Before we went to New York a few weeks ago, I downloaded 5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son by Vicki Courtney. I didn't know much about it -- it was one of those that showed up as a recent upload as I was browsing through the digital library one day. It was fairly short so I thought it would be a quick read for the plane flight. It ended up taking me about two weeks to finish.
Courtney is an Evangelical Christian who has developed a ministry around youth culture and parenting. I am a Christian, but not an evangelical. You could say I am a progressive. You could even go so far as to say that I am a liberal Christian, though I do have conservative tendencies (it's hard to completely shake your upbringing). I have been Dutch Reformed, Methodist and now non-Southern Baptist. I belonged to the student Christian group in college and have been to retreats and prayer meetings and study groups.
The reason that what I thought would be a quick read ended up being a two week endeavor was because I was so distracted while reading the book by the disconnect between Courtney's language and my personal experience. I have never been comfortable with evangelical language -- terms like prayer warrior, Godly person and the like cause me to move away from a conversation rather than draw me in. And my personal beliefs are much more fluid than the black-and-white views espoused by many evangelicals. I am also not comfortable with Biblical quotes being used out of context to support an argument or with scriptures thrown into a sentence as an example of appropriate behaviors. For me, the Bible is a complete work with a large message and extracting small pieces to use in a debate or to give credence to a belief without providing context within the larger work is counter to its intended use.
I soldiered through the book because, despite the rather large gulf between my approach to some situations that Courtney uses as examples and her way of handling them, I thought there were some lessons that I could take away. I am, after all, raising a son and there are issues that are universal for all mothers and parents as our sons grow up. So this is my interpretation of the 5 conversations that Courtney lays out in her book as being essential when raising a boy to adulthood.
Conversation #1 -- "Don't define manhood by the culture's wimpy standards. It's OK to be a Man!"
In this first conversation, Courtney describes what it means (to her) to be a man. Think Wrangler Man, rather than an effeminate metro-sexual (or worse if you read between the lines). Her message is for boys/men not to follow popular culture's less-than-manly examples and be the man that God intended them to be. While I have differing views on what I think my son needs to hear about the kind of person he should emulate, there are good points in this chapter for mothers of sons to remember. She reminds moms that boys need adventure, they will be daredevils and more than once our hearts will leap into our throats when we hear of their latest dangerous escapade. Boys will be boys, and we need to let them. She also reminds us not to be "helicopter" moms. Boys will learn from their mistakes only if they are allowed to make them. If mom is always there saving the day, the consequences of their actions will never become real to them.
I agree with Courtney that the image of a "man" that popular culture has defined may not be the one that I want Isaac to follow. But rather than holding up an alternative image for him, like that of the Wrangler Man, I would instead encourage Isaac to look around and define for himself what he thinks a man should be. He has many great examples in his life to go to for inspiration. And in the end it will be up to him to define the kind of man/person he will be. My job is to help him explore who he is so that he will have a strong sense of self. My prayer for him is that he will feel comfortable being himself in whatever form that takes despite the pressure he may feel to fit in with others' expectations.
Conversation #2 -- "What you don't learn to conquer may become your master."
In this second section, Courtney explains how important it is to teach our sons self-control. Boys tend to act before they think. Hence the times that our mom hearts will be in our throats worried about them. She delves into brain research that shows that male brains are not wired for self-control early in their lives. They do not naturally think through consequences before taking action. Obviously, this is not true for all boys -- there are always exceptions to the rule. But she does cite Michael Gurian and other brain research about boys and I have seen evidence of this trait in my teaching and in my own parenting. So, it is our job as moms to help our sons understand that actions have consequences. A large part of this section was centered around talking with sons about the danger of pornography and the harm it can cause for themselves and their future relationships.
I agree with Courtney that it is important to teach Isaac to be able to moderate his behaviors. My conversations will be less about temptation and sin, however, and more about responsibility and compassion for others. One of my issues with the Evangelical message, at least the message that I hear as someone outside the movement, is the lack of focus on our responsibility as Christians to help others. For me, being a Christian is not mainly about what I can do or not do to get into Heaven. It is about what should I be doing to help my fellow man, Christian or not, and what should I be learning from the scriptures as a whole rather than from a passage here or there. My job is to help Isaac learn to think for himself -- that includes thinking through how his actions will affect his life and the lives of others. My prayer for him is that he will think more often about how he can help others than how he can help himself.
Conversation #3 -- "Not everyone's doing it! (And other naked truths about sex you won't hear in the locker room.)"
Courtney basically has one message in this section -- don't have sex before you are married. She goes through physical, emotional and spiritual reasons for abstaining, but her message is black and white. No sex before marriage. She refers back to the self-control that boys need to learn from the second conversation which will obviously be needed for boys, or girls, to follow this path.
As much as I may disagree with the way Courtney delivers this message, as a mother I would prefer that my son abstain until he meets the person he decides to marry. But, I think I have mentioned before that I am a realist. I don't expect that to happen. There are aspects of Courtney's conversation that I find valuable. Teaching boys (and girls) what sex is and is not is important. Teaching them to have a healthy and realistic attitude about sex is important. But teaching them that abstinence is the only way is not responsible. My main concern when it comes to sex is Isaac's physical and emotional safety. He will need to know how to protect himself and his partner from diseases and from pregnancy. He will also need to know how to choose a partner that will value him personally not just physically. My job is to help Isaac grow up with a healthy and responsible outlook on sex. My prayer for him is that he finds a partner(s) who fulfills him emotionally and enriches his life in other (not physical) ways.
Conversation #4 -- "Boyhood is only for a season. P.S.: It's time to grow up!"
This conversation is probably the one that I gleaned the most helpful information from. Courtney addresses the tendency among many men (and really all young adults) to delay independence. Some of this problem can be attributed to those "helicopter" moms who did not prepare their children to be on their own. Some of this problem is due to the financial mess that our country has been facing. In this section the message is to grow up, move out, and take responsibility for your life. She also spends a part of this section discussing what she sees as the problem of people getting married later in life. This connects back to her message of abstinence, which is a more palatable message if a young person thinks about getting married in their early 20's rather than their late 20's as Courtney encourages them to do. For me, outside of the marriage discussion, this part of the book offered more practical, usable advice than the rest of the conversations combined.
Most mothers want their sons to grow up and have lives of their own. But they cannot achieve that without our help. Courtney explains some ways that she and her husband helped prepare their children to be responsibly independent -- agreements and contracts when they got their licenses and first cars, talks about finances, contracts when going to college and expectations that were individual to the child. So many young adults get caught up in debt or have unrealistic expectations about what it will be like to live on their own. Many are not prepared for the responsibilities of paying rent, buying food, paying bills, holding down a job. Children need to see examples and learn what their lives may be like, good and bad, once they are not under their parents' roofs anymore. My job is to teach Isaac to be able to take care of himself and to let him go once he is ready to do that. My prayer for him is that he will find success and happiness as he builds a life of his own.
Conversation #5 -- "Godly men are in short supply. Dare to become one!"
Courtney stresses in this section the importance of male role models for young and teen boys. To understand the kind of person they should want to become they need to see that kind of person living out their life. She tells moms that if they do not have a role model in their son's life to find one. And, of course, your son's role model should be a "Godly" man who exemplifies most, if not all, of the attributes that she has noted previously in the book. Good luck finding that!
Positive male role models are important to boys. But I also think it is important for boys to see many different types of men. There are men of other faiths who I think are good role models for Isaac. There are gay men whom I think he can look up to. There are Christian men whom I would warn him to look at critically and heterosexual men whose lifestyles I would not want him to emulate. No role model is perfect because they are human. And boys need to see that, too -- the imperfectness of their heroes. Sometimes the imperfection can kill the hero worship. Sometimes it can make that person an even stronger influence because the boy can see how his idol overcomes his weaknesses. I want Isaac to be able to look around him and discern what examples he should hold in his heart and which ones he should dismiss. He will only be able to do that if he is exposed to people outside our group of friends or outside our church or outside our community. My job is to broaden Isaac's world view and bring him into contact with people who will help him grow and from whom he can learn. My prayer for him is that he will be surrounded by people who love and support him throughout his life and that he remembers that people will see God through his actions.