My daughter Jeanie and I use Google chat throughout the day to discuss work, what we had for lunch, how we’re avoiding the gym, and emotional issues big and small. We may also catch up by phone in the evening. I can open up to Jeanie about certain things that I wouldn’t share with another soul, and I believe she would say the same about me. We are very close, which you probably won’t find particularly surprising or alarming.
Getty ImagesMany mothers are anxious when it comes to raising boys. If her teenage son is crying, should she comfort him, or will this embarrass and shame him?
Now switch genders. Suppose I told you that I am very close to my son, Paul. That I love hanging out with him and that we have dozens of inside jokes and shared traditions. Even though we speak frequently, I get a little thrill each time I hear his signature ringtone on my cellphone. Next, I confess that Paul is so sensitive and intuitive that he “gets me” in a very special way.
Are you starting to speculate that something is a little off? Are you getting uncomfortable about the kind of guy my son is growing up to be?
For generations mothers have gotten one message: that keeping their sons close is wrong, possibly even dangerous. A mother who fosters a deep emotional bond with her son, we’ve been told, is setting him up to be weak and effeminate—an archetypal mama’s boy. He’ll never be independent or able to form healthy adult relationships. As the therapist and child-rearing guru Michael Gurian wrote in his 1994 book about mothers and sons, “a mother’s job…is very much to hold back the coming of manhood.” A well-adjusted, loving mother is one who gradually but surely pushes her son away, both emotionally and physically, in order to allow him to become a healthy man.
This was standard operating procedure for our mothers, our grandmothers and even our great-grandmothers. Amazingly, we’re still encouraged to buy this parenting advice today.
Somehow, when so many of our other beliefs about the roles of men and women have been revolutionized, our view of the mother-son relationship has remained frozen in time. We’ve dramatically changed the way we raise our daughters, encouraging them to be assertive, play competitive sports and aim high in their educational and professional ambitions. We don’t fret about “masculinizing” our girls.
As for daughters and their fathers, while a “mama’s boy” may be a reviled creature, people tend to look tolerantly on a “daddy’s girl.” A loving and supportive father is considered essential to a girl’s self-esteem. Fathers are encouraged to be involved in their daughters’ lives, whether it’s coaching their soccer teams or escorting their teenage girls to father-daughter dances. A father who flouts gender stereotypes and teaches his daughter a traditionally masculine task—say, rebuilding a car engine—is considered to be pretty cool. But a mother who does something comparable—like teaching her son to knit or even encouraging him to talk more openly about his feelings—is looked at with contempt. What is she trying to do to that boy?
Many mothers are confused and anxious when it comes to raising boys. Should they defer to their husband when he insists that she stop kissing their first-grade son at school drop-off? If she cuddles her 10-year-old boy when he is hurt, will she turn him into a wimp? If she keeps him too close, will she make him gay? If her teenage boy is crying in his room, should she go in and comfort him, or will this embarrass and shame him? Anthony E. Wolf, a child psychologist and best-selling author, warns us that “strong emotional contact with his mother is especially upsetting to any teenage boy.”
None of these fears, however, is based on any actual science. In fact, research shows that boys suffer when they separate prematurely from their mothers and benefit from closeness in myriad ways throughout their lives.
A study published in Child Development involving almost 6,000 children, age 12 and younger, found that boys who were insecurely attached to their mothers acted more aggressive and hostile later in childhood—kicking and hitting others, yelling, disobeying adults and being generally destructive.
A study of more than 400 middle school boys revealed that sons who were close to their mothers were less likely to define masculinity as being physically tough, stoic and self-reliant. They not only remained more emotionally open, forming stronger friendships, but they also were less depressed and anxious than their more macho classmates. And they were getting better grades.
There is evidence that a strong mother-son bond prevents delinquency in adolescence. And though it has been long established that teenagers who have good communication with their parents are more likely to resist negative peer pressure, new research shows that it is a boy’s mother who is the most influential when it comes to risky behavior, not only with alcohol and drugs but also in preventing both early and unprotected sex.
Finally, there are no reputable scientific studies suggesting that a boy’s sexual orientation can be altered by his mother, no matter how much she loves him.
With all of the concern—some even call it a “crisis”—about boys falling behind girls academically, getting lower grades, exhibiting more behavior problems and going to college in falling numbers, you would think that this research about the benefits of mother-son closeness would warrant some consideration. If staying close to mothers helps boys to perform better in school, act less aggressively and avoid behaviors that will derail their lives, why is it still so discouraged?
Boys need and want a close connection with their mothers. But the pressure for mothers and sons to disengage begins at a shockingly tender age (one mother I know who was comforting her weeping 3-year-old was told that he should “man up”), and the pressure escalates at every stage, until a mom actually begins to believe that the best kind of parenting that she can offer is to leave her depressed, silent teenage son alone to work out his own problems. Heaven forbid that she threatens his masculinity by giving him a hug and trying to get him to talk about what’s bothering him!
I am not the only mother who has rejected this kind of thinking. A great many mothers keep their sons close; it is our little secret. And for the record, Paul, a young man now, is more than six feet tall, plays ice hockey, has lots of male friends and had a steady girlfriend in college. He’s self-assured and independent. The fact that I feel the need to reassure you—and myself—that our deep emotional bond has not compromised my son’s masculinity is telling. But, yes, we have a tight connection and my son is still OK, even “a guy’s guy.”
I’m tired of making excuses for our closeness, and I’m not alone.
—From “The Mama’s Boy Myth” by Kate Stone Lombardi. To be published March 15 by Avery, part of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright © 2012 by Kate Stone Lombardi.