mother pulls back. Even though that doesn't feel right, it's what she thinks she should do; after all, boys will be boys. So Mom accepts her son's silences, tells him he's too old to be tucked into bed, and generally distances herself.

This is a critical tactical error.

``Without Mom to put feelings in place for him, to label and identify and give meaning and context to them, he doesn't know what to do with his feelings,'' says Dooley. ``He ends up shutting them down. Sealing them away.'' This leads him to lose his way in relationships and contributes to Bergman's relational dread, she says.

That's not all. Mom's disconnection, subtle as it may be, creates a void that ends up being filled by the messages popular culture offers. Dooley, who leads mother-son workshops, offers an example of how this can get played out:

A 13-year-old comes home looking upset. He goes to his room, shuts his door. His mom hears him banging around inside, talking angrily to himself, maybe even crying. She struggles. Should she keep her distance or knock on the door? She doesn't want to be smothering, she doesn't want to infringe on his privacy, she also doesn't want to be rejected. She keeps her distance. That night, he watches TV, commercials with beer-drinking macho men, sitcoms with Tim Allen-types who blunder through relationships with blinders on.

Concludes Dooley, ``A boy gets constant reinforcement that it's not OK to feel vulnerable. Without Mom to help him process feelings, that's the only conclusion he can come to.''

A mother of two sons, Eric, 10, and Nathan, 13, Dooley started early to make sure this didn't happen to them. When they were young, she invented a game she calls Trading Shoes.

``If they were stuck on a position, we would literally swap shoes,'' she says. ``I would stick my toes in their little ones and they would clomp around in my big ones.'' The trick, of course, was that the wearer would have to present the owner's point of view. Dooley says that helped them develop a sense of empathy as well as a familial shorthand: ``Now when they're screaming at each other or we are far apart on an issue, I can just say, `We need to trade shoes on this.' ''

Barney Brawer, a gender researcher at Harvard and Tufts universities, encourages these kind of creative approaches. He says one reason mothers get frustrated in trying to get a son to open up is because their approach is off. Women tend to relate to other people with face-to-face intimacy, he says, while male intimacy, if comes at all, happens after two or three hours (or two or three times) of doing something side by side.

``Mothers need to speak this side-by-side language,'' he says, by crossing gender lines and engaging in activities they otherwise might not consider -- kicking the soccer ball around, getting on the ice, tinkering with a bicycle's gears. Being physical can help, too.

``I know one mother who bangs into her sons with a hip check as a way of saying hello, the same way they do with each other. She talks their language,'' says Brawer. ``She doesn't just expect them to talk hers.''

In fact, getting them to talk our language happens only if we give them an emotional vocabulary, says Bassoff. That starts by labeling a toddler's emotions for him and doing such things as asking a preschooler to tell stories about his drawings, not just the actions but the emotions, too.

It also means not giving up in the middle-school years when he shuts down. Because there's developmental as well as gender reasons for this, Bassoff suggests telling your son, ``It's my job to help you be in touch with your feelings but if there are times when I push too much, tell me and I'll respect that.'' The one exception -- and you should let him know this, too -- is around health and safety. ``Never back off if you think he's at risk,'' she says.

Dooley is constantly thinking of ways to keep her sons emotionally engaged. For instance, when friends play at their house, she intervenes when they are being cruel to each other. ``I'll stop them and say, `That's mean.' They'll say, `Everybody does it, it doesn't mean anything,' and I say, `Yes, it does. The person may not say anything, 'cause that wouldn't be cool, but it hurts inside.' ''

Dooley recalls one recent car ride with Nathan when his silence was really getting to her. She took a gamble and plunged right in. ``I'm trying to connect with you,'' she said, ``and all I'm getting is grunts. A relationship is a two-way street, you know.'' More silence. Then Nathan took a gamble himself: ``You know that math test? I didn't do as good as I thought.''

Perhaps Dooley's favorite tactic is to issue a ``Relational Violation'' to Nathan and Eric when they are being mean to each other. As with an offense in a game, they have to stop what they are doing and take a two-minute cooling-off period. Then the offender must make reparations to the other person, usually by engaging in a joint activity of that person's choice.

``They have to stay at it until they are happy with each other again,'' says Dooley.

Sometimes they even end up talking about how they feel.


- How do you draw the line between smothering your son and comforting him? If he's hurt on the soccer field and comes to you on the sideline, he's looking for comfort, and you should offer it. If you rush out to him on the field, that's smothering, and you should avoid it.

- The more your son reads, the more he increases his emotional vocabulary. Read to him, even as he gets older.

- Throw a conversation into your son's lap: ``What do you think?'' When it's true, tell him, ``I never thought about it from that angle before. I really learned something. Thanks.''

- When you know your school-age son is trying to process something but he's putting you off, tell him, ``When you're ready to talk about this, let me know.'' He'll be more likely to revive the topic if the two of you are doing something he likes.

- Counter media images. If you're silent about violence, materialism, sexism (or any ism), a boy assumes you buy into it.

- Encourage the men in your son's life to share feelings both with you and with him. Especially try to model emotional openness in your relationship with your son's father.

- Sons of single mothers often have better skills for maintaining relationships and expressing feelings.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 11:34 AM
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