Raising sons

Raising sons

Fidgeting hands, shuffling in seat, dressed too casually. These
scribbles began to fill John Brantley’s notepad as he toured around
the Southeast as a job recruiter.
Fidgeting hands, shuffling in seat, dressed too casually. These scribbles began to fill John Brantley’s notepad as he toured around the Southeast as a job recruiter.

As he expected, those with less professional experience appeared more nervous. But something else caught him by surprise when interviewing recent college grads.

“The young women could mask their nervousness and make a better first impression,” said Brantley. “In general, I’d say they were dressed better and could articulate themselves in a way their male counterparts could not.”

Many of his young applicants walked in with the same level of experience (very little), but more men than women lacked one critical ingredient: confidence.

The fumblings of 20-somethings searching for their place in the world predates the recession, but the topic has attracted a lot of recent media attention – and sparked debate among parents, teachers and the young men themselves.

Bob Schoeni, an economist at the University of Michigan, found in a 2007 study that 69 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were receiving some type of financial assistance from their parents. The research was for the Transition to Adulthood’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Parents spent, Schoeni said, an average of $7,907 on bills, tuition, vehicles, rent, loans, gifts and housing in 2007. Families in the top 25 percent of earners spent an average of $15,823; 90 percent of their children received help. Schoeni is now examining 2009 data and expects the recession has increased the amount of support parents give their young adult children.

Young men are lagging further. A study based on 2008 Census data from Reach Advisors, a strategy and research firm in New York, found that single, childless women in their 20s in metropolitan areas are out-earning their male counterparts.

The issue was brought home to Brantley, who refused to support his middle child, Tyler, when his first internship after college came to an end. He told Tyler he could move home or support himself. So that Christmas season, Tyler decided to work as an elf in a department store to make rent. He said he gained a level of confidence that was lacking in many of his friends still supported by their parents.

The link between responsibility and confidence is supported by two psychologists who say that cause-and-effect process must start long before a child leaves home.

Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen, professors of psychology at the University of Virginia and authors of “Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How Can We Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old” (Ballantine Books, $25), blame young adults’ lack of preparedness on what they call the “nurture paradox,” when parents buffer their children from the harsh realities of the world.

As a result of their parents’ best intentions, the authors write, children stay financially dependent and dodge adult responsibility long after they leave the house.

Joseph Allen said the nurture paradox affects sons more than daughters because of the dwindling number of opportunities for a son to be self-sufficient or take responsibility in the home. He counsels many families in which the daughter baby-sits but the son’s job in the yard has been replaced by a lawn service and the son is not expected to contribute to do household chores that are traditionally associated with women.

Allen advises families to break gender stereotypes and encourage their sons to take on the demands of caregivers, in particular, to teach them responsibility. “Most boys won’t grow up to do manual labor, but they will grow up to be fathers,” he said. “So feeling like they’re growing up to take care of people makes a big difference.”

But it’s not so much what skills a young man learns as a teenager, or even how well he performs them. The most successful adults, Allen said, are given the chance to fail and learn from their mistakes. That means parents need to step back.

“Teenage boys are risk takers. They naturally want to go out and try things, and that’s fine as long as they learn from their mistakes,” Allen said. “But parents want to bail them out. It’s like buying (them) a new car after (they’ve wrecked their car). You don’t learn as much as if you had to work to pay off the car.”

Allen even offers an age for parents to start scaling back on protecting boys: Age 12, he says, is when boys should start assuming responsibility for tasks they can handle: making doctor appointments, fixing toilets, changing light bulbs. As they get older, they should take on more challenging tasks, including a part-time job, volunteering or doing work for neighbors.

Years after adolescence, many sons have yet to feel empowered, and the recession may be prolonging the period of the “nurture paradox.”

Tyler Brantley’s job as a department-store elf might not have been a gateway to his future career, but it offered life lessons in addition to paying his rent. Allen tells parents that a child’s confidence will be improved if he can learn to make it on his own, even without the ideal job.

“It’s hard to feel good about yourself when all you’re doing is draining your parents’ resources,” Allen said.

He does not advise parents to push their children out of the nest if they get into a serious financial bind. But rather than supporting them from afar, he suggests parents have sons move home and contribute to the household until the economy – or their confidence – picks up.

TALKING THE TALK

Action – and conversation – is what John Brantley felt was missing in the lives of the restless young men entering his office as a job recruiter and in the relationships he had with his own three sons. It wasn’t that either group had never experienced failures or successes, but they were shorted out of the chance to talk about their experiences with other men.

“It took me eight or nine years to realize that we live in a brotherhood of silence,” he said. “Women talk about that stuff all the time. With men, we don’t do very well at that and young men desperately need it.”

He figured that if he really wanted to get into the life and mind-set of one of his sons; the two of them needed to get away and go camping for a weekend. Teaching moments were not possible amid the demands of their daily schedules.

Over the last five years, Brantley, with the help of his sons, has organized BAM Adventures (bamadventures.net), events designed to help fathers teach their sons confidence through a “do and discuss model.” For a day or weekend, fathers and sons complete tasks, then discuss them.

One task the duos find especially challenging requires them to find their way using a compass that only the son can use. Fathers can ask questions, but the real leading is in the hands of the son – “because dads have a tendency to want to take charge and fix things,” Brantley said. “We wanted to create experiences that empower the son.”

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