“I have a ten-year-old son who is more sensitive than most other boys. He is easily offended and does not play well with boys his own age. He is afraid to try new things. I think he is afraid of failing. Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that I protect my son too much. We talked about it, and she said more. She said he was weak and needed to be tougher. I asked her why she waited so long to tell me this, and she said she was afraid of offending me. I probably would have been offended if it had been anybody else saying what she did to me, but I guess I suspected it before she said it. Nevertheless, it hurt. She suggested I write to you. Is there anything I can do to fix this and make my son tougher?”

Michael Answers:
I love the question! You are not alone in your need. And I am not afraid of offending you; it’s my job. How else can I get your attention? Let’s call it by its “insensitive” name. Your son is a sissy, and you want to know how to make a man out of him. Right?

I will address the issue of how to make your son tough, but I must first give balance by cautioning us all (readers in similar situations) against over-reaction. You have undoubtedly observed that children come into the world as varied in personal traits (personality, temperament, gifts, intellect, emotional perspective) as they are in physical characteristics. You may like men who are warriors, and you may be happily married to one, and have been anticipating giving your husband a warrior son, but instead, it may be that you gave birth to a poet and musician. What can be even more confusing to a parent is that, when your first two sons were born lion cubs, you then gave birth to a third son who is a lamb. If you raise the lamb identical to your first two sons, he will never be a lion like Esau. He will be a lamb as was Jacob, the father of the Israelites. Like Jacob, your son may prefer cooking wild game to tromping around in the hills trying to shoot it with a homemade bow and arrow. Read the marvelous story of these two brothers—twins—so very different from birth to maturity. Surprisingly, God chose the “sissy.” He often does things backwards from the way we think He should. His son, Jesus, taught that “The first shall be last, the last shall be first…the stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner,” that sort of thing.

It would be damaging to a child for us to promote our expectations in contradiction to the child’s natural propensities. You must work with what God sends you and not try to recast his soul. There is little that is more damaging to a child’s emotional and spiritual development than to be raised under a parental cloud of dissatisfaction with regard to his intrinsic qualities. When a kid senses that his parents are not satisfied with who he is, something over which he has no control, he will never be satisfied with himself or anyone else. He will be unhappy and angry, and in time, he will hate himself and those who rejected him. There are a thousand unpleasant directions that this so-called “self-loathing” can take a person. On a side note: no one really loathes himself, for if he did, he would be of all men most happy, seeing his greatest desires come true every day—the hurting of his “self”. “Self-disappointment” is a more accurate way of describing the poor self-image syndrome. Self-disappointment is not born, it is taught in early life, or it is a condition acquired later in life after a period of self-criticism.

When unwise parents express disappointment in a child’s natural make-up, they are in effect trying to change the nature God gave the child. Children are readily convinced that a parent’s view is the correct view. “If Daddy says I am a sissy and not worth a dog’s hind leg, it must be true.” That child will labor in vain to be worthy, to somehow change himself into what is pleasing to someone else. But, sadly, he chases a changing standard. You, Father and Mother, are at risk of being the ever-changing and dissatisfied standard, predestinating your child to failure and self-disappointment.

So, I warn you to avoid the extreme of rejecting the unique characteristics of the child’s nature. That said and understood, I nevertheless must also affirm that I want all my children to be tough, even the delicate ones, and, yes, the girls, too. I also have a personal penchant that all my children should be rugged, gritty, a bit on the wild side, but that is just a cultural preference that has nothing to do with character or the will of God. But an enduring, overcoming spirit cannot be a preference; it is the bare minimum to survive human existence in this wicked age and still smile with sincerity.

Let’s review some of the points in the letter and discuss this mother’s concerns.

She says her son is “more sensitive than most boys.” The Holy Spirit is sensitive. If this is an inherited trait, then allow him to become the conscience of a society that has become unfeeling. Provide opportunity for him to become a man of compassion and healing. But if by “sensitive” you mean he is selfish and touchy about his own feelings, then call it sin, not sensitivity.

She says, “He is easily offended and does not play well with other boys.” She didn’t say in her letter, but it stands to reason that he has older sisters who are pouty and sulky. My guess would be that Mother is “sensitive” in much the same way. This boy is emulating his emotional environment. One week with the men, and he would no longer be easily offended. Men would not even notice him taking offense, and wouldn’t care if he did. “Buck up, kid, and do your work.”

“What? He hurt your feelings? Who cares about your feelings? If you don’t like it, tell him to bug off.”

Mother says, “What’s wrong, son?” The men say, “Get up and get back to work.”

She says, “He does not play well with boys his own age.” Then let him play not so well. If they make fun of him or run over him, rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is the reward of toughness. If he comes to you  whining, act amazed and then indifferent. Don’t help him cope. Throw him back into the lion’s den. He needs to learn some survival skills, not retreat skills. If you customarily allow him a path of escape, you make him weak. I would make sure that he gets an extra dose of other kids his age—like it or not―until he likes it.

She says, “He is afraid to try new things.” Then fill his calendar with new things, and throw away all the old. Quit viewing him as incapable, and put him to the challenge. We are all afraid of the new and unknown until we have braved the dark door many times and find excitement and growth on the other side; and then, we willingly look for the door to the unknown. Grass grows by being cut. If you don’t cut it, it will reach a certain height, and then stop growing. Finally, it will fall over and droop, permanently.

She says, “I think he is afraid of failing.” Me, too. I hate failing. But through failing, I have learned that it is a necessary evil on the road to success. There is no other way to lose one’s fear of failure except by being devoured a few times, only to discover that you were never once digested.

She says, “Just yesterday a friend of mine told me that I protect my son too much.” Oh, what beautiful friends! Who needs expensive counselors when you have friends who are willing to be honest with you? Could it be that your friend has seen the very things that I have already mined out of your own words?

She said, “I asked her why she waited so long to tell me this, and she said she was afraid of offending me.” Gotcha! Could it be that the mother whose son is easily offended is also a mother who is easily offended? Cause and effect? So, what would be the cure for the boy? I am not going to tell you. Guess.

Mother asked, “Is there anything I can do to make my son tougher?” My hands are tough from using them, but it started with painful blisters. Mother, you and the daughters that you never told me you had are going to have to stop whining, retreating, and blaming, and get tough right along with your ten-year-old son. Ask your honest and wise friend who risked wounding your sensitive spirit to tell you the truth. She will tell you what to do, point by point. Listen without arguing and making excuses.

Though you have said nothing about him, I know your husband’s feelings. He doesn’t like your son. He thinks he is a child belonging to mother and the girls, doesn’t he? That will never change unless you can toughen your son up. You toughen him up by not letting him ride double. Stop carrying him, protecting him, soothing him, and being so sympathetic. Now, you might rightly say, “Why don’t the men toughen him up as you said, instead of ignoring him as a sissy?” The men in his life are not wise or patient. They have left the raising to the ladies. It boils down to this: you can wait on the men, something that will probably never happen, or you can do it yourself, until you create a son that a man will be proud of. Get tough, Mother, and push your son away from your breast. Stop supporting his weakness.

Ha! Listen to you. I can already hear you pulling away from my advice. You can’t bear to push your precious son out of the nest, because he needs you to defend him. No, you need him. You just don’t like what he has become on your watch. Make up your mind. Do you want a baby or a man?

Bermuda Grass tough

We need more men—tough men. Now what do I mean by “tough”? I don’t mean rugged. I don’t mean rough or hard. I don’t even mean bold or aggressive in personality, ready to match words and win an argument. Neither am I saying that all children must be schooled to be leaders, to take charge on important issues.

A stone is tough, but so is Bermuda grass—that soft, thick, hardy grass planted on golf courses. It yields to the hard-driven golf balls, yet it survives the skidding wheels of golf carts and the pounding of ten thousand cleated feet. In dry weather, it does not die, but lies quietly waiting for the rains that will bring it back to its glory. The root bed is thick and intertwined. Trying to kill out Bermuda grass is like trying to splash away the ocean. You do not want to get this exotic grass in your garden. It is tough, and knows how to survive, how to keep reproducing under abuse, and it will eventually dominate bigger and rougher grasses. It is golf-course tough, football-field tough, backyard tough, cow-pasture tough, drought and flood tough. No, I do not sell Bermuda seed, but believe me, it is tough!.

A “soft” child can be as tough as Bermuda grass without being particularly macho or brawny. This inner toughness will make the spirit resilient in adversity. One who is so strengthened in his spirit will not allow obstacles to stop him, or the pounding of public opinion to deter him. When everyone misunderstands, he does not succumb to self-doubt.

The world is a giant, confidence-eating cud chewer. It seeks our defeat. Whatever path we choose in life will be littered with signs that say, “Closed to you; you can’t do it; this is for people more talented or advantaged; you can’t make a difference.” And when you believe the signs and stop to ponder, you will hear voices that say, “You are not important; no one cares; it is not worth it; quit now.” The weak go no further. They settle down and accept the lot that is handed to them and spend the rest of their lives unhappy and unfulfilled. The tough don’t believe the signs and never slow down to listen to the voices. They are the doers, the precedent setters, the pioneers. Their accomplishments may never win Nobel prizes or be recognized with applause at a banquet; but they will know in their hearts that they have run the course and overcome the hardships to conquer, even in the little areas that may only matter to a quiet few. But they were not quitters, slackers, or buck passers. At the end of life, they will have tasted of the sweetness, heard the music, and worn the crown of victory, even if it is simply a paper crown given by a thankful grandchild or an appreciative spouse. The tough will earn the admiration and appreciation of the few or the many. But, in the end, they will be able to say, “I have lived, and it was good…very, very good.”

You get the idea? It is not a tough exterior that God desires or that people admire; it is a tough spirit, an overcoming spirit, a spirit of service, caring not for the sparse thanks, nor flinching at misunderstanding.

Many have been schooled to fight, to not cry, to never admit weakness. People call them tough, but inside, they may actually be weak and insecure. Too often, a “tough” man is not tough enough to say, “I’m sorry,” not tough enough to get up after a big let-down. Rather, he crumbles under life’s burdens and turns to drink, drugs, pornography, or self-pity. He listens to country music and blames somebody else for his woes. Like a bad dog weakened from a lost fight, he retreats and lashes out in anger at those who would heal his wounds. He is alone, proclaiming his strength, but manifesting nothing but weakness. He is not as tough as the callouses on the hand of a violinist who persevered and was acclaimed for his achievements.

So, Lady, your concern is my concern, that modern families should culture more tough men and women. The Scriptures say, “…quit you like men, be strong” (1Cor. 16:13). It takes a strong and tough mother to produce strong and tough boys. The next generation will need to be tougher than this present one if they are going to survive the immorality and materialism that prevails.

Lady, in parting I would like to say just one thing to your husband, “Shame on you.”