My boyfriend's sons are strangely housebound. Should I worry?

My two sons are outgoing and athletic; my boyfriend's sons never leave the house. Isn't that kind of odd?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 2, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

On our first date 15 months ago, the love of my life brought up his fear that his boys would never grow up and leave home. I laughed, because while I have very satisfying relationships with my 17- and 16-year-old sons, I know they have "moving out" on their minds. Now, as I've observed the way his former wife and he raise their 16- and 12-year-old sons, I understand his concerns.

Our love affair is the happiest relationship we've experienced in our lives, and we cherish it and each other. One thing that makes it so easy is that we don't "blend" our families. Neither of us wants to interfere in the other's family life, so we enjoy our relationship when our boys are at the other parent's homes. We've all met and respect each other, but we don't force ourselves or our children on each other's children. But since parenting teenage boys comes up in our conversations regularly, the differences between our boys' development has become stark.

My boys are standard issue: They successfully attend public school (and aftercare when they were in elementary school). They play sports, ride bikes to school, visit and entertain lots of friends, plan their own social lives, fix their own meals when necessary, and now, for the past year, drive cars and work part-time jobs. Like most siblings, they bicker and fight, but they also golf together most afternoons. Now my oldest is planning for college and work-study in the fall -- in another town.

My boyfriend's boys seem unusual to me in that they live in social isolation and have everything done for them. They are driven to school, sometimes private school, have no friends or social lives, play computer games until they are told to read or draw and then passively comply. They never play outdoors or participate in sports. They've never learned to swim or ride bikes. They've never ventured to the neighborhood market on a summer afternoon to buy a Popsicle. His 12-year-old still has his hair washed for him. They never ask for anything, they eat what they're provided, wear what they're provided, and never have a voice in these decisions. In fact, they never accompany a parent to the grocery or clothing or even video store. Every choice is made for them. Oh, and get this: The boys don't even bicker with each other!

I don't want to offer my boyfriend unwelcome advice, but when he worries out loud that they'll never leave home, it's hard for me not to say what seems obvious: He and the boys' mother aren't doing anything to push them along. Should I risk our peace by mentioning it, or leave him in the dark?


Dear Worried,

I'm not sure I would go so far as to offer unsolicited advice. People are touchy about how they raise their kids -- especially if their kids come from a planet without centrifugal force or bicycles. But I would nevertheless risk the peace by mentioning it. I would risk the peace by bringing a bicycle to the house and asking the boys if they've ever seen one. I would risk the peace by demonstrating how the chain goes over the front sprocket, how the pedals drive the wheels, how the gyroscopic effect of the wheels miraculously allows one to stay upright with a minimum of effort! Then I would ride around in circles and point and laugh at the boys.

Just kidding. That's what another boy would do.

Seriously, I am a little flabbergasted.

Granted, I have not seen very much of this world. But in the parts of the world I have seen, boys ride bicycles. Do these boys by any chance live in a remote mansion with a basement laboratory in which their father is perfecting a potion to turn mice into tiny farm animals? Have you ever really looked around his house? Look! There on the lawn! A mouse wearing a little harness hooked up to a gurney, on which lies an injured bird attended by parakeets!

As to the boys: Look at them carefully. Do they have legs? Or are they gliding about via some levitation device? But most of all: Who washes the 12-year-old's hair? Surely not the 16-year-old? So when you say the 12-year-old "still has his hair washed for him," are you saying your boyfriend washes his hair? Or a servant washes his hair? Or various androids invented by your boyfriend in the basement wash the 12-year-old's hair? Have you ever seen servants peeking out from behind the curtains? Perhaps they take days off when the boys are at their mother's. Or perhaps they hide while you're sipping sherry on the veranda. Similarly, you say he is still "driven to school." Who drives him? Servants? Androids? Your boyfriend? That's what I want to know.

There's a difference between being insatiably curious and feeling that you can fix a situation. I don't know, necessarily, that there's anything to be fixed. If the boys would like to learn to ride a bicycle, or to swim, perhaps you could teach them. Those are useful life skills that can come in handy if you ever find yourself, say, living on planet Earth. But the boys may simply prefer the isolated mansion with the basement laboratory, their preternaturally strong little mice in harness, their shockingly bright parakeets. Granted they may be ill-equipped to raise little soccer players of their own, but life is marvelous in its variety, is it not?

My chief advice to you would be to consider the future of your relationship with your boyfriend. Where is it heading? It sounds like you have an idyllic setup now partly because you have been able to keep these realities at bay. Relationships do not stand still, you know. They're like bicycles: It's the centrifugal force of their motion that keeps them upright. (I know Woody Allen said they are like sharks, but sharks and bicycles have much in common.) The thing about a bicycle is, you keep riding merrily along and sooner or later you end up in a neighborhood you've never seen before.

Your concern about these issues indicates that you know they will have to be dealt with eventually. What I would suggest you do is refrain from giving him advice, but undertake to understand for yourself exactly how this situation has come to be. Is he obviously neglectful? Is he overprotective? Or are these boys simply not interested in riding bicycles? The last thing I would do is start trying to change someone else's family system. Better that you simply seek to understand it, with an eye toward evaluating whether you could handle becoming a part of it should your relationship evolve toward marriage.

So, without stepping in to change how things are now, you might try to visualize what life would be like with this man in two years, five years, 10 years and the like. At some point, you may find these issues are more than abstract. If you were to marry, your role would change radically.

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