Raising our sons differently

Raising our sons differently

This month I will launch my new book, "The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him" (St. Martin’s Press). The book deals with disintegrating American masculinity and the American male’s failure to commit to a woman, remain faithful to his wife, express emotion, inspire his children, cultivate an inner spiritual identity, and take pride and joy in much else other than making money and following sports.

One of the most important remedies I advocate in healing the broken American male is learning to raise our boys 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 that 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 dropping a touchdown pass.

I know I have.

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

I know I have.

If they eat with their fingers we call them unmannered.

I know I have.

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

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.

And all those things that I have done to my young sons, from reprimanding, to reproving, to censuring, to reproaching, to admonishing, to chiding, to hauling them over the coals — I did it all, with love. I did it because I cared about them and wanted what was best for them. To be sure, I did it for their own good. I did it because it was done to me, and to my father before me. Life would not be forgiving to them as men. Bosses would have little compassion if they behaved irresponsibly. Potential wives would not even agree to date them if they believed that they were incapable of supporting a family.

But I now know that it was all based on a lie, the lie being 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 wounded my sons, just as I was wounded before them, as was my father before me.

And I now know that we all 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’ unconditional love. They should be told they are loved when there is dirt accumulating under their fingernails, their rooms are a mess, and they bring home Ds and not As. We have to stop making men feel like they have to do in order to be. And it has to begin from the time they are boys.

Far too many men today feel flawed and blemished and spend their lives trying to prove their critics wrong. I have a friend in Europe who is a prominent attorney with many celebrity clients. When once we were speaking about his success, he told me that he owes everything to a fifth-grade teacher who told him that he wouldn’t amount to anything. He has spent his life proving him wrong. Well, that’s one way to succeed. But to be haunted by the spirit of inadequacy and to rely on that as a spur to achievement is to be condemned to a life of insecurity and unhappiness.

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

Fathers must learn 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 with girls. They should make sure to communicate to their sons that what is really important is that they are able to identify their own unique gifts and develop them rather than engage in a zero-sum game of competitive one-upmanship.

I had a debate with a friend of mine who is a successful London advertising executive. 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 young 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 sub-standard and they could do better?" I answered my question by saying that the former response is correct. Not because we should lie. We should always avoid untruth. 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.

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 of cricket 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 him vehemently. "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. But 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 tormenters."

Abraham Lincoln said it best: "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." We must raise our sons to live with core inner convictions that are impervious to society’s standards of success.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book "The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him" will be launched in New York City on Jan. 30 at the 9’nd St. Y.