A Reflection on Raising Boys

A real, live, former boy’s letter to his mom
A Reflection on Raising Boys

Hi Mom,

The years pass quickly, don't they? Not long ago I was a boy, you were more blond than gray, and moments that are now pictures in the family album were simply life.

Simply life, and in hindsight, a simple life. My growing up years were simple but rich, largely because of your richness (a look at that same photo album would show that our richness was not financial), and beautiful, largely because of your beauty (again, the photos prove the point).

This afternoon, as my own children ran through the grass and into the sharp corners of everything, I was prompted to ponder my own boyhood. What, of all the hours you lived with me, and all the words you said to me, mattered the most? What from my own boyhood do I want to pass on to my own sons? What will I change in raising my own sons?

"Her children stand and bless her," the writer of Proverbs 31 says of Lady Wisdom. And I bless you, wise lady. I bless you for the many years of wisdom you have given us five kids. But let's get specific.

What you did right

You did so many things right. Here are a handful of things I pray to do as well as you did in raising my sons:

First, you let me be a boy. I am not much for gender stereotypes. But I am also young enough to remember the wildfire in my boyish heart. I see the differences between my daughter and my son, and I know that boys are . . . different. You let that different happen.

I was blessed with an open boyhood—in sheep fields and orchards, in the woods and riverbanks near that shack we lived in up in the Coast Range, and for a few months, even playing in the strangely stocked barn by our house on the Christmas tree farm (remember when the cow from the live Nativity scene chewed up the baby Jesus doll?).

Never once can I remember you saying no to any of my schemes that weren't a really perilous idea. The happy results of that parenting strategy were precarious tree forts, poorly made tire swings, hours-long solo bike rides up abandoned railroad grades, homemade obsidian arrowheads, irresponsible library selections (and equally irresponsible reading binges), bows and arrows, BB guns, occasional real guns (thanks to Dad's advocacy, I suspect), and a 1200 pound catapult (my senior project) whose lead counterweight was foolishly sourced from the lining of a decommissioned nuclear plant. (I still glow faintly in the dark.) Boy dreams. Mom nightmares. Wonderful, formative memories.

This happened because you allowed my young life to be empty. A good empty. I was largely unoccupied with the thousand activities that kids were supposed to do, like sports, or theater, or traditional schooling. I made my own path during those years, and am still walking it. It laid a good foundation for my life as a man. I learned independence, self-direction, responsibility, self-sufficiency, and about a hundred "lost" skills of the in-and-outdoors, simply because you let me be me. Thank you.

Play, work, laugh

You also taught me to work hard, through your own tireless example, and by depending on me for key tasks. I can't remember a day without either chores at home or work for hire that you enabled me to take outside the house. Even the longest hours spent behind a lawnmower or paintbrush gave me time to think and taught me what earning money takes. It let me contribute, and forced me to save for things that I needed or wanted. It gave me skills and a good work ethic. You taught me the value in finishing jobs well. You taught me that heroism sometimes means beating back entropy with a dishcloth at the end of the day. You showed me wisdom in the work, even the most mundane.

You taught me how to laugh well too. Especially when I was very young, you played, you read endlessly, you were present with jokes and music in the background. Kind humor was a value you learned from your parents, and you passed it on to me. It was fun. I'm still laughing.

You also showed me what loving God looks like. There's no need to explain that. It simply looked like Christ; you laid down your life daily for those around you. You did it well, and I was watching more than you know.

For all this (and much more), thank you.

What I might do different

But every generation is called to consider their parents too—and improve, if they are able, on what they pass to their own children. As I've grown into manhood, I see things that I hope to improve on in raising my boys.

First, I'll protect less and talk more. While my boyhood of Gary Paulsen-esque freedom was wonderful, I recognize that much of it came because I was being sheltered from something—a world that you and Dad knew too well, and feared. That made my transition out of our family and into the larger world of college and career bumpy at times. And for many of my peers raised in similar ways, I have seen it do profound damage as they've struggled to understand a world and gospel bigger than the constructs that family or church gave us. I hope in my relationship with my sons to teach, even young, both the way things should be, and the way they are.

I expect that strategy will lead to dilemmas, hard questions, parental paranoia, and awkward, long conversations. I also expect that it will lead to young men who have less work to do than I did in adjusting to a world of both light and darkness—and who are better poised for deep relationships than I was.

What I still wish we could do together

This is a sensitive one, but I'd also like to transition from parent to peer more gracefully too. I long not just to relate to you as a son, but in a deeper, more reciprocal way—as a friend, as a fellow Christian. There are elements of that relationship there already, but I wish for more—not just to relate to you as a parent but as a peer.

I long not just to relate to you as a son, but in a deeper, more reciprocal way—as a friend, as a fellow Christian.

You and I share a unique moment right now, a time when both of us are overlapping in the prime of our lives, though at opposite ends of that stage. I want to seize this chance to know you as a friend would, and to allow myself to be known. In that honesty and struggle I believe that wisdom shines—or at least the wisdom that I seek. I would have liked that at 16, at 18, at 20, 22, 25. I would have liked to grow into it, to know that I was not just a person loved and to be proud of, but to be known. I would have liked this, would still like this, but sometimes do not know where to start. Perhaps we can meet in the middle?

How I love you! We have known one another for 28 years. I wish for many more.

Know that I will always be your grateful and loving son,

—Paul

Paul Pastor is associate editor of Christianity Today's Leadership Journal, a writer and grassroots pastor in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife, Emily, have three children, a bustling community house, and the call of the wild in their hearts.

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Child-rearing; Children; Motherhood; Mother's Day; Parenting; Thankfulness
Today's Christian Woman, May Week 1, 2014
Posted April 21, 2014

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