Quentin, three-and-a-half, was happily darting around the playground, like usual, when out of nowhere another little boy ran right up and kicked him in the shins. Quentin looked stunned, like he couldn't believe what had just happened. But he didn't kick back. First, he cried for a few minutes -- not unusual for a small child. But then he collected himself and walked right up to the boy. "Martin," said Quentin, calmly but with emotion. "I do not like what you did. I would not kick you -- you should never kick, and that's the truth!"
Quentin is among a new generation of boys being raised in households led by women -- women who've chosen to parent alone, by choice and circumstance, or who parent with another woman. We hear a lot about these groups of mothers -- mostly that they're "depriving" their children of crucial male influence, and heading up homes described as "inadequate, broken, or flawed." And yet Quentin is just one example of the types of boys some of these women are raising: stable, independent, caring, creative, and exceptional. And we have a lot to learn from them.
I've spent years studying these moms and comparing their children's sense of right and wrong with that of kids from two-parent heterosexual families. These moms -- whom I call "maverick mothers" -- represent America's newest and fastest growing sector of minority families. They're transforming the way we think about mothers, recreating what it means to be an American family, and helping to liberate us from outdated notions that no longer apply. Because here's the truth: The mother-father-child household is hardly conventional anymore.
I'm not saying that kids without fathers do better, or that women are superior parents. Just that it's possible -- very possible -- to raise exceptional, morally-grounded children no matter what your family looks like. That the development of your child's moral character depends less on whether there is a male or female figure or two parents. That these instilled morals and values come from one place: you. These women are proof of that. To help your child grow up with a strong moral character:
1. Let him be him. Accept your child for who he is, rather than trying to mold him into your vision of who you think he should be. By allowing your child his own space to move beyond you and establish his own sense of identity, you open him up to a world of possibilities and give him the chance to live up to his potential. Expand -- rather than constrict -- your child's life by not imposing your own fears or limitations on him.
When I was a new, very inexperienced mother I sent my small son, to a very fancy private Manhattan preschool. Every morning, the headmistress would stand outside the school and expect the two-year-olds to shake hands with her as they arrived. Wouldn't you know, my son was the only one (or so it seemed to me) who refused to shake the headmistress's hand -- although occasionally he would try to slip her a "high five." Rather than question the demands the school was placing on its preschoolers -- or let my son be himself -- I assumed responsibility for my son being a renegade among a group of "good soldiers."
2. Encourage independence... Do this by letting your child do whatever she can by herself, from sounding out letters to pouring a cup of juice to carrying her dishes to the sink. Help facilitate the process for your child, but don't do the task for her. One mom I met made clean up easier for her three sons by storing little dustpans and brooms under each sink including their play area. Encourage responsibility by having your child set -- and then live up to -- her own goals and expectations. Through this, she will consciously examine and develop her own morals and values.
3. ...but make her feel like a part of the team. Instill responsibility and moral strength in your child by making him or her an active and engaged member of the household. Expect them to do their share of the chores and other age-appropriate duties. By the time he was 6, Quentin was already earning his allowance by pulling sheets off the bed, helping with the laundry, setting the table, bagging the paper for recycling, and washing the salad for dinner. His mom says, "We told him, everybody works in this family. Nobody gets to sit and be waited on." And, in fact, Quentin liked having jobs that were his. Give your child the ability to feel like she has a role, and is an important part of the team.
4. Enforce boundaries. Mothers whose parenting style can be described as both involved and considered raise reflective, conscious, centered children with a sense of identity and moral fiber. That means enforcing firm limits and sticking to clear boundaries, but without harshness. Let them know what's right -- and what's not -- when it comes to the treatment of other family members, their friends, and strangers. Help them negotiate complex family decisions while expressing a broad range of feelings. Do this by talking to, and with, your children using emotional and empathic language, and discussing morality as it relates to broader social situations. One single mom told her kids, "you are my emissaries," keeping them in line by making it clear they represented not just themselves, but her as well, out in the world.
Once, when Quentin found himself excluded from a group of boys because he was wearing the wrong shoelaces, he announced, "I'm gonna make a club, and my friends can be in my club no matter what they wear." In my observations, children of mothers who encourage high standards and moral courage had an easier time thinking independently and standing up for what they believe in. And that can be as simple as being brave yourself: After all, you are the best role model for your child.
5. Make a commitment to non-sexist parenting. We've been raised in a society where mother-son closeness is approached with suspicion -- far more than mother-daughter closeness. But in my observations, I learned that a mother's ability to connect with her son -- including letting him know how she was feeling, acknowledging her own mistakes, and treating his feelings with respect -- helps him extend that sense of connection and closeness to others. In the case of boys, the son may grow up with great respect and openness, and to be the sort of openhearted man women are purported to want to marry.
8-year-old Mac was extremely close to his best friend, Alec. After playing rough and tough out in the backyard, they'd come in and read a book side by side and just talk. When Alec transferred to another school, Mac described the feeling as "lonely, like cloud rain. You know how a rainy day makes you feel bad? It was like that." Mac's mother took her son's sadness seriously, and encouraged him to express his feelings. She gave him the gift of caring and insight; in turn, he gave that back to the people in his family, in his neighborhood, in his school.