Parenting Teen Boys, Or How a Mom Can Actually Have a Relationship With Her Son


I am the mom of five sons: three adults, one 10-year-old, and one intellectually disabled 9-year-old. This does not make me an expert; it means I am experienced and tired and middle-aged. We started young. I was just 22 when we had our firstborn. In my 20's and 30's, I possessed boundless energy for the parenting of the three little boys who soon shared our home, and I loved being the mom of those exuberant, funny, and often plain-crazy boys.

Life was pretty simple. The floors were strewn with Legos, the appetites were boy-sized, and there were varying degrees of homeschool love and hate, depending on the boy, the subject, the weather, the mood, the time of year.

And Then They Became Teens

Then something unexpected happened. I mean, not totally unexpected; I had been a teen and had teen brothers and had oft been warned by strangers in the grocery check-out line, "Just wait until they're teeeeeenagers." But this undetectable switch was flipped in their brains and suddenly the boys who were interested in historical war stories and world domination through Minecraft and seeing who could eat the most jalapeños, weren't. 

It wasn't just the academic stuff, either. Laundry? Why? Clean teeth? What's the point? Video games? Well, yes. All day, every day, if given the option.

I began to see a lot of foot dragging, and because we homeschool, there began the season of pretending to do school work. “Is your math done?” — emphatic nodding — "Yep!" And then of course they'd bring me their math book and nothing had been done for weeks. (Before the homeschool naysayers load their guns, here's the deal: We'd gone through a period of excellent self-motivation prior to this 12-year-old transformation thing. I had no reason to doubt their integrity up to this point. Think: kid pretending to do homework. Same thing.)

And Then They Have Exactly Zero Goals

I also noticed in one of our boys that there were absolutely no life goals, short term or long. Apparently, spending the rest of your life on a Nintendo is a perfectly viable goal. Rather, not having the goal of spending one's life doing anything was the goal. I think. 

One afternoon I was driving down a long country road with our third son, Jack. By number three, I was a seasoned pro at this unmotivated teenage boy gig, and I was recognizing the signs. I thought maybe it was time to light a fire, at least mentally. "Hey Jack. What do you want to do with your life?” At the time, he had been learning to play golf and was out on the course at least once a week. "Do you want to be a professional golfer?" Whatever is pausier than a pause, that's how Jack responded. Dead silence. And then he spoke.

“Mom, I’m only 13. I don’t have to think about that.”

If he had been able to communicate what was really going through his brain at the time, it was likely more in line with "I don't know, I don't care. I get up, I eat breakfast, I go back to bed, I disappear. This is working for me."

I've learned now how to move through this season of a teen boy's life without destroying our mother/son relationship, and next time I'll share with you some things that I think can help yours, too. There's hope ahead!! 

This is Jack (with his sister Abby). He eventually graduated. In fact, on time, which seemed nigh impossible around age 12.

This is Jack (with his sister Abby). He eventually graduated. In fact, on time, which seemed nigh impossible around age 12.

Just a couple of years ago. They are now 24, 22, 20, 10, and 9.

Just a couple of years ago. They are now 24, 22, 20, 10, and 9.

Read More on Parenting

Mothers Be Good to Your Daughters

She sat in the chair next to me in the salon, the ends of her long hair wrapped in foil to absorb the bleach that would be the base for magenta tips. She was young — 18 — and her attention was on the small screen she held in her hand, a smile slowly appearing on her face as she responded to whomever was on the other end. When the stylist inquired about school or work or boyfriend, she readily entered into conversation, polite, cheerful, engaged.

The bell on the door clanged against the glass as a woman my age pushed through. She addressed the girl with the kind of familiarity that bypasses social conventions, cutting straight to the point like a laser beam. “How long is this going to take?”, she barked, then glanced around at the other women like me in the room before taking her annoyance down a socially acceptable notch. “How much is this going to cost me?”

I couldn’t hear the girl’s response, but she looked up at her mother to meet her gaze, quietly answering the questions and putting out the small smoldering flicker with her own calculated calm. She’d had to respond this way before.

The questions continued. “Who are you going out with tonight? Are you going after work?” She wasn’t asking because she cared in the way friends ask, “Hey, what’s going on with you?” She was shooting fiery darts meant to pin the young woman-daughter to the wall. There was a tense edge in the salon that hadn’t been there just a minute before she broke the calm with her irritated voice.

And it made me ponder my relationship with my own three daughters. Mine aren’t yet legally adults, but they are fast approaching 18. I can confidently assert from my current vantage point that we have a strong mother-daughter relationship. Note here that I also have three adult sons, and while I have a great relationship with all three, I’ve been around the parenting block long enough to know that relationships are fluid, living entities, and as such can morph into stressful or less-loving seasons. I don’t pretend to have this sewn up.

But this I do know: 12-year-old girls can be frustrating. Stifling. Or in the words of a friend raising her own teen girls, “Like a booger you can’t flick off.” That sums it up. My 12-year-old is all up in my business all the time. All the time. Right now every day is an opportunity to use my workplace polite and patient voice with her — the voice you use with co-workers you need to tolerate and work with everyday and better not offend or risk having your lunch stolen from the communal fridge or your name dropped at the water cooler. If I can drum that up for them, why not for my own flesh and blood?

Sometimes when we choose to be polite, we come out on the other side with a greater understanding of what might be making that person such an irritant. In the case of pre-teen girls, that irritation tends to stem from a lack of maturity and a surge of hormones, neither of which they can control. If I take a deep breath when my preteen is doing her own breathing down my neck, pestering me with questions of who, what, why, where, and when (as in, “Who called you? What did they want? Why are you doing that? Where are you going? and When will you be back?”), I can absorb the annoyance and be kind. Kindness covers a multitude of annoyances.

Love covers a multitude of sins, and mothers of teens and preteen daughters, listen: snippy, unkind, disrespectful responses to our daughters are sin. Cover that stuff with love. Someday soon those 12-year-old boogers will be 18-year-olds in salon chairs beautifying themselves and still hoping your smile of approval means something. What you sow at 8, 10, and 12 can be reaped at 16, 18, and 20. Sow love, reap love. Mothers, be good to your daughters.