14-year-olds give moms lip while untying apron strings

January 26, 1999|By Susan Reimer

LIKE ME, MY FRIEND Kathy is the mother of a 14-year-old boy whom she would happily sell if the market were not already flooded with 14-year-old boys marked for "clearance" by their mothers.

Like me, she is thinking about simply leaving her son by the curb for bulk trash pickup. "He treats me as if I am just an annoying little woman," she said one morning over coffee.

And I thought it was just me. I thought that some flaw in my mothering, some conflict in our natures, some personality quirk in me, had rendered me annoying, unlike the rest of the hip and capable mothers on the Planet Teen-ager.

I was grateful to know that I am not the only woman reduced to the status of an illiterate housekeeper by the treatment of a child who thinks a few curly leg hairs give him new and exalted status. "I am not an idiot," I find myself saying out loud in my own house, although you begin to feel like one when you notice that no one is listening to you. "OK. Fine.

Fend for yourself," I say to the empty room. "See how far you get."

Whereupon I retreat behind my bedroom door to a stack of books, none of which is a romance novel or a good mystery, but how-to books on surviving your children. In their pages, I try to the find keys to a mutual nonaggression pact.

Good old Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg of the Gesell Institute of Human Development have been describing the common behavior of kids to greatly relieved parents since the 1950s with a series of books that includes "Your Ten- to Fourteen-Year-

Old." I'm sure they would be gratified to know that my 10- to 14-year-old is a lot like their 10- to 14-year-old, all these years later.

"Thirteen brings a withdrawal from mothers. Mothers often worry that they are losing the close confiding relationship they used to have, but 13-year-olds comment that they don't want to be close to anyone -- just want to be left alone," they write.

"Fourteen generally has much more difficulty with mother than with friends or the outside world. Boys often feel freer to express anger, displeasure or disagreement with mother than they would with father. Many know they wouldn't want friends to see how they treat her."

(Or the investigators from social services, or the grand- parents who shower them with gifts, or even the guys on ESPN's "SportsCenter," I think to myself.)

Evelyn Bassoff, a practicing psychologist as well as an associate professor at the University of Colorado, describes the heavy-duty, Freudian turmoil inside the young man who is trying to separate from his mother in "Between Mothers and Sons: The Making of Vital and Loving Men."

A boy cannot pattern himself after his mother, so he must counter-identify with his father, who up until this time has been a bit of an outsider. But he does not switch his allegiance very gracefully. While he is terrified of being identified with the female parent, he is equally afraid of losing her support and tenderness, and this uncertainty often expresses itself in anger and harsh words.

"Like Aesop's fabled fox who says that the grapes beyond his reach are sour, he may come to devalue the mother whom he is forced to relinquish," writes Bassoff.

"As I see it, mothers spare themselves grief if they remember two things: the first is not to take personally their little boy's sexism; the second is to take a firm stand against it when it gets out of hand and becomes abusive."

A boy will feel lost and anxious while bridging the gap between his mother's tender protection and the world, Bassoff writes, but he will also develop his own resources and capabilities.

(Like learning to hang up a dress shirt and pants, I wonder?)

Michael Gurian puts an anthropological spin on this process in his new book, "A Fine Young Man."

"In the cultures of our ancestors, the boundaries were clarified for both mother and son in early adolescence.

"He started spending more time with the father and the other men," Gurian says, and they taught him the boundaries for his future relationships with his mother and other women: chivalry, respect and financial support.

Life is not so simple today and many boys have absent fathers, through divorce or demanding work, and the mothers are required to set these boundaries themselves. Gurian advises a mother to distance herself from her son, but to remain available for his moments of vulnerability. Even then, he says, ask just a question or two and let him talk.

If you are lucky enough to have him initiate an emotional conver- sation by asking you about your feelings, you need to reward him with candor: "Yes, you're right. I am feeling sad today." Don't dis- miss him with, "Never mind. It's nothing for you to worry about."

A mother must also change the tenor of her emotional responses to her growing son, Gurian says. She can be more jocular or more confrontational, less solicitous and intrusive.

(She can try subtlety, too, he says, though some of us believe that technique is wasted on the entire gender.)

Gurian emphasizes that a mother who is watching her relationship with her son change is not forbidden to comment on those changes. There is no prohi- bition against calling to her son's attention the new way they must relate to each other and the rea- sons for it, and to remind him that no matter how unpleasant it gets, she will always be there for him.

"The more verbal and conscious you make the mother/ son-separation process, the more you will love your boy," he says.

And I think to myself, "As if we could love them any more."

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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