Raising Our Sons Differently

  • by: Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the star of TLC’s hit series Shalom in the House. The rabbi of Oxford University for eleven years and the London Times Preacher of the Year in 2000, Boteach is also the author of eighteen books and an award-winning syndicated columnist. In 2007, he was awarded the National Fatherhood Award for his efforts at healing the shattered father/son relationship.

The following chapter is an excerpt, reprinted with permission from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book, The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him (St. Martin’s press, 2008). He examines the subtle messages our culture perpetuates and delivers to our sons, the impact of those messages, and how we can change them.

WE MUST raise our sons differently. And here, believe me, I am speaking to myself as a father as well.

The lie that a man only matters if he is professionally successful and amasses a lot of money and fame begins with the false education of our youth. Truth be told, we are much harsher on our sons than we are on our daughters. I know I am. We criticize them constantly for being imperfect. If they can’t catch a football, we rebuke them for missing an end zone pass.

I know I have.

If they walk around with their shirts out of their pants, we reproach them for being untidy.

I know I have.

If they eat with their fingers, we call them slobs.

I know I have.

If they bring home bad grades from school, we admonish them for being lazy.

I know I have.

If they yell at their sisters, we reprove them for being ungentlemanly.

I know I have.

And if they fail to shower and be clean, we scold them for being slovenly.

I know I have.

All the reprimanding, reproving, censuring, reproaching, admonishing, chiding, and hauling over the coals, I did with love. I did it because I cared about them and wanted what was best for them. I did it because it was done to me, and to my father before me.

But I now know that it was all based on a lie, the lie that a boy, as opposed to a girl, has to earn love. That a boy, as opposed to a girl, must be taught to do before he can be allowed just to be. And I scarred my sons, just as I was scarred before them, as was my father before me.

And I now know that I must do things differently.

Yes, boys shouldn’t pick their noses, and they should make their beds, and they should get good grades. But this has nothing to do with earning their parents’ love. They should be told they are loved. When boogers are dripping from their noses, their rooms are a mess, and they bring home Fs. We have to stop making men feel that they have to do in order to be. And it has to begin from the time they are boys.

I am the father of five daughters and three sons. For a long time I did not want to admit to myself that I was raising my sons differently, that I was harder on them and more demanding than I was with my daughters. And yet I would constantly find things wrong with my son Mendy. He is such a good boy and helps tremendously around the house. But I always found reason to criticize the things he did. Then one day, we were out working in the garden, mowing the lawn, and Mendy took the lawn mower over a large stone and broke the blade. I got really angry at him. I scolded him for being reckless. I admonished him for being careless. And as I did so, he recoiled and stood back, and I could suddenly see a river of distance opening between us. I was terrified. I feared that the river would grow into a sea, and then an ocean. I did not want to be one of those fathers who is alienated from his son, G-d forbid. My first reaction was to force the closing of that distance with sheer force. “You get back here right now. I am talking to you.” He came back and submitted to my authority. But the pain in his face was unmistakable, and I was the cause of his pain.

I hated myself at that moment. I, a broken American male, was cracking my own son. To be sure, I did it for his own good. Life would not be forgiving to him as a male. Bosses would have little compassion. If he broke their equipment as he broke mine, he would be fired. If he acted recklessly at college, he would be expelled. And if he behaved carelessly around a woman, she would not be interested in being with him. I was breaking him in for his own good.

Or was I? Was there not a better way? Could I not speak to him in a manner that would inspire rather than cripple? Was I incapable of speaking to him tenderly and from the heart, pointing out to him that he was a special boy and therefore had an obligation to do good things with his life, which entailed first and foremost learning to handle responsibility?

Rather than speaking to my son in a manner that made him feel fundamentally unworthy, was there not a way of speaking to him that made him feel adequate and good enough?

By constantly criticizing our sons, we instill within them Broken Ambition rather than Wholesome Ambition. They feel flawed and blemished and spend their lives trying to prove their critics wrong. I have a friend in England who is a prominent attorney. He has celebrity clients and is a minor celebrity himself. Once when we were speaking about his success, he told me that he owes everything to a fifth-grade teacher who told him constantly that he wouldn’t amount to anything. Well, that’s one way to succeed, but what a harsh way. To spend an entire lifetime trying to prove your critics wrong. To be haunted by the spirit of inadequacy and to rely on that as a spur to achievement. When overcoming a feeling of worthlessness is your motivation, can you enjoy your success even if you achieve it?

In practical terms this means that we should admonish our boys for their mistakes, by all means. But the rebuke-to-praise ratio must be one to four at least in favor of praise. They must be made to feel special and loved even when they are imperfect.

Fathers must learn to tell their sons that they are loved just the way they are. They need to get their sons to open up to them about the pressures they are feeling to do well in sports, in school, and to be popular among girls. They have to make sure their sons understand that none of that is really important and what is important is that they be able to identify their true gifts and make the most of them.

We have to cultivate our sons’ natural interests rather than force them to conform to what society considers important. I have a friend from Toronto who is a successful publisher. From humble origins, he worked his whole life to make it to the big leagues. He loves the upwardly mobile circles in which he revolves. He has two sons and a daughter. It’s amazing to watch. With his daughter he is tender and loving and doesn’t push her very hard. All his little girl has to do is look pretty and Daddy lights up. But with his two young sons he is ruthless. One of the boys liked playing soccer. “Soccer,” the father said to his son, “nobody in America plays soccer once they grow up.” So he got them a tennis coach and pressured them to keep up with their lessons and excel at tennis. After all, this is the sport that Dad plays with his rich friends. So the kids have to prepare from a young age to do the same. Then he got them horseback-riding lessons. Both kids hated horses. But here they were, model equestrians, jumping over fences and flying around paddocks – and screaming in horror while they rode. Their real interests were completely ignored.

This does not mean that we can’t push our sons to do things that are beneficial to their education and development. It just means that even as we push them, we have to cultivate an interest in them rather than make them feel that they are undertaking this activity in order to measure up.

A famous Talmudic expression says, “Words that emanate from the heart penetrate the heart.” If we are able to connect with our sons and speak to them sincerely about the special men we want them to grow up to be, then we will not invite the kind of rebellion that is so often seen with strong-willed children. All kids want is to be loved, valued, and special. It is our job as parents to make our boys feel that way so that they won’t spend the rest of their lives trying to prove themselves.

I had a debate with a friend of mine who is a successful attorney. He was listening to one of my radio shows where I said that children require lavish praise. I then asked the question of my listeners, “Let’s say your child makes an ugly picture and brings it to show to you. Should you lie and say that the picture is beautiful, or should you tell the truth and say that the picture is substandard and they could do better?” I answered my question by saying that the first response was correct. Not because we should lie. We should always avoid untruths. But rather we should say the picture is beautiful because the truth is that there is beauty in the picture even if we can’t see it. The very fact that it was produced by a precious little child makes it beautiful. And if we miss its beauty, it’s because of our cynical adult eyes, which are not innocent enough to pick up on the child’s artistic thought.

My friend was livid. “Shmuley, you’re being ridiculous. You’re just fostering mediocrity! Will my son really benefit by my telling him that he played a great game in Little League when the truth is that he was awful? No, you have to be honest with him. You have to tell him that he was terrible but if he tries more and works harder, he’ll do a lot better next time.”

I disagreed with my friend vociferously. “All that will do is blight his confidence and destroy his ego. And yes, you might get the desired result. He might work harder next time. Not to master the game, but to prove you wrong. He will not be doing it for himself, but for you. And now you and all his other critics are his lifelong masters. And he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to impress his tormentors.”

We must speak to our sons about the two kinds of ambition we listed earlier, Broken Ambition and Wholesome Ambition, the former fostering lifelong insecurities, the latter ensuring that the individual makes a solid contribution to his society based on his unique talents and gifts. We should inspire our sons with the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have.”

Most of all we must raise our sons not to compare themselves to others and to remove themselves from the rat race before the competition even begins. We must get them to live with core convictions that are impervious to society’s standards of success.

All this will come via the twin means of example and persuasion. First and foremost, we fathers must serve as an example to our sons of real gentlemanly behavior. We have to model for them extreme courtesy in the treatment of women. The Talmud obligates a husband to honor his wife more than himself. The husband who speaks to his wife courteously and politely and acts chivalrously by never allowing his wife to lift heavy packages and certainly never yelling at her, is giving his son an example of how a true gentleman behaves. By complimenting his wife constantly around his son, he teaches the boy that women are to be honored and respected, especially if they are your wife or mother. The husband who comes home at a decent hour, and certainly no later than 6 P.M., shows his son that money is subordinate to family. And the father who takes his son to church, synagogue, or charity functions, and performs volunteer work, exemplifies for his child how selflessness is a key ingredient in the successful life. Volunteering your time is liberating and makes you successful, precisely because you’re not making money at that moment.

And then there is persuasion, especially through the power of conversation. We have to talk to our sons to inspire greatness in them. A father and mother must sit their son down and speak to him about not succumbing to peer pressure. They must tell him that there is no need for him to prove himself at school or on the sports field, that they are not interested in A’s but in intellectual curiosity. They must say that all they want to know is that he wants to learn, so he should focus on enjoying the journey of study rather than on the goal of getting great grades. Next we have to sit our teenage sons down and talk to them about respect for women. They are at an age where they are beginning to date. Will they be the kind of boys who pressure girls to do things they’re uncomfortable doing, or will they respect women and treat them as equals? Will they use coarse language about women? Will they be like those superficial men who judge a woman by her packaging? We have to consciously strive to raise sons who are different by inspiring them to be different with the right words.

This is how we will raise a new generation of American boys who grow into wholesome rather than broken men, boys who look ahead toward their own special destiny rather than at all those who will overtake them in the race to material success in life.

Finally, there is no substitute for real, intimate interaction between you and your son. My own sons are in completely different age groups. One is a teenager of fourteen, the next is six, and the youngest is a baby of one. I try every night to study with my teenage son. I don’t always succeed, but on most nights we read the Bible together (the portion of the day) or study other central Jewish texts. By doing so I expose him to the understanding that his central grooming as a man is a relationship with G-d, becoming knowledgeable and wise, and loving his family. Notice that I don’t read The Wall Street Journal with him.

With my six-year-old I try to say the daily prayers when he hasn’t already said them in school. I also go bike riding with him in the beautiful outdoors in the spring and summer months nearly every day and read him a bedtime story on most nights. That way I teach him to love nature rather than man-made material objects and to love books rather than shopping.

And finally, my one-year-old, well, I just try to hold and hug him as much as possible in the full knowledge that even at that tender age he is learning that he is the most adorable person in the whole world. Even though he doesn’t have a single cent to his name.

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