The importance of mother-son relationships should not be overlooked
By Christina Quick
May 8, 2011
Barbara Billingsley made it look so simple. In the 1957-63 television sitcom Leave It to Beaver, she played the role of June Cleaver, an idealized mother of two boys who routinely doled out a superlative formula of nurturing, correction and understanding.
In today’s world, however, the mother-son relationship is more complicated. It is among the most fundamental family bonds. Yet some say it is also the most overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood.
Hundreds of parenting books are available for mothers of girls. Much has been said in recent years about the crucial role fathers play in guiding their sons toward manhood and providing a healthy framework of male love for their daughters. But comparatively little guidance is available for moms of boys.
“As a culture, we seem to have an aversion to this teaching,” says Rick Johnson, author of That’s My Son: How Moms Can Influence Boys to Become Men of Character. “We think that in order to have a healthy masculinity, boys need to move away from the apron strings. There are certain stages in a boy’s life where he does have to break away a little bit from the arms of motherhood, but that doesn’t make a mother’s love and involvement any less important.”
Johnson, founder of a fathering-skills program called Better Dads, began researching mother-son relationships at the request of a public school counselor.
“A lot of moms in the school district needed advice on how to relate to their sons, and there just wasn’t much available,” Johnson says. “This counselor reminded me that it’s easier to raise a boy than to fix a man.”
There is evidence that a boy’s relationship with his mother can have long-term implications. For example, a study last year in the United Kingdom concluded that mothers play a crucial role in male emotional development.
“Children with insecure attachments to their mothers, particularly boys, had significantly more behavioral problems, even years later,” says Pasco Fearon, a researcher at the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences.
Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and family counselor in Traverse City, Mich., says close mother-son relationships are sometimes viewed as unhealthy when, in fact, the opposite is true.
“There’s often a hesitancy to talk about the fact that a boy does need his mother,” says Meeker, author of several parenting books, including Boys Should Be Boys: Seven Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons. “It’s such a primal relationship. If it goes awry, it can wreak havoc on all his future relationships. A mom teaches him, in a healthy way, how to give and receive love and trust.”
Meeker says boys are most openly dependent on their mothers during the first decade of life. In those early years, boys naturally turn to their moms for comfort when hurt or frightened. As boys progress into pre-adolescence, however, the relationship grows more complex.
“That’s when boys do something that’s often very painful for mothers,” Meeker says. “They cut away from Mom, emotionally and psychologically, and gravitate toward male role models.”
Carolina Van Wagner, a mother of three elementary-age boys and two preschool-age girls, says she has already noticed changes in the way her 9-year-old son, Benjamin, relates to her.
“He doesn’t like me hugging on him, so I try not to overdo it,” says Van Wagner, whose husband, Brendan, serves as youth pastor at Glendive (Mont.) Assembly of God. “I find other ways to touch him, like patting him on the back or ruffling his hair. I also get out in the yard and play baseball with the boys, which they think is pretty cool.”
Meeker says women should be careful not to withdraw from their sons, even when their sons seem to withdraw from them. Instead, mothers should look for new ways to connect with their growing boys.
“Even though their voices are changing and everything about them says ‘stay away,’ they still need to be adored by their mothers,” Meeker says. “They may not want to be hugged, and they certainly don’t want to be kissed in front of their friends, but they still need Mom.”
Johnson says boys are often uncomfortable sitting and talking. But they may be more inclined to open up while doing something physical, such as shooting baskets or taking a walk.
“There’s a mom language and a boy language,” Johnson says. “A wise mom recognizes that and makes a few changes in the way she relates to her son. A boy needs his mom a lot during adolescence. He’s not going to articulate that, but it doesn’t make it any less true.”
Nicole Wagner of Owasso, Okla., says she tries to get involved in the things that interest her four sons, ages 13, 17, 19 and 21.
“One of the big ones has been Bible Quiz,” says Wagner, who attends Owasso First Assembly of God. “I also watch sports with them and try to understand what’s going on. If I don’t know, I ask them to explain things to me.”
Meeker says mothers play a major role in teaching boys to relate to the opposite gender. Through this important relationship, a boy develops a concept of what women admire and value.
Meeker says a boy needs to know his mother respects him and approves of his budding masculinity. He longs for assurance that his mother loves him unconditionally.
“Moms give boys a template for relating not only to women, but also to a loving God,” Meeker says.
CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo.
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