I can still hear her English accent in my head, “CHRISTOPHER!” It may have been for not putting something away, having a messy room, or making a foolish mistake and earning a bad grade. I think every man (at least every man with enough siblings) can conjure up the frustrated, angry voice of his mother. It never did me much good. It would boil over and then she would feel bad about it–I knew things were better when a favorite food showed up in the pantry or a good meal was on the table.
The frustration of mothers with their teenage sons is universal–a rite of passage.
It does not help.
For many boys reaching for independence, their goal is to navigate the day with as little involvement from their teacher and mother as possible. They do not want a blow-up from mom, but they know that it will blow over when it does happen.
When you respond with anger, you distract your son from his problem. He does not mind this distraction. Your anger also communicates that his problem is really yours. He does not mind this either–his life just got easier. “Mom’s really mad about this, I guess I do not need to worry about it–she’s got it!” If you take all the anger and frustration, there is none left for him. You can care too much for boys.
What should you do?
Boys need consequences, and they need to feel them. Generally, they learn about the world by breaking things, banging into them, and generating causes before they think about effects. They understand that actions have consequences. That is why they hit hard in football or disrupt the classroom with their loud talk, laughter, antics, or subtle jokes. They go around thinking, “What happens if I…?” They need consequences that affect them when they mess up.
If your child does not get his homework done, make him miss whatever he was going to do so he can finish it. You cannot trust him when he says his work is complete and done properly–make him write down all his assigned work at school and then show it to you when it is complete–every day. People who do not do as well have to work harder to succeed. (He is learning this from his coach.) If his grades are lower than his ability–require that he spend a certain amount of time every weekend on studies. If he has a habitual problem, hold a meeting with him when no one is angry and lay out the consequences of failure. Then, when he does mess up, be SILENT. You will be angry because that is your habit. If you need to yell, find his father, but do not yell at or in front of your son. If you have the consequence system set up, just put it into action. Enforce it. Use as few words as possible. A mother’s silence is terrifying. Then go back to normal. It is just the consequence. He does not need anything else. You are going to love him, drive him to school, kiss him goodbye–he just won’t get his cell phone back for another week.
Anger is easier. You get to blow off steam and get back to life. A helpful response will take more of your time because you must enforce it, but it is what your son needs.
Dads, your wife might be drowning. You need to check in with her to see how things are going. You are the one who needs to step in and break the anger-feel bad-peace offering cycle if it is happening. This all works better if you are involved. He is learning from you. If your son messes up, mom can just send him to you and you can enforce the consequences. If he wants to complain, mom should not have to hear complaints, they can go straight to dad. Dad, if you see mom blowing her top or caving to your son’s emotional appeals–step in, give her the night off, and deal with your son. Be unemotional, love him, lay down the consequence, love him, and let it be done. You know what he needs, you have been there before with your own mother and probably with your wife too.
As a general rule (I cannot think of an exception.) do not follow discipline up with some peace offering to make your son feel better. He does not apologize to an opponent for scoring a touchdown or for winning a chess match. You do not need to apologize for giving him consequences he deserved. He understands this. Despite your feelings, he will love and respect you more for a straightforward approach. A peace offering communicates that you did wrong by disciplining him. (If you did do wrong, apologize.) Even young children get this message. Discipline him, and, like a good football player, give him a hand up when he gets knocked down, but do not apologize or “make things better.” He is the one who needs to make things better–do not do it for him.
As a headmaster, moms are generally easier to deal with, but we intentionally involve dads in discipline issues–especially if they are habitual. Dads need to be checking in on things daily and we want to encourage that.
Divorced families. You must be on the same page with this. Mom, you must ask dad to step up to the plate and help. Your son needs both of you to do this. Dad, don’t ruin what mom is trying to do to obtain your son’s loyalty or love. If you want your son’s love and loyalty, be on the same page with mom for his sake.
If your son has a habitual problem, you need to go deeper. Do not talk to him about behavior only. He needs the consequence, but his soul needs tending. Talk to him about God, sin, the Cross, and forgiveness. We all need saving from things that cause us habitual problems. When your son messes up, you have an opportunity to help him cry out for salvation–you are more interested in that than in any specific behavior. When you recognize that problems are invitations for deep discussions, you can be thankful instead of angry. You want him to get to the point where he seeks forgiveness and restoration and makes restitution without your intervention.