I ended my last blog (From Boys to Men) with an old sports adage, “no pain no gain,” a reference to the notion that a certain amount of pain is a by-product of sustained effort that leads to an increase in stamina and muscle definition. It seemed appropriate to begin this post with another reference to sports. Muhammad Ali, known equally well for his athletic prowess as his ability to turn a phrase, once quipped, “What really counts in the ring is what happens after you are exhausted.”
If you are reading this and you are the parent of a teenage male, you are intimately familiar with the concept of exhaustion. If you work with these young men and love them, you have a palpable sense of the challenges they face as they navigate the occasionally treacherous path that leads to full-fledged adulthood. As the parent of a teen, you are undoubtedly tired, but I urge you to battle the weariness. Your son needs you now, perhaps more than ever.
Allow me to share a personal reflection. A couple of months ago, I watched with pride as my eldest son received his bachelor’s degree from my alma mater. Days later, I watched his younger brother “bridge” from middle school to ninth grade. Truth be told, both experiences were bittersweet. I beamed with pride to see my sons grow up to be polite, intelligent, honorable young men. At the same time, I was sobered by the reality that some may not see them as I see them. Throughout their lives, my admonition has always been to be the very best “you” that you can possibly be and to never let anyone’s opinion negatively impact your self-esteem or define who you are as a person. Similar words from my father echo in my mind to this very day. I view these words as an inoculation of sorts as my sons venture beyond the comfort zone of our home.
Needless to say, the path from childhood to adulthood can be a difficult one, regardless of one’s economic, racial or ethnic background. That being said, I believe the journey for young African-American men presents unique challenges. Many African-American parents dread, but feel compelled to have, the “talk” with their young sons:
“Son, you have every right to wear a hoodie, but you need to be aware that doing so may evoke suspicion from others who may view you as a potential threat to their well-being. Of course it isn’t fair. Similarly, walking with three or more of your friends, as teens are wont to do, may lead to encounters with law enforcement officials, who may question you regarding your plans or your intended destination. Women may clutch their purses as you pass by. Strangers may appear inexplicably tense when you enter an elevator. If you encounter a police officer, be polite, keep your hands in plain view, don’t fidget and call me at the first available opportunity.”
Now, consider how the “talk” is likely to be received by your son. You certainly know the stakes are higher for African-American males who make mistakes or have lapses in judgment. You also know, with certainty, that the stakes are higher for African-American males who are doing things that all kids routinely do, like walking home from the store alone or with friends or refusing to surrender their cell phone to a belligerent adult. That does not mean your son is likely to express appreciation for the “talk.” With most adolescent boys, an increase in testosterone accompanies a dramatic increase in a fairly rigid sense of fairness and unfairness. To young men, the thought of having to be “nice” when being treated unfairly appears absurd and unrepentantly fake. Testing the limits of authority is an integral component of growing up male.
That’s due to “pushback,” which is one of the biggest hurdles faced by parents, particularly as their sons reach adolescence. Parents need to acknowledge that their sons are going to “push back” and learn how to manage that “pushback.” Developmentally, boys will “push back” against what they perceive to be unfair rules and structures designed to thwart their push towards adulthood and greater independence. It’s a natural, expected and necessary process as boys begin to discover and exercise their masculine power.
Most parents of 15 or 16 year-old boys can attest to this and understand the “pushback” phenomena to a degree that transcends words. When your son was a three-year old, he pouted, resisted and met requests with an emphatic “no” or a seemingly unending cacophony of “why?” The adolescent brain defies the space-time continuum and occupies two realms simultaneously. Like the two-year old, he wants what he wants when he wants it. However, unlike the two year- old, he often has only slightly better frustration tolerance, coupled with a greater command of language, greater manual dexterity and often a heart-felt desire to show you that he has a better grasp of how the world should work than you could ever hope to understand.
Patient, resilient, strong parents are absolutely necessary in helping boys navigate this confusing and often treacherous transition. It is a tough and often thankless job to be sure, but someone has to do it and it is best done by a loved one. One of the greatest gifts that a parent can bestow on their offspring is the ability to connect their actions with natural, logical consequences. Stated differently, essentially, your teenage son needs to develop the ability to anticipate outcomes.
He may resist, cajole, threaten, slam doors, sulk and threaten never to speak with you again, only to ask you to bring his favorite treat from the store. He may fight you tooth and nail. But he will remember that you cared enough to tell him “no, son.” You cared enough to establish firm boundaries. You were willing to teach him often “in the heat of the moment” that your number one responsibility was never to be his friend, but to love him enough to prepare him to function in a highly competitive, rapidly changing, often uncompromising, world.
When you’ve reached the end of your patience, remember the words of Muhammad Ali: “What really counts in the ring is what happens after you are exhausted.” The reward comes later when you know that your man-child has developed a resilient sense of self, built on a foundation of love, self-respect, personal competence and strength.