Today, I realized that my firstborn son’s feet are bigger than mine. Again, I felt very small and very overwhelmed.
One of the first revelations I had as a mother was looking into my baby boy’s face and realizing that someday, someone I didn’t know yet was going to love him. I knew even then one of my biggest responsibilities as a mother was to help him grow to be a man who could love and be loved. Now I am realizing that my son is on the cusp of bridging the divide from boy to young man. It has been a journey that began with tiny little steps, then the occasional leap or stair step, and now the sudden arrival at the destination I am not sure I ever allowed myself to envision: the Age of Hormones. Soon, he’ll be stepping out onto the dance floor to begin the dance of adolescence—to fall and be fallen for, to careen from the low lows to the high highs, to feel his heart fill and feel his heart break, and then to feel how it mends itself, slowly, and only with the balm of time and experience. I am bracing myself, because I know that I will careen right along with him, even if I am not allowed to show it.
Today, my husband made a joke about kissing, and instead of recoiling in horror, our firstborn gave us an arched eyebrow and commented vaguely about needing “practice in that area.” My eyes met my husband’s, and we knew: Here we are. Here we go.
As he embarks on this particular adventure, I have a few things I really, really want my son to know. I only hope I can convey them to him in a way that he will both listen to and understand in these next many years. Here are 11 things—not the only 11 things, and not even really addressing sex itself—I would like my 10-year-old son to know about relationships and dating and girls, some of them now, some of them eventually:
1. Above all: always, always, always be kind. There will be people—girls especially, I suspect—who will like you more than you like them. There will be people who will want to befriend you with whom you will not feel a connection. You are under no obligation to be friends or more with these people just to save their feelings, but be kind. Be gentle with other people’s hearts. Treat everyone with the kindness you would hope for your own baby sister, whom I know you adore.
2. That said, set limits and boundaries. Don’t let someone else consume you. Maintain your identity. When you are being your genuine self, you are most attractive to the people who will be healthiest for you. Your life is yours, and the right person will want to partner with you, to share with you, but will also value you for being a separate and individual person—both in friendships and in romantic relationships.
3. When breaking up with a girlfriend (or anyone, for that matter), be direct. Don’t take the time-worn strategy of acting like a jerk in the hopes that she will break up with you first so you don’t have to break up with her. Yes, girls know that trick. Just be honest and tell her how you feel. Own your words. It will be healthier for you both.
4. Don’t ever call a girl or a woman who likes you or has dated you a “psycho.” Even if she is a psycho, don’t call her that. She had the good sense to like you. Respect her. Same goes for the word “slut.” Related pro tip: Nothing makes someone “psycho” faster than when you aren’t direct about breaking up with her.
5. Everyone you date will someday either be an ex or a spouse. Choose carefully and accordingly.
6. Appreciate smart girls. Really appreciate smart girls with a sense of humor. Physical attraction is important, but look beyond the surface. When all is said and done, you want to be with someone who can talk to you, talk to your friends, and laugh with you and make you laugh. It’s harder to find that combination than you think.
7. For the love of all that is good and holy, pull up your pants. Justin Bieber is cute and very talented (in my boring mom opinion), but the saggy pants and that sideways hat tell me that his maturity has not yet reached the level of his talent. While you are at it, brush your teeth and wear deodorant. That’s all we really ask of you: to be clean and to smell good. If you knew what girls are going through in comparison, you wouldn’t flinch at these small requests.
8. This is a tough one. It starts with no means no, and that is non-negotiable. But it doesn’t end there. Drunk means no too. To make things even more complicated, sometimes girls will offer themselves to you, sober or not, and you will know that you don’t want the same thing they want or that the situation isn’t healthy for them or for you. That is when you must say no too. It might be very difficult in the moment. It might be tempting. It might seem like it’s not a big deal, but it is. Please, respect yourself and respect her and say no.
9. Tip well. Give good gifts. Thoughtful generosity (or a lack of it) says a lot about the person you are. You don’t have to lavish anyone with extravagant baubles or dozens of roses, but always give your loved one gifts of some kind on birthdays and anniversaries and holidays. No matter how small or humble, a gift is important. It’s not about the gift itself; it is about the act of giving and about the message that you remember, and you cherish. Which leads me to…
10. Love is a verb. When you love someone, you have to work for that relationship. You can’t just say the words; you can’t just expect butterflies and rainbows. You have to work. If you’re not ready to do the work, you’re not ready for a relationship. Notice that I did not say that love means pain. Sometimes it ends that way, but it shouldn’t start that way, and it shouldn’t live that way. Love is a verb, though: it is patient, it is kind. It forgives. It isn’t easy. But it is worth it. And P.S. — That goes both ways. Expect the same for yourself, and don’t settle for less.
11. Here is one to grow on: Go for it. Don’t hold back because you fear she might not like you back. Ask her out. Kiss the girl. Don’t worry about ruining a friendship or the hurt you might experience from a rejection. A (male) friend recently mentioned this advice as something he wishes he could have told his younger self, and I wholeheartedly agree. Rejection is better than regret.
Good luck, my baby boy. Be good. Or else.
This story originally appeared on the author’s blog.