My son Paul was nine years old and running full tilt down the soccer field when he collided with a considerably larger kid from the opposing team. I have two distinct memories of what followed: The sight of Paul flat on his back, motionless (probably a few seconds, but it felt like an hour), and the feeling of other parents' hands on my thigh and arms, keeping me from running to him.
He was okay - he was checked for a concussion on the sidelines before ultimately rejoining the game. At least I had to assume Paul was okay. My backside was glued to the stands on that chilly November day, not because I didn't want to scoop up my child, but because other parents were keeping me there.
All of my instincts told me to go to my son, hug him, and see for myself that he wasn’t really hurt. I knew Paul, who was small for his age, would do everything in his power to look tough, shake it off, “man up.”
But we moms didn’t run down to comfort our sons when they got hurt during a game. It was presumed humiliating to the boys and inappropriate hovering by the moms. No one ever actually told us this. But we knew. Just as there were rules on the field, so too were there rules on how to parent a son.
Paul is a 30-year-old married man now, six feet tall and broad-shouldered. Recently, I looked at the team photo from that year. Back then, we thought those kids had really hit the big time, having secured spots on a competitive travel team. Now I see them clearly for what they were: sweet fourth graders, with knobby knees and skinny legs, goofy smiles, arms slung about each other’s necks. Little boys. Little boys whose manhood wouldn’t have been compromised by a hug.
Questioning conventional wisdom on raising sons - and veering away from traditional notions of masculinity - isn’t easy. It requires us to buck the status quo of raising little men by toughening them up and instead embrace our instincts by encouraging our boys to identify and express their feelings. And instead of being held on the sidelines for fear of turning our sons into "mama's boys," mothers can play a critical role in helping boys emotionally cope with today’s world. (Not because fathers aren’t capable, but because many fathers were brought up to suppress their own feelings.)
And after delving into the topic, I found research backs me up: Studies show that boys who maintain close relationships with their moms have healthier lives, both physically and psychologically.
For instance, a study of more than 400 middle school boys revealed that sons who were close to their mothers not only remained more emotionally open, forming stronger friendships, but were also less depressed and anxious than their more macho classmates. And they were getting better grades, too.
There’s also evidence that a strong mother-son bond prevents delinquency in adolescence. 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.
Just last month, the American Psychological Study released its first guidelines for clinicians treating boys and men. The APA found that traditional masculinity “marked by stoicism, competitiveness, domination and aggression” is harmful to guys. The harder boys and men cling to these norms, the less likely they are to seek help for their emotional or physical problems, and the more likely they are to engage in heavy drinking, smoking and other risky activities. These men also tend to be lonely and disdainful of others.
These issues aren't new. Even ten years ago, headlines trumpeted that boys were failing: falling behind girls in academic achievement, suffering from more mental illness, succumbing to drug abuse, and getting into more trouble.
Most of the parenting advice at the time called for things like fostering more male role models or changing schools to respond better to “boys’ learning styles.” These ideas have value, but I couldn’t understand then why moms weren’t considered part of the solution. And I’m not sure we’ve made much progress.
While I was raising my kids, I became aware of a double standard on parental influence. Dads were supposed to be important role models and close to their sons. Paul and his father made fire pits, watched games, went to sporting events - you know, guy stuff.
Fathers were also considered crucial for their daughters' self-esteem. A father/daughter dance - how sweet! She’s a “Daddy’s Girl.” And when fathers encouraged daughters in traditionally male pursuits - aggression in sports, STEM studies, working on the car’s transmission - cool. What a lucky girl. We still have a photo from the early 1990s of our daughter sitting at her father’s office desk, her little legs dangling off the chair, taken at her first “Take Your Daughter To Work Day.” Sure enough, she followed in his business footsteps, and now the two of them can happily bond over complex spreadsheets.
As for moms? Sure, we can be close with our daughters and stay that way. No one expects us to pull back from our girls. But a mom and her son - that’s a different story. Observers - including well-meaning family members - frequently told me I was “too close” to Paul. And it’s not as if I was teaching him some traditionally female skill like embroidery. Simply encouraging Paul to expand his emotional repertoire, articulate his feelings, form strong friendships, empathize with others - all things girls have long been socialized to do - were frowned on. I distinctly remember being chided for tying Paul’s shoes when he was 4. “Don’t baby him!” I heard. (And that was from my beloved father, himself a sweet and gentle soul.)
What was I trying to do to that poor boy? A mother’s job was to push her boy away so he would toughen up and become a strong, independent man. A “daddy’s girl” may be sweet, but a “mama’s boy” was a wuss.
We’ve made progress against these outdated ideas, but we still have a ways to go. Now more than ever, mothers have an important role to play in raising their sons to be good men. Boys who learn to identify and talk about their feelings, listen and respect the feelings of others, and allow themselves to be vulnerable as well as compassionate and strong will grow into healthier, capable men who will make better spouses, co-workers, and friends. And what mother doesn’t want that for her son?
Looking for more? Find Boys Will Be, GoodHousekeeping.com's in-depth guide to raising boys, here.
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