Father-daughter dances bring delight as tall suits and little skirts whirl around the dance floor. A mother-daughter brunch is bright with “girly chatter.” Adventurous camaraderie abounds at father-son outings. But how many of us have ever been to (or even heard of!) a mother-son event?
There seems to be an assumption in our culture that mothers and sons inherently don’t relate well to each other or enjoy spending time together. Just like people believe that the teenage years will be difficult. Starting with those kind of negative beliefs can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m writing this to bust that myth. Let’s explore what it takes to build joy-filled, connected relationships. Mothers and sons are not doomed to disconnection and opposition!
After getting input from a number of sons — including my own — some common themes surfaced.
1) Hunt for the good, even in misbehavior.
It’s a common pitfall for moms (especially those with high standards for order and cleanliness) to struggle with the defiant or rambunctious manifestations of young testosterone. A mom who came to us for coaching had been struggling to connect with her oppositional 5th grade son, so she started trying to find things to affirm every day. He noticed her effort and wrote her a note, “Mom, I like how I can see you are working to point out the good things I do, not just the bad.” She reported soon after that, he had begun to say he loved her…in goofy, boyish ways, of course. 😉 Now he’s a senior in high school and she wrote me recently about their close relationship, his strong faith, and the great choices that he is making in life.
Both of our boys talked about how much they valued my effort to see the best in them and look for their “gift-gone-awry” when they struggled. I worked to keep my perfectionism and negativity in check by keeping Philippians 4:8 close to my heart. This “treasure hunt” for anything good helped me bring understanding and insight to my son’s outbursts and disrespect. “Daniel – you have a strong gift of leadership and would love to run this family. How you’re using that gift right now isn’t as helpful as I’ve seen you use it sometimes.” Of course this is helpful with both genders, and when disconnection looms it becomes even more critical.
2) Express affection with humor and persistence (but without expectations).
When you are affectionate with your son, aim at light-hearted fun, not the tender intimacy that you might enjoy most.
Cherie had been struggling to connect with her difficult teenage son. She started a “last touch” competition with him, that involved affectionately chasing each other around the house, sometimes shrieking and dodging in the process. She noticed that when she brought that fun affection into their relationship, he was generally less angsty and challenging.
Similarly, when Daniel and I struggled in our relationship, we started a competition to try to outdo each other to say “I love you more than you love me.” Exceptional creativity or getting the last word scored “the win.” One night I spray painted “I ♥ U > U ♥ me” on his soon-to-be-carpeted cement floor. “Ha, smoked him!” I thought after he went to bed, only to find he had pre-programmed my computer to repeat the “I love you more…” phrase over and over in an automated voice. The powerful, unspoken belief in this competition was: We are both responsible to work on the connection in our relationship.
A key to effectively expressing affection to your son is to realize this simple truth: it’s quite probable your effort will be rejected at times. If you react in hurt, your son will know your “affection” was really about your needs, not his. A key to effectively expressing affection to your son is to realize this simple truth: it’s quite probable your effort will be rejected at times. If you react in hurt, your son will know your “affection” was really about your needs, not his. So even if your son gives you the cold shoulder at times, you can simply smile and say, “Oops, sorry. Bad timing,” and remember that Jesus always loves you and is the source of your “okay-ness” in life.
As you model the give and take of a healthy relationship with loving affection and efforts to connect, those times when it doesn’t go well are the very times it is important to demonstrate your faith and security that Jesus is enough.
3) Go “outside your box” to connect.
What does your son really value? How could you join him in that? Helen learned all about baseball cards in order to connect with her 11-year-old son. My oldest, Daniel, was ecstatic when I ineptly played his favorite video game, and he really appreciated my help on a medieval weapons project.
When Noah (our youngest) and I were on a mini-vacation to Chicago together I determined this was an all-about-him adventure, including the fast-foods he wanted instead of the exciting Chicago cuisine I wanted to try. On our way home I saw a sign for zip-lining and knew he’d love it. As a woman who doesn’t even like to climb onto the roof to watch fireworks, it seemed like a terrifying, vomit-inducing proposition. I comforted myself with the thought that I’d never heard of “death by zipline”, so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and took a crazed leap off the platform. It ended up to be a blast and a great statement to Noah of my commitment to overcome my fear so I could join him in his world.
Lynne braves the zipline!
4) Simply listen without judgement.
Several of the sons I interviewed stated that simply being listened to was very important to them. Boys can be quickly socialized to retreat to their figurative or literal “man caves” if they don’t feel safe in the land of sharing thoughts and feelings. Moms like me (prone to want to fix their kids’ behavior) do well to learn to avoid judgmental statements or accusatory “Why…” questions. Instead, ask questions with relaxed curiosity. “Hmm… that’s interesting. What did you like about that? What was the coolest part?” It’s important to wait patiently for the right timing for these conversations so you don’t develop a pattern of your son shutting down.
Whenever I struggled to connect with one of my three kids, I remembered this deeply held conviction: “If God has given me a child, He has also given me the ability to connect with that child.” For some parents, that might mean acquiring a faith-filled sensitivity and vision to see all the little opportunities to connect. But with “faith, hope and love” God delights in bringing his wonderful reconciliation to even deeply struggling relationships.
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