Tuesday, April 11, 2017

ABC Post 11--Parenting: What I've Learned About Raising Teenaged Boys

This one is by request. A mom wrote to me and said, "Pretty please write about parenting teenage sons." I’m writing it because I want parents of teen boys to feel like they have what it takes.

I can offer empathy and experience for free. I can't offer guarantees and lifetime warranties, though. Boys are not L.L.Bean boots.

Teenage boys are a species unto themselves.  They need lots of food, activity, and adventure, an easygoing mom, and a steady dad. They need a careful and constantly-changing balance of freedom and protection, as all children do, but somehow with boys it’s extra hard to get it right.

My boys were active, wild, and risk-taking. I have no idea how to raise boys who are naturally timid, sensible, or fastidious, so you’ll have to ask someone else about that, like my friend Jane's mom, who had at least six boys, and Jane was the only one of the children who ever broke a bone.

Here’s my advice, having survived the raising of three boys who lived to become adults.  

Note: I think they’re all amazing, but they’re not faultless. You’re allowed to blame the imperfections on our parenting, and as always pour all our advice through the filter of your own good sense and personal realities.

1. Provide lots of food.  Cook real food as much as possible—huge simmering vats of spaghetti and meatballs, vast haunches of beef, buckets of monster cookies, cases of eggs, barrels of milk, endless wheels of pizza.  Providing actual food will offset many of your mistakes and will steer them from living on Mountain Dew and corn dogs and Snickers bars just to quiet the ravenous beast within.

Also, if they’re of reasonable weight, trust their appetites to some degree. When Matt was sacking seed, one time he took the burritos I had designated for the whole family’s lunch and ate them all by himself at his lunch break at the warehouse.  Steven used to cook up five or six eggs for breakfast or a little snack to hold his stomach over until supper. They needed the calories and protein.  I should have quit fussing.

But I cooked from scratch. Points for me.

Grocery shopping looked like this the summers I was feeding three teen-boy seed-sackers.
2. Restrict things like driving privileges when they're newly licensed, Internet use, screen time, video games, and staying out late with friends you can’t trust. Put as few restrictions as possible on things like climbing trees, camping, raising calves, fixing lawn mowers, splitting wood, inventing hovercrafts that mow grass in ditches, going on bike rides, jumping off the porch roof, swimming with cousins, playing softball, and sailing down Muddy Creek on homemade rafts.

3. Give them work to do, both around the house and in actual employment. Or, as I repeated many times, “You live in this house, you eat the food, you need to do some work around here.” Not only will this offset some of your labor and toil as a mom, it will also make them enter the adult world with a wonderful skill set. Their future roommates and wives will be so impressed when they can clean bathrooms, load a dishwasher, do laundry, cook a meal, and mop floors.  Employment, when the time comes, gives them money, dignity, and maturity.  Win win win.

Three boys eating. Ben is on the right with his cousins Keith and Austin.
4. Don’t draw inflexible lines on music, books, movies, and so on.  Let them have tastes that are different from yours. Sit down and read/listen/watch together. Discuss the content.  What are the messages here?  Is this what you want to believe and emulate?  And remember: ultimately, you’re the mom and dad. You get to say, “This is evil. We can’t let you watch that.” But respect their tastes as much as you can, which leads us to:

5. Give them some volition over their own lives.  I think a lot of the frustration with our boys at some stages came from them wanting to be men, and going out and conquering, and figuring out their own lives, and we had the fences too tight.  Matt says he was very frustrated for a couple of summers when he first worked in the warehouse in the afternoons.  I still made him do his share of housework in the mornings, because I needed his help and also [he recalls] because the girls made such a fuss and I listened to them. He ended up having very little down time, a lot of frustration, and no real recourse for changing things.  I regret that.

6. However. They are part of a family, a community, and hopefully a brotherhood. So their choices always have to be made within that context because, un-American as this may be, it’s actually a good thing to sacrifice the wishes of the individual to the wishes of the larger community, now and then—enough to be invested in the group but not trapped and stifled, if that makes sense. Which leads us to:

7. Insist on respect. They should be able to talk to you about anything, but always respectfully. [You need to model respect toward them, first of all.] Also insist on respect toward all authority figures, girls, older people, etc. They can feel as grumpy as they want, but they’d better hold the door for Grandma and thank her for Sunday dinner.

8. Don’t clean their rooms for them. Don’t turn their t-shirts right side out to wash them. If they send their socks into the hamper in tight reeking little wads, they can do their own laundry.

9. Buying Axe body wash will give them incentive to keep clean.

10. Let them experience consequences. Real-life consequences are wonderful things.  Words and warnings may be fluff in the wind, but blue lights flashing in the rear-view mirror are a different matter entirely. 

One evening the boys were supposed to clear the table and do dishes.  Ben stood at the table and threw dishes at Steven, who caught them and put them in the dishwasher.  Then he didn’t catch one, and it hit my fancy Le Creuset skillet, knocked it to the floor, and broke the handle off.  The boys paid for a nice new stainless steel skillet.  This is how it works.

11. Parents need a balance of healthy fear and letting go.  Honestly, this one is tough. Today’s parents often hover and helicopter in ridiculous quantities. But where do you draw the line—that’s the tough part.  If they are going to be world-changing men, you need to let them take risks. But they can also die quite easily, or—worse—kill someone else. Or just really ruin their lives. They shouldn’t handle a gun without safety training, for instance.  When they’re old enough to drive to the mountains and go camping alone, they should at least tell you where they’re going and when they plan to be back, not only for your peace of mind, but because other people have to sacrifice their safety and time to go look for them if they disappear.

Fires in the upstairs bedroom are not worth the risk either.

12. Don’t freak out. Or at least save the freaking out for the really big things.  The more boys you have, the higher the bar will be set for what’s worth freaking out about.  Usually, things will go better if you pretend to be calm. Breathe: In. Out. Don’t scream. 

When stuff spills, don't freak out. Take pictures instead.

13. You’re the mom. You’re allowed to make rules and draw boundaries. No snakes in the house, for instance. I told them if they ever bring a snake in the house I will spank them black and blue. “Even if we’re 35?” “If you’re stupid enough to bring a snake in the house at age 35, you deserve to be spanked black and blue.”

And of course you already know that, unless they bring snakes inside, you never spank teenagers.

14. Pray for your boys—not only for the things you see and know, but for all the things you don’t know and see. Trust that you will find out what you need to know when the time is right. When one son was 16, he drove a few girls to his aunt’s house with his left foot out the car window. Some time later, one girl told her mom who told me. 

Conversations were had, consequences were meted, things were learned.

 Another time we were on a trip and one son lost the SD card for his camera.  We looked everywhere we could think of but didn't find it. Probably nine months later I was unpacking my suitcase after a trip to Minnesota and there in the suitcase, on my socks, lay a camera card. I popped it in the computer and beheld photo evidence of the son doing ridiculous unwise things on the other trip, months before. When I told him that God has ways of letting moms find out stuff when they need to know, he believed me.

15. Talk about stuff. Their relationship with God. How their behavior affects others. The dangers of porn, drugs, addictions. Girls girls girls. Why we do what we do. The future. Sports. Statistics. Career goals. Ryegrass. Politics. Tell them you believe in them and think they’re amazing. If they want to talk, drop everything and listen.

16. Give them responsibility. Let them fail. Talk about it. Give them more responsibility.

17. Remember that there is a bit of teenage guy in every man, and they might like to take a few stupid risks even as adults. I don’t know if this means you failed as a parent or that you were never expected to work miracles, so it’s ok. The best thing to do is warn them, if you must, and then sit back, pray hard, and let the consequences happen. Consequences are good things. Horrible, at times, but ultimately good.
A bunch of teen and younger boys.
I'm sure you can imagine how it sounded and smelled.

18. Give yourself grace. This is a tough assignment and you figure it out as you go. If you make a mistake, admit it, try a different tack, and move on. Grace is good.

19. Keep the relationship. Let go of control.

20. Remember that you’re the mom. The mom gets to talk at the open mic at weddings and to tell the grandchildren stories about their parents. 

I asked my sons for input. Matt said:

Things you did right: 

1. be completely unflappable and stick to your guns (mostly Dad) 
2. cook up huge batches of good, calorie-laden food (mostly you). 
3. control your tempers when we drove you up the wall
4. outwardly, you never seemed to feel a need to be in control
5. apologize when necessary
6. let us explore, climb trees, get chased by the cows, shoot guns, do all the things that would give a helicopter parent an aneurysm
7. I'm sure you worried a ton, but you did an admirable job of concealing it


  1. Also a Mom of 3 boys. All true and good advice.

  2. Mom of four adult men who used to be teenage boys, oh wait, one is still 18 but away at college so he seems to be an adult, anyway, your advise is great and I mostly followed it. I wish I'd known ALL of it fifteen years ago. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Believe me, I wish I'd known all of it 15 years ago as well. Somehow we and they survive!

    2. I know! My older sister always said, "By the time you know what you're doing, you're out of a job." I love our five adult children, they truly are our best friends and such a joy to me. I'm always grateful to God for trusting me with them and happy that I didn't mess them up too much.

  3. I'm in the middle of raising 4 boys, ages 18, 16, 13, and 11. This brings tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat. I think I need to print this and hang it in my bedroom!

    I've rarely commented here, but I so enjoy your blog. Years ago I went to CBS with your sister Margaret, so when you write stories of your growing up years, I think of her and wonder how she felt at CBS. And I hope I was kind to her.

    1. Wow, you are really in the thick of it. I wish you much grace and wisdom.
      And I'll ask Margaret if she remembers you. :-)

  4. Love this. It's excellent!

    1. Thanks, and it seems you've done a great job with yours.

  5. I have 5 sons. You wrote it well. I heard a minister say ..the 2 best gifts to give your children are roots and wings. My sons tell me i still need to work on the wings...im trying! Life is never boring and they are a huge blessing. I am now enjoying 2 daughters in law...the girls come eventually.And the wives love that they know how to do housework!

  6. I don't have any sons, but if I ever do ... I hope this is the way I raise them. Thanks for the experience and the advice!!

  7. This is great. I have four boys and three girls. Did you ever read RICHLY BLESSED, MOTHER'S OF BOYS? IT is so encouraging.

  8. Great stuff, thanks for sharing. The world needs this article :)

  9. Our 5 boys are ages 17-29. I often think it's more in spite of us, then because of us that they all grew up to be productive members of society. Who love the Lord and serve their community in fire/EMS. Respect is a big one. And the line between feeling valued but not "entitled". We chuckle over the teenager who went to Taco Bell with Dad and ordered the family size bag of tacos and devoured the whole thing! No curled dead snakes on the doorstep to scare Dad when he comes home from work was added to rule 13!

  10. I really enjoyed this article! I think my boys are going to be like this. I worry sometimes about if they will survive to adulthood when the 2 1/2 year old is climbing up the granary and the 16 month old is climbing on the back of the couch. I may have to print this out so I can read it again in 10 years!

  11. " Don’t clean their rooms for them." My son's room doubles as a guest bedroom, so once in a while I have to break this rule. LOL!

    1. This is why you should always filter parenting advice through your own good sense! :-)