'90s FAMILY : Helping Little Boys Grow Into Good Men : REAL LIFE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was such a sweet baby. Then, at 18 months, his mother saw him angrily shove another child to the ground.

"It seemed to come from somewhere else," she said years later. "It was hard for me. I felt like I was in a different universe because I'm a woman and he was different."

Sex-role differences, under continuing debate by researchers, raise an uncomfortable dilemma for many parents trying to raise their sons to be "good men"--men who can take care of themselves yet who are also kind and emotionally available to others.

Many parents--even those who gave their sons dolls and their girls trucks to play with--now say aggression, or at least high levels of activity, seem inborn in their sons. Researchers agree stereotypical sex-role behavior in young children can be at least partly attributed to fetal hormones. But many also believe parents have unwittingly perpetuated it by going along with traditional male role models.

"We have for generations and generations raised men to be warriors yet women are horrified when their sons or husbands are aggressive," said Olga Silverstein, a New York therapist whose book, "The Courage to Raise Good Men," was published by Viking Penguin in April.

Despite changes in modern adult gender roles, she said, women "still act as though we're waiting for them to go out for the hunt while we (stay home and) skin the animals.

"We raise little heroes. We elevate them. We don't treat them like fellow human beings and we don't intimately connect with them the way we do with our daughters. So they grow up with an inability to connect with a woman or anybody."

Some parents want their sons to be tender-hearted and empathetic, but say they are afraid they will raise a "mama's boy" or a boy who cannot protect himself on the playground.

One mother recalled her distress when her 13-month-old son reached determinedly for a pink baseball cap in a store. "He really wanted it. I was paralyzed," she said. "I knew when his father saw it, I'd have to take it back."

"We get up to the cash register and there was a blue hat on the counter, thank God. He dropped the pink hat and we quickly bought the blue one. So I was saved."

Frequently, psychologists said, parents' underlying fear is that they will turn their sons into homosexuals, even though they know current research is showing homosexuality to be largely innate.

Silverstein said many mothers have also told her that if their sons do not conform to traditional male models, they fear they will not survive.

"I say, they don't survive (anyway). They go to war. They die early of heart attacks. They shoot each other in the playgrounds. They're saying, 'All the other kids are rotten so I have to raise a rotten kid.' We have to change that."

But sometimes, mothers--especially those in unhappy relationships--go overboard.

"They say, 'Boy, my husband may be a mess, but I'll fix my son,' " said Los Angeles psychologist Shari Kuchenbecker, who is writing a book, "Raising a Balanced Kid."

Writers in the November/December issue of Ms. Magazine say some mothers, in their zeal to eradicate aggression, have crushed their sons' spirits. Others have produced "feminist princes"--know-it-alls who tell feminists how to run their own movement.

Initially, children see the world in black and white and non-sexist training or lectures have little effect on their stereotypes, according to Martin E.P. Seligman, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "What You Can Change and What You Can't."

In the long run, boys who develop a mature conscience may eventually choose non-sexist behavior over blind conformity, he said.

As elsewhere, actions speak louder than words, and the greatest successes occur when fathers are equally involved in child rearing and housework (not just "helping out") and when mothers are unafraid to stay close to their sons, the authors said.

Said Silverstein: "You need to have a relationship with your own male child that is an authentic relationship so he will be capable of having that relationship with other people.

"Gradually, our notions of what it means to be a man will shift."

* Do you have a family issue, a problem or a solution for exploration in this column? Please write to: Lynn Smith, Life & Style Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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