Commitment: The Single Mother's Guide to Raising Remarkable Boys is a very helpful resource for single women raising sons. What was your inspiration for writing this book?
Gina Panettieri: The inspiration was simple. I had become a single mother of two boys through divorce, and realized how much I needed to learn myself. Fortunately, my boys were good teachers! I also began to research subjects related to boys (boys and education, the difference in male and female brain development, even why boys love sports and why and how they communicate differently) and what I was learning was extremely exciting, and I was eager to share that information with other single moms!
Commitment: How do you think the success of Barack Obama affects the negative image of boys growing up without fathers?
Philip S. Hall, Ph.D.: Barack Obama’ success, which is considerable even if he had not become President of the United States, is a testament to the ability of a single mother to raise a remarkable boy. Obama credits his single-parent mother, Ann Durham, for instilling within him a strong sense of values and a work ethic. She also made considerable sacrifices to give her young son the best possible education. She also gave of herself and her time to further his education, getting him up before sunup every morning so they could review his school assignments and learning. The Barack Obama and Ann Durham story makes the case that single mothers can raise remarkable boys.
GINA: I’m afraid I don’t. I haven’t seen that element really raised in any forums. So much attention was paid to him being a multi-cultural President, it swamped other things. But I do think his mother made wise decisions in sending him to live with his grandparents at that critical juncture in his adolescence when he needed solid male role models in his life. We have plenty of great examples of men who have been raised without fathers that I mention in the book, but it seems that each time a woman takes on the task (whether voluntarily or not) of raising a boy without his father in the home, we’re reinventing the wheel!
Commitment: Is it much harder for a single mom to raise boys than it is for her to raise girls?
PHIL: It is harder for a single mother to raise boys than girls. As little boys become big boys, the gender difference between mom and son creates their own unique set of difficulties. However, these difficulties can be met. The difficulties and strategies to address them are discussed later in this interview.
GINA: Of course! Girls challenge their moms in different ways (there can be some really intense moments during a girl’s teen years), but many moms have issues with a lack of understanding or an inability to effectively discipline males. Boys are different in so very many ways, and we, as moms, need to both understand and nurture their ‘differentness’. But we also need to develop the skills to be an effective leader in our own homes.
Commitment: What are some of the biggest concerns of single moms raising boys?
PHIL: A single mother raising boys faces many challenges. One of the biggest challenges comes when the boy becomes a teenager, but it still necessary for the mother to set limits and provide guidance. The best way to meet this challenge is to start preparing for it from day one. The key is to maintain the parent-child relationship and not let it evolve into a parent - co-equal relationship. Friends and extended family do not help when they address the young boy as “the man of the house.” The boy may be the only male in the house, but he is still the child. If single mothers remember this, they are in position to set limits for their teenage child and then enforce those limits if necessary.
GINA: We worry about the lack of sufficient male role models to help guide boys through to adulthood. We worry that our lack of financial resources as single moms will handicap the child’s future. We’re concerned about our boys lack of communication as they grow older and how we can reach them, protect them and keep them safe. It’s harder on single moms since they don’t always have as many other adults to share these concerns and responsibilities with. But, as you’ll see, there are many, many ways to built a proper support network, both for yourself, and for your son.
Commitment: Can other men – uncles, cousins, family friends – serve as role models in the absence of a father?
PHIL: Not only can other men – uncle, cousins, grandfathers, and family friends – serve as role models. It is important that they do. There are certain activities that teenage boys engage in that are almost like a rite of passage, and older men are in the best position to guide them through those cultural rituals. Hunting, camping in the wilds, working on cars, constructing things are a few examples of the activities that lead to skills that out culture expects teenage boys to acquire by guidance from older males. Our society so strongly values these kinds of learning experiences that we have set up organizations to provide this modeling for teenage boys who might otherwise not have opportunities for this learning, e. g. Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, Big Brothers, etc. Most single mothers who raised remarkable boys found ways for their sons to get these experiences from male role models either within their extended family or t heir community.
GINA: Absolutely! We’ve become too isolated in contemporary society, and we need to rebuild our multi-generational ties and strong communities. Boys can learn just as effectively from an uncle, a great coach, an influential teacher, and others. Key is to have someone truly interested in spending time and doing things together. Studies have shown it’s more damaging to have a ‘disconnected’ father living in the home than to have no father there at all.
Commitment: How can a single mom best deal with issues related to her son's body such as puberty or sex?
PHIL: Schools provide children formal education about the body’s changes that happen during puberty and about the physiology, the biology, and the psychology of sex. Single mothers can safely pay little to no attention about what they might think are the big aspects of sex. But it is not the big issues of puberty or sex that are important; it is the “little” issues. The little issues are a boy’s concerns, doubts, and lack of experience about how to go about forming meaningful, healthy boy-girl relationships. The little issues are how a son handles it when a young lady of interest shows no interest back, or worse, dumps him. The little issues are about what are the really important things in a relationship. Without sticking a prying ear to the door, single mothers most keep their ears tuned to how her son and his friends are talking about girls and their attitude about the whole boy-girl thing.
GINA: There are two approaches, and which one works for you depends on your own personality. If you’re comfortable with sex, and it’s been an open and easy topic of conversation in your home, you can easily talk about most things with your son yourself and you should start when the boy is young. It’s easy to talk about body differences to a boy who is four or five, then talk about reproduction to a kid who is eight or so, so it’s not like you’re suddenly delving into new and potentially difficult subjects all of a sudden when a kid turns twelve. But if you’re awkward or embarrassed, or your son seems to be, it’s best to have an adult male you trust and whom your son feels really close to cover those subjects with him. Just be sure that male is ‘on the same page’ as you are about sexual topics like abstinence, contraception, respecting females, and religious beliefs.
Commitment: The teen years can be difficult ones under any circumstances. What should a mom do to help her son through this stage of life?
PHIL: When a boy gets to be a teenager, giving advice is useless. An adult’s “wisdom” is not valued. At this stage of development, a single mom needs to be a non-judgmental listener. However, she should occasionally initiate the relevant conversations so that she gets an opportunity to hear what her teenage son is thinking and, most importantly, doing.
GINA: Boy, can those years be hard! Keep the door open, mom, but don’t push. Be accepting and not judgmental. Use television shows or news articles to open conversations about subjects of concern (teen drinking, sex, drug use, violence), so that the boy can talk in general and not necessarily talk about himself until and unless he wants to. Don’t try sitting him down and staring in his face and insisting he ‘tell you what he’s thinking or feeling’. That will never work. Don’t preach, but make your values known. Continue to express your love and faith and support to your child. And keep open lines of communication with your son’s friends’ parents, but don’t ‘rat out’ anyone for giving you information or that communication will shut down.
Commitment: How important are family and community support for a single mom and her sons?
PHIL: The extended family and community support is very important to single mother who wants to raise remarkable boys. Going back to Barack Obama story, his grandparents significantly contributed to his upbringing.
GINA: Extremely so. No one is an island, and no one should try to go it alone. It’s not good for the mom, and it’s not good for the son living with an overburdened, stressed-out mother. The more close and supportive associations you each have, the healthier you’ll be. Make friends with families of all kinds, including other single moms. Join social organizations, lend a hand with the Scouts, volunteer to help with soccer. You’ll make adult friends while your son makes kid friends, and everyone wins.
Commitment: How can a single mother give her son a sense of belonging when his peer group does not include any other non-traditional families?
PHIL: Many single mothers raising boys worry about whether they can give their son a sense of belonging, especially when his peer group does not include any non-traditional families. They shouldn’t worry. Belonging begins at home. Belonging is a feeling created by the strength of the family bond. The strength of the bonding has nothing to do with whether the family has a traditional or non-traditional composition. Any single mother who holds this myth can dispel it by considering all of the children she knows who have a traditional family but clearly do not have a sense of belonging.
GINA: That’s becoming less and less common nowadays, since most communities have a good proportion of single parents or step-families, and single moms should make a point of finding outlets where her son can associate with those nontraditional families. Sometimes a church group might have more diversity than your neighborhood block, or the Y’s after-school program may have a wider representation of family types. You might point out the other differences within two-parent homes, since those won’t be cookie-cutter duplicates of each other.
Commitment: What are the benefits, if any, of single parenthood?
PHIL: It would be a stretch to say that single parenthood has advantages over parenting as a well-functioning couple. But the operative word is “well-functioning.” Children do best when they grow up in a home that has harmony, a healthy value system, and purposeful engagement in the community. These factors are independent of whether it is a single-parent family or a traditional family. Moreover, sometimes it can be accomplished better when a mother decides to single parent than raise a child in a home lacking those attributes.
GINA: If a family was in a state of stress when the parents were together, many kids really benefit from getting out of that environment. Also, if the parents disagreed about topics related to raising the child, it helps to have one clear direction the child can follow. And of course, if the other parent was corrosive, abusive, negligent or otherwise negative, it’s better for the child to be away. Beyond that, single parenting can be an opportunity to establish an even closer relationship with your child. I know lots of single moms who, at the drop of a hat, bundle their sons into the car and take off for an adventure they wouldn’t have considered when they were married or together with the child’s father. It’s also an opportunity for mom to grow, to test her wings, and to live a fully independent adult life.
Commitment: How can single moms counter the stereotype that a close and loving mother-son relationship will smother the boy and prevent his normal development?
PHIL: A single mother should discount the myth that a close, loving mother-son relationship smothers a boy and impairs his normal development. There is not a shred of research to support that myth.
GINA: By not putting too much stress and pressure on the child to fulfill all the mom’s emotional needs. Encourage him to have other relationships with other relatives and adult family friends, and encourage him to participate in male activities like Scouting, competitive sports, etc. Be alert and aware, but don’t hover!
Commitment: Is it difficult for a single mom to instill discipline in her son?
PHIL: Whether or not it is difficult for a single mother to instill discipline in her son depends on the relationship bond she has built with him over the years. If that bond is weak, it will be particularly difficult to provide discipline as he gets older. It is difficult because discipline then means control. Not many 125 pound mothers can control a 160 pound teenager. But if their bond is strong, a single mother will not have any difficulty disciplining a teenage son. A strong bond means that discipline has nothing to do with control, but everything to do with respect and appreciation.
GINA: It’s different, not difficult. You have to take a different approach with males than with females. Encourage them to take pride in accepting responsibility and doing the right thing, but do not humiliate or belittle. The phrase that served me well with my sons was ‘good job!’. They loved to hear that more than anything else. This is also an area where you can enroll your male role models to encourage good behavior, responsibility and discipline. Express your expectations clearly and precisely, and be consistent.
Commitment: What tips do you have for the non-athletic mom raising an energetic, sports-loving boy?
PHIL: Do it! A mother does not have to be an athlete to participate with her young son in the skill building activities that will later make him an athlete. A mom can put a basketball under her arm and say to her 10-year-old son, “Let’s go shoot some baskets.” She can put on a baseball glove and say, “Let’s go play catch and practice batting.” A mom does not have to model athletic excellence. She merely has to provide opportunities for her young son to practice his skills. Once boys have acquired a beginning level skill set, they get together with other boys to continue honing their skills. How often have you seen five teenage boys and one dad playing basketball at the park basketball court?
GINA: You don’t have to be an athlete yourself if you can seek out and find others to teach the sport. The Y is a great place (and has a sliding scale fee depending on family income so it’s affordable to all), schools have sports teams, and there are lots of camps that encourage sports and physical skills (again, many have scholarships or financial assistance, so ask!). Boys do place a good amount of pride in athletic skills, it’s good for social development to play on teams, plus it’s a great outlet for all that energy that would otherwise be directed at bouncing off the walls in the house or fighting with siblings. So find something they like, whether it’s soccer, karate, swimming, or baseball, and sign them up! And even if you’re no athlete yourself, be involved, supportive and present at their games. Learn the lingo from other parents, read a book on the sport, watch videos, whatever it takes. Your son will appreciate your support!
Gina Panettieri is president of Talcott Notch Literary Services, single mother of two sons and a daughter, and grandmother to two young fatherless grandsons she is helping her daughter raise. During her sons' teen years, Panettieri also cared for and helped raise other fatherless boys from her community. She has worked as a literary agent since 1988.
Philip S. Hall, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and licensed school psychologist and is the principle author of two nonfiction books on children, Educating Oppositional and Defiant Children and Parenting Your Defiant Child. He holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Montana. The majority of Dr. Hall's patients are fatherless families.
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