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Being a Mama’s Boy: Good for Your Health?

6 minute read
Eben Harrell

Being a mama’s boy, new research suggests, may be good for your mental health. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by Carlos Santos, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social and Family Dynamics.

Santos recently conducted a study that followed 426 boys through middle school to investigate the extent to which the boys favor stereotypically male qualities such as emotional stoicism and physical toughness over stereotypically feminine qualities such as emotional openness and communication, and whether that has any influence on their mental well-being. His main finding was that the further along the boys got in their adolescence, the more they tended to embrace hypermasculine stereotypes. But boys who remained close to their mothers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available. Closeness to fathers did not have the same effect, his research found.

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Using a mental-health measure called the Children’s Depression Inventory, he also found that boys who shunned masculine stereotypes and remained more emotionally available had, on average, better rates of mental health through middle school. “If you look at the effect size of my findings, mother support and closeness was the most predictive of boys’ ability to resist [hypermasculine] stereotypes and therefore predictive of better mental health,” Santos says. He adds that his research did not examine why a close mother-son relationship differed in its effect from a close father-son bond, but he suspects that fathers use stereotypically male behaviors to guide their sons into adulthood. “It could be, men see close relationships with their sons as an opportunity to reinforce traditional gender roles,” he says.

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So what’s wrong with learning to stop sniveling and “be a man”? Research has shown that stereotypically masculine traits such as autonomy and toughness can make men less likely to seek medical help when it’s needed. At the same time, close emotional connections and relationships can provide a sense of safety and emotional security that can reduce stress and foster good health. In one famous study, participants standing at the base of a hill judged the hill’s gradient to be considerably less severe when standing next to a close friend; the researchers concluded that humans find life’s challenges less daunting when they have close interpersonal relationships. But adolescent boys tend not to take advantage of that fact.

“Boys have unbelievably deep relationships with other boys,” says Niobe Way, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of the upcoming book Deep Secrets: Boys, Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. “But then at adolescence they feel this pressure to ‘be a man.’ That can be damaging. It’s right at the age of 16 that suicide rates go way up among males. I say, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Growing up can be bad for your health.”

In Santos’ research, he asked boys to rate the importance of statements designed to measured how much they value the qualities of autonomy, emotional stoicism and physical toughness. For example: “It’s important to talk about my feelings with friends”; “Fighting others is something I have to do to prove myself”; “If I have a problem, I take care of it on my own.” Participants were from different racial and ethnic backgrounds: 20% were African American, 9% were Puerto Rican, 17% were Dominican American, 21% were Chinese American, 27% were European American and 6% were of another race or ethnicity.

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He found that boys from all ethnic and racial groups tended to adopt masculine stereotypes at roughly the same rate. “That was striking because even in the [scientific] literature, ethnic minorities are often portrayed as hyper-masculine versions of their white counterparts. That may be because the research has focused on delinquency and violence. But among ordinary boys, I found no differences.”

Despite the growing popularity of evolutionary psychology — which argues that male and female brains may be wired differently — Santos believes male adoption of hypermasculine traits is influenced primarily by culture. Certainly, as Way points out, attitudes about what constitutes typical male behavior have changed drastically in the past century. “In the 19th century, male friendships, as evidenced through letters and historical documents, were explicitly intimate,” Way says. “On middle-class honeymoons, it was not unusual for the man to bring not only his bride but his best friend along.”

Sharon Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, believes she has identified at least one cultural influence that pushes adolescent boys toward hypermasculine traits: modern superheroes. At the same conference that Santos addressed, Lamb presented the results of a survey of 674 boys ages 4 to 18 that showed how deeply they were saturated with images of action figures.

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“There is a big difference in the movie superhero of today and the comic-book superhero of yesterday,” Lamb recently wrote in a press release about her research. “Today’s superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in nonstop violence; he’s aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks to the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Iron Man, exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns.”

To Way, however, the action figure is just one part of a wider cultural embrace of hypermasculinity that is, she believes, paradoxically related to America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality. “I suspect it’s a backlash to the recent enlightenment surrounding the acceptance of homosexual men,” she says. “There is an increased rigidity to gender stereotypes in the name of demarcating who is and who is not gay.

Both Santos and Way believe that such gender stereotyping is lamentable. Way says, “We have come to view fundamentally human attributes such as empathy, emotional skills and the desire for intimate relationships as being girlish or gay. They are not girlish or gay skills — they are human skills, or at least they should be.” The more boys take that to heart, the healthier they’ll be.

See a review of a book on angry adolescent men.

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