Father-son gibberish can mean everything

November 17, 1998|By Susan Reimer

THOSE OF US who are mothers have often watched our sons and their fathers together and wondered, "What are they talking about?"

Listen close and you will wish you hadn't. Sports. Bathroom humor. Sports. Stupid jokes. Sports. Food. Sports. Coaching tips. Sports.

Those of us who are mothers wonder, "Where is the conveyance of values? Where is the instruction on manhood? Where is the mentoring?" Or, more to the point, "When is he going to get around to the sex talk, or am I going to have to do that, too?"

Michael Gurian, author of "The Wonder of Boys" and a new book, "A Fine Young Man," offers us some reassurance, in a cave man kind of way.

"Twenty-thousand years ago, a father and a son would be talking about the hunt," says Gurian when I call for his thoughts. "They would be talking about how people performed on the hunt and what the outcome was." It is not so different now, he says. Sports, for modern man, has become a staged version of the hunt, one confined to an arena, and men and their sons are still judging the performance of the hunters -- and by comparison, of themselves.

"That is what the communication of men is about," he says. "They are constantly trying to measure themselves, to figure out what they are worth, to judge themselves in comparison to what they see around them.

"There is nothing wrong with this. It is natural and fine and it doesn't need fixing."

Since we decided that our husbands should join us in the delivery room, that we wanted and needed their support and that men deserved to share in the birth of their children, women have asked more and more of those husbands.

It is no longer the case that all we want Dad to do is put the casserole in the oven on the one night a month that Mom goes to card club. Or that he plays a little catch with Junior before dinner. Or that he smiles approvingly at his daughter's new dress and call her "Princess."

We want a full and equal partner in the business of raising our children. Not just someone who makes half the car-pool runs, but someone who is yoked beside us in the complex business of turning children into worthy adults.

But, too often, we insist that fathers do it our way, that they be co-mothers, male versions of us. We watch them interact with our children, especially our sons, and we don't think anything is being accomplished.

"Women look for content in conversation," Gurian says. "Men aren't interested in content and meaning. They are trying to figure out what they are worth, and how they measure up.

"Forget the content. It doesn't matter. Shut out the content and watch them interact. Watch for the non-verbal communication. Are they affectionate? That is better than anything that is spoken. That's great."

When I watch my 14-year-old son and his father and I listen with my heart instead of my ears, I can see the proof of what Gurian says. My son's eyes are always on his father's face, looking for the signal to laugh, waiting for the punch line to show up in his dad's expression. But he is also searching for the clues that will tell him what his father thinks of him -- how he measures up.

But if I listen for content, it still sounds like nonsense to me.

"It is natural to try to rewrite the other's script," says Gurian, and I think to myself that my husband would have rewritten mine more than once.

"There are lessons the elder male needs to teach, and he will do it in his own time. Unless his lessons are judged inadequate -- then he will quit trying."

My face reddens with the shame of recognition, but Gurian offers me understanding instead of the criticism I deserve.

"Women are in a tough spot. They see what a boy needs, but they don't know how to give it with any alacrity. Fourteen-year-old boys are developmentally driven to seek the company of men and to separate from their mothers. The best a mother can do at this stage is encourage him to be with his father and his father's friends and his adult male relatives and to make sure the dialogue is constant."

Gurian describes the relationship between a mother and a boy in what he calls "middle adolescence" as a dance. Both partners want to lead. And the mother resents it when the father tries to cut in.

"It isn't easy. Women know they want their sons to be good hunters, as it were, good husbands and good fathers."

But we are not the ones best suited to teach that right now. As much as we can, we must stop leading in this dance with our sons and take a seat. And we must stop handing our husbands the equivalent of a "honey, do" task list when it comes to relating to their children.

"Let them alone," Gurian advises, kindly. "Ignore the content. By the time he is 21, his father and his father's friends and male relatives will have gotten the job done."

Still I wonder -- but do not say out loud -- how will we mothers know?

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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