Raising Confident Sons
Who Have Respect For Others
By Peggy Drexler, Ph.D.
Not long ago, I was rushing up the street, carrying groceries and my
briefcase, barely closed from all I had stuffed inside it, trying not
to be late to pick up my daughter from basketball practice. One of her
classmates, 11-year-old Damien, was walking from school toward me. I’d
known Damien and his family for years, as part of a study I was
conducting for my book, Raising Boys Without Men.
“Can I help you with that?” he asked in a concerned voice.
Although the bag was tearing from the weight of its contents and the
awkward way I was holding it, his question almost made me drop
everything completely. People were meandering in both directions, and
no one else noticed that I was struggling, but Damien saw in one glance
that I needed help and immediately offered it. He took my grocery bag
and walked back up to school with me. When I thanked him, he just
smiled politely, said it wasn’t a problem, waved, and continued off
down the street.
Until fifth grade, he wore his hair short and dressed in nothing but
jeans and T-shirts. Even after he let his hair grow long in sixth grade
and wore red bandannas like the Hells Angels, he didn’t let anybody’s
idea of what was “girlish” affect his behavior. In the school’s annual
musical, Damien stole the show with his theatrical poise and warm
response to the loud applause from the audience. His onstage theatrics
a very liberating experience for boys, did nothing to prevent him from
being the first out on the play yard at recess for kickball, running
successfully for class representative to the student council, or being
a sometimes goofy but articulate class participant.
I call children like Damien “head and heart boys.” Years of research
on families and parenting have shown me how successful moms raise
self-assured and caring sons by nurturing their boy power --
the artful combination of physicality and sensitivity to others’ needs
and feelings. To help your son grow up with confidence and respect for
1. Help him develop a strong sense of well-being and sensitivity
to the needs and feeling of others:
Talk and talk and talk with (not at) your son, and then talk some
more. As boys discover they are worthy of respect and understanding,
they learn to respect and empathize with others. Encourage your son to
recognize how he feels and show it, whether the feeling is good or bad.
Talk with him about what may be making him feel that way. Learning
about his own feelings can help your son connect with others and to
develop into a caring, sensitive man.
Boys tend to shy away from face-to-face discussions. Connect with
him in any way you can, anywhere you can. Use toys to prompt
discussion. One mom uses puppets with her young son to talk about
events in their lives. Initiate conversations in the car, on the
basketball court, or in the kitchen, while cooking together. Despite
feeling tired at the end of her workday, one mom began playing
basketball with her teenage son because he seemed withdrawn. She
expected it to be all dribble, shoot but when they started playing her
son opened up, sharing his thoughts and feelings about school and home.
Listen to what your son tells you -- or doesn’t tell you.
Look for messages even in silence or outbursts. Listening -- not just
to the words, but to the feelings behind them -- can reveal the kind of
mothering your son needs to help him become a man.
Ten-year-old Caleb struggled with being small for his age.
During hide-and-seek, he and his mom brainstormed about the advantages
of being small, like finding a really good place to hide. Since people
underestimated his superior athletic abilities, he had a secret weapon.
Later, when a cousin said he was small for his age, Caleb easily listed
all the good things about being small!
And while you’re talking, repeatedly share your own values,
including consciously challenging gender and other stereotypes, even
when your son seems to tune out.
2. Foster his respect for others:
Respect for ourselves feeds our respect for others. So accept who he
is, instead of trying to mold him into your vision of what you think he
You can encourage him to be responsible to himself by helping him set
his own goals and expectations, and then live up to them. He will also
learn responsibility to others by doing his share of household chores
and other age-appropriate duties.
Establish clear guidelines for behavior and expectations for how
family members and others are treated. Helping your son relate well to
family and friends will help him become a reflective, conscious,
centered adult with a strong sense of identity and moral fiber.
3. Help him find a variety of good role models, both men and
Start with yourself and other moms you know. His respect for you and
other women friends teaches him respect for women. He learns such
qualities as patience by observing patience in you and others. As his
mom, model the kind of strength and heroism commonly associated with
men. Your power, leadership, determination, and ability to achieve set
a strong personal example for your son. Knowing women he can emulate
helps erase culturally ingrained gender stereotypes.
Boys benefit by having many role models, so whether there’s a father
at home or not, actively recruit men as friends and role models for
your son. In addition to men in the family, look for babysitters,
tutors, coaches, and Big Brothers who can play this role. Sports
superstars, fictional characters like Harry Potter, and other heroes
also give boys a range of men to emulate.
One mom makes sure her 5-year-old son, Cody, interacts with males as
much as possible. “When I’m with my brothers-in-law or nephews, [I
say], ‘You guys, take him to the bathroom,’ or ‘You guys, go do guy
things.’” Strong mothers give their sons a range of models for manhood.
4. Stay connected. Learning to value intimacy and close
relationships will help him succeed with a future wife or partner:
Don't buy into fear of being too close to your son, no matter what
his age. Closeness and conversation lead to a natural and lifelong
intimacy between mother and son. This means frequently stepping out of
your comfort zone to meet his needs, including roughhousing and playing
with your son any way you can. Encourage physical and emotional
expressions of affection at home even when he tries to push you away.
(In public allow him any space he requires.) Adapt the ways you connect
with your son to stay close as he grows intellectually, emotionally and
As he grows, you can help him lead a double-life on the emotional
front. If he is standoffish in public, he can still enjoy the mothering
he secretly still craves in the privacy of home. Allowing boys to show
their soft, vulnerable side with you keeps those emotions alive. As
your son grows older, be sure to keep the dialogue open even when you
don’t agree with his choices.
The deep emotional connection between mothers and sons has been
demonized for far too long. Just as your son has inherent boy power,
you have the mom power it takes to raise a son who is
self-assured and respectful of others. By nurturing his emotional IQ,
teaching him to care for others, providing him with positive role
models, and staying close to him as he grows up, you can give him what
he needs to become a confident, empathic person and an exceptional man.
Copyright © 2006