In the question and answer period after a talk I gave to a group of parents a few years ago, a mother raised her hand. She explained that she was a single mother, separated from the boy’s father, and that her son had become harder and harder to deal with. He was withdrawn and surly and rejected her efforts to hold him accountable. She asked, “Is this normal? Perhaps I should just let his father take care of him now that he is a teenager?” There were nods of understanding and agreement across the audience.
I hear this question in one form or another regularly, and I’ve come to expect it. Parents of boys are concerned their boys are apathetic, isolated, too aggressive or not assertive enough, anxious, angry, or shy. I have been on panels with experts who have confidently stated that, naturally, it takes another man to initiate a boy into the fraternity of manhood. One, in fact, advised that it is the mother’s role to step back and “build a bridge to the father” for her son.
Of course, there is no evidence that only another man can help along the way to becoming a man. In fact, research shows that the very brand of support boys need usually comes from their moms: listening closely to what boys have to say and acknowledging and validating the emotional content of their struggles and challenges. But according to Kate Lombardi Stone, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth, most mothers second-guess themselves to the point that they distance themselves from their sons, even at “the tender age of 5,” for fear of undercutting their masculinity.
The special tragedy of this family dynamic is that when a mother knows and loves her son, it helps him stand his ground against harmful peer pressures. In fact, one interesting 2012 study showed that the young men with strong attachments to their mothers were more likely to resist casual hook-ups in favor of more meaningful relationships. This finding is particularly significant as 63% of young males say they would prefer “a traditional romantic relationship” over casual sex. The gap between those who hold out for what they want and those who give in to the popular culture may be at least partially attributable to the influence of mothers in their lives.
But if the mother believes that too close a bond can interfere with her son’s developing manhood, the boy loses support to be himself. In the absence of a real connection, boys become more vulnerable to exaggerated masculine norms. Too many men, fathers, coaches, and mentors, unfortunately, share the view that manhood is a special achievement and that they alone know its secrets. In a 2017 study conducted by Promundo, a D.C.-based global research organization that promotes gender equity and nonviolence, thousands of young men in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico were surveyed about masculine norms. Among its disheartening findings was this: nearly two-thirds of respondents claimed to have received the message that “A real man should act strong even if he feels nervous or scared” from their parents.
That evening, I told that single mother that as much as I value strong relationships between boys and their fathers, the idea that mothers should back away from their own relationships out of fear that they might spoil their sons’ masculinity violates everything developmental scientists understand about a child’s need for a secure, dependable attachment. Boys, just like girls, have basic human needs that are ignored only at peril. The child who does not have the acceptance and love of a parent – or someone, somewhere – will be less bold, less confident and more vulnerable to a host of negative influences. I urged her: Please keep your son close to you.
There were nods from many of the fathers and looks of surprise and renewed confidence on the faces of the mothers. The peer pressures of boyhood are so powerful, a strong sense of self is necessary if a boy is to avoid unhealthy identities. All parents need to remember that our connection with our sons is their primary fortification. If boys know they are held in our hearts, they will take on the world with a greater sense of who they are and who they really want to become.