Stu Mark wrote a great article about a Dad trying to understand the mysteries of being a girl and connecting with a daughter who shares itnerests so different from his. I feel similarly mystified about men, and the mysteries of boyhood I confront every day as the mom of two boys, ten and thirteen.
Being a lone female voice in a house of men sets me off-kilter from time to time. As the kids have gone from cute, charming little people, with a sense of adventure and daring, to the verge of being Teen-age Boys, my role is changing dramatically. I’ve gone from Mom, the fixer and security blanket, to Mom, the vague embarrassment and task master. I don’t think my standards or responses have changed much, but the resistance to things like reinforcing table manners is reaching a civility breaking point. In fact, my inner Martha Stewart reached her breaking point this summer, and we are executing on the long time threat- We’re sending the kids to Cotillion classes.
Cotillion seems like an old-fashioned concept to many people, and I remember (way back in the 80′s) having to go to “dancing school” where we wore white gloves, learned to shake hands and behave civilly, capped off by forced ballroom-type dancing with other seventh and eighth graders. The boys all thought this was tremendously dull, and for us girls, it was a chance to potentially be “forced” to dance with a boy you already had a crush on, so it was both enticing and mortifying, as all pre-pubescent social events are.
“How quaint and WASP-y of you…” I hear you say. But in an age where the Boston Globe reports that almost 70% of office managers would fire someone for bad office manners, and there are over 881,000 hits on a google search for workplace manners, is manners training for kids actually a good thing? If adults are going back to etiquette classes, and Brooks Brothers has put out a nuumber of books about being a Gentleman, including one entitled “How to Raise a Gentleman”, maybe this idea isn’t so far off the mark, after all.
I’ll admit, we have lots of jokes at dinner about being sent to “manners camp” and my husband is often caught giving a sly wink to bad behavior at the table while I groan and try not to reinforce it by my reactions. The guys do not seem thrilled about having to wear “dress up” clothes and go to Cotillion for a few hours every Sunday afternoon/evening. But I have at least followed through on my “enough is enough” threat, and starting at the end of September, my “guys” will be going to actual classes that will attempt to make them slightly more civilized.
I live in a House of Testosterone, where wrestling is becoming more and more common- an event I am not really invited to participate in, and that’s okay. My husband is taking over more and more of the parental guidance stuff, because he understands the teen-age boy thing better than I ever can. In the meantime, I am sitting on the sidelines, trying to enforce the cleanliness, changing the underwear and using deodorant rules, and dreading the full onslaught of puberty that is coming ever closer with each day.
My mom was recently cleaning out her basement and handed me back my “treasures” including old journals with snippets from those embarrassing early teen years, mentioning crushes that felt oh, so important at the time, which now make me blush even thinking about them. I remember really liking and admiring the bravado that seemed to come naturally to so many teenage boys, and wanting to know what that was like. Why do they have a natural swagger and sense of control, where I always felt pretty timid about the world?
Now as a mom of boys approach that age, it’s like seeing the staging of that adolescent play before it is performed. There’s a gradual sense of self boys start to get as they wean away from Mom and attach to Dad. They start to see themselves, ever more, as being a Guy. And part of that seems to be the fraternity and brotherhood thing that involves a certain amount of defiance of the Mom, in favor of doing it their way, even if that seems to defy all sense of manners and especially hygiene. And men out there, if you get a sec, please explain to me why not changing your underwear for three days and smelling bad is part of being a thirteen year-old boy. Everyone assures me this is normal, but it’s really just gross.
This means I often have day dreams of spas and girly enclaves, a little apartment somewhere, where everything is white and maybe even pink; where there are no grubby hand prints on the wall, and I don’t have to play stain detective. A place where no one burps out loud at the dinner table and then tries to do more on purpose, even trying to burp the alphabet, to see whether or not I will start to yell or cry.
I get the growing up and independence thing. I get the bonding thing, and even the poking the finger in the eye of convention and rules. I admire their path and their growing confidence, that my son blushes and his ears turn pink when he comes home and announces he found out a girl “loves” him. (I do too, I understand this completely- he’s awesome!)
I just hope I can instill enough manners in them that they will find some lovely young girl who won’t find them disgusting. I don’t want to hear “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that?” or “Who raised you?” I want to preserve a sense of some boundaries on behavior, or at least know that they know the right thing to do, even if they choose not to do it at the time.
I want them to be wonderful, confident men, and this means letting go sometimes, not being so serious, and trying to not let them catch me secretly giggling at the gross behavior from time to time. Because let’s face it, under the facade of momdom, of holding a line on what’s acceptable and what’s not, these guys of mine are funny characters and I love them to death. They just can’t see me laughing at the frat house stuff just yet. I have a few years of being Standards Woman left, before they are on their own. And frankly, one more three day underwear thing, and they’re gonna start learning the lesson of laundry as well. That’s a fraternity skill every guy needs, isn’t it?
by Whitney Hoffman
Photo graciously provided by CaseyLessard, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved