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“Five-second” moments for parents of teenage boys

Brother Damien Price is a former teacher in Brisbane schools including St Joseph’s, Gregory Terrace, St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, and St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane. He continues to work with schools across the country.

If you ever see someone who is the “perfect parent” of a teenage boy – think again. There is no such thing. In fact – perfection is one of the very things many boys cannot stand. Over many years I have worked with thousands of boys. Every now and again I have seen the ‘perfect’ parent and have wondered why their sons often rebel. Sometimes, having the perfect parent is a bridge too far for the adolescent boy trying to find his own identity in the world.

There are several five-second moments that tend to work when engaging with boys. I need to say that these examples will not fit every boy. The boys’ psyche screams at us “I am ME!” The “one-size-fits-all” approach just won’t work when you engage with the adventure that is the world of boys.

The five-second moment is that sacred window of interaction and relationship with the boy. In those five seconds the parent makes an “inner choice” about how to engage. It is only five seconds so ultimately it is about trusting yourself – your wisdom, your experience, your ‘gut’ knowledge of what does and does not – work.

Some five-second moments:

  • To say “I’m sorry” when you have stuffed up or “I don’t know” when you don’t know. I have never engaged with a boy who needed, wanted or expected people to be perfect; but they did want fidelity! By admitting our flaws – our feet of clay – we psychologically become loved, admired but attainable role models.
  • Shadow boxing. There is that beautiful time when the boy is little and he loves his hugs and high fives. He loves you to hold his hand and runs to you. There will come a time when that boy, like a chameleon, suddenly is ‘too cool’ for all of that. That is when dad walks along the side of the sports field, approaches the son on the edge of the team talk, and without stopping ruffles the hair and keeps on going. That five-second choice (and it takes many forms) says to the lad: “I love you! I am proud of you! I am here for you!” And the inner radar of the boy makes note of this and puts it away for a psychologically rainy day.
  • The magic art of how to be there without being there. They KNOW you are there (at the sporting event or the school function) and more importantly they KNOW deeply when you are not there when you could. You can’t be too obvious. Your presence in their lives is intuited. They feel it and especially sense it when it is NOT there.
  • Actions speaking louder than words! Boys hear and see through the gut and through experience. They hear “I love you and am proud of you!” NOT through those words being said but through action. Every time the parent puts the family holiday or the shared activity with their sons before more hours spent at the desk at work, another TV for another room of the family home or a bigger and more powerful car, they are putting psychological money into the relationship piggy bank. The day WILL come when the boy – now a young man – will suddenly want to share a beer with dad or an adventure with mum and that response is built upon the scaffold and foundations laid many years before in “time wasted” with them.
  • Drawing a line in the sand. Boys (all children for that matter) need boundaries. Especially in the early years the boys need to KNOW, unambiguously, what is on and what is not on. Sure they will bounce against those boundaries – that is part of the fun of being a boy and then a grumpy adolescent young man!
  • Don’t set the boundaries in stone! The time will come when, after growing with the boundaries, the young man will ask: “Can I …?” (Seeking to take the next step towards maturity). At that point, the care giver intuits another five-second moment: “Yeah, OK, this time but (and then another more mature boundary is gently set) make sure you phone us from the game!”
  • Spend deliberate time building a culture of communication in the home and in your family traditions of shared time together. Continue to build this while you slowly allow your son to engage more deeply in the cyber jungle of texting, tweets and the internet. Talk through the boundaries of this as well.
  • When you need to challenge. Another five-second choice is to challenge the ball not the ball carrier – the behaviour not the person. The adolescent boy KNOWS they have stuffed up. They don’t need to be reminded of it again and again.
  • Sometimes in those awkward years to see but not to see can be a great gift and another five-second choice. You accidently come across the boy engaged in some activity that is part of his journey to adulthood (that first awkward kiss, checking out his abs in the mirror, carrying on like a goose with his mates) – and they know you saw it – but you let it go through to the ‘keeper. You don’t and they don’t need a deep discussion.

One could go on but ultimately the boy knows it when you did your best and that is sacred. He, like all of us, is wanting unconditional love, wants fidelity, wants quality time spent with those close to him but all through the crazy illogical filter of a boy growing to be a man.

Christian Brother Denis Hernon taught me at school. Denis would often say: “Can you leave that which is essential and attend to that which is important?” That may well be the ultimate question when seeking to walk alongside a young man.

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