Real People, Real Issues
Is a mother’s relationship with her son all that different than her relationship with her daughter? Definitely, mothers and daughters share a lot while mothers and sons start out being different, and they continue to be different as time passes. They are raised in different cultures, so children grow up with a “Male Code” and a “Female Code.” Mothers have to make the effort to learn about the “Male Code.”
The old adage “like father, like son” needs correcting. More appropriate is “like mother, like son.” For the mother-son connection determines to a great extent not only what sons think about themselves but also what they think about women in general. Indeed, wise women have always known that the best way to determine the quality of a man is to evaluate his relationship with his mother. There’s nothing new about this. It has been known for centuries that mothers and sons share a special bond. This does not mean, by any means, that mothers love their sons more than their daughters. But the mother-son connection seems to be under armed by a maternal attachment that is not duplicated elsewhere.
A strong mother-son relationship starts with consistency, patience, and emotional closeness, which are important for all babies, and the process is the same for boys and girls. Be aware of cultural or family messages that would pressure you to distance from your son when he is very young. Accept the fact that boys have a different communication style. Respect your son’s need for emotional space. Be willing to overcome the fundamental differences of male/female in order to communicate.
The first smile that a baby sees, the first voice that he recognizes, is that of his mother. As he grows older, his mother and her relationships with men — husband, boyfriend, brother, father and friends — are the first and most compelling examples of how a man interacts, or should interact, with a female. “Mothers are the first and most constant expression of what a woman is,” says Ronn Elmore, Ph.D., a minister, family counselor and author of several books on relationships. “A boy’s view of the world is affected by what the mother has demonstrated.”
And if the appropriate identity is not nurtured, it will not spring forth. Family therapists say that many of the problems that women have with men can be traced to how men were reared by their mothers. Considering the great number of who are born out of wedlock to impoverished, uneducated and often very young women, it is easy to blame societal ills, such as public education and drug-infested neighborhoods. However many negative environmental factors could be neutralized by mothers and parents in general taking steps to steer their sons (and daughters) in a more positive direction.
The mother’s romantic interests also influence how a son eventually will interact with women. “A son feels that what you say about men, you are saying about him,” continues Dr. Elmore. “Mothers who constantly idolize men or who constantly put men down are sending the wrong messages and images of the boy about himself,” he says. “It is important that a mother do as much as she possibly can to let her son see her engaged in a loving, positive relationship with a man. That’s how sons learn how to give love. Mothers can’t show that alone… The longer the relationship, the more consistent it is, the more committed the relationship, then the better it is for the son.”
However, some mothers are so over protective the child becomes dependent. Ironically, this dependency negatively affect the son’s development. Sometimes they shirk responsibility because they have never bad to be responsible; when made mistakes, mom made excuses. This dependency carries over into the son’s relationships with women. “There is the belief that no woman can take care of my son as well as I can,” says Dr. Berry. “A mother takes note of how her son’s children are cared for, how meals are cooked, how the house is cleaned. She is concerned about her son’s welfare. Ideally you are supposed to raise your children to grow up and move out on their own so that they can take care of themselves. Frequently, men will remain dependent on their mothers, and mothers enable this to happen. Mothers don’t cut the cord. They become resources for their sons… Some men believe that only their mothers can do it the right way. For instance, they say to their wives, `I want it to taste like mama’s fried apples.’”
Some mothers, unwittingly and sometimes unconsciously, try to replace departed husbands with sons. Jawanza Kunjufu, Ph.D., gives a hypothetical situation in which a divorced mother reasons that her 13-to-16-year-old son can help move furniture, repair the car, do most of the physical work around the house. “Some mothers like this arrangement,” says Dr. Kunjufu, a noted author who runs a family counseling service in Chicago. “So they encourage the son to remain at home until he is 40. He never has to leave. That’s why some males never marry. They can shack with their girl friends, and when she gets upset and wants to put him out, he can always return home to his mother.”
Dr. Kunjufu goes on to say that some mothers make similar mistakes when their sons are even younger. For instance, a single mother might tell her 9-year-old son that he is the man of the house. “It is unfair to put that responsibility on a 9-year-old boy, to tell him he’s a man,” says Dr. Kunjufu. “Secondly, many boys will believe this, which means that the mother had better not have her boyfriend come over to spend the night because he is the man of the house, and he’s not going to like that.”
In an effort to have an intimate, loving relationship with their sons, many women, adds Dr. Elmore, mistakenly turn their sons into mother’s confidant and pal. “And that is something that works to the disadvantage of the relationship,” he says. “It works against the boy developing because it teaches him he is responsible for women rather than he is responsive to women. He feels he has to take away a woman’s hurt and pain. When he is an adult and into his own relationships, he pulls away from women, when he is not able to provide that kind of counsel. He feels that if his adult mother is so immature and needy, that tends to form his definition of what women are all about. It results in him having less respect for women.”
Counselors also point out that mothers often have a double standard for how they rear and discipline their children. “Some mothers raise their daughters and mother their sons,” Dr. Kunjufu explains. “They make their daughters come in early but not their sons. They make their daughters do indoor chores — washing the dishes, making dinner, sweeping — things that must be done daily, whereas the sons have the `outdoor’ chores — emptying the garbage, cutting the grass, etc. — which are done about once a week.” He points out that mothers often make daughters study and do homework, whereas they don’t press their sons to do the same.
The discrepancy could be due to observations of how the mother and her brothers were reared. Or it could be that the father, if one is present in the home, doesn’t want the son involved in domestic chores. It also could be the fear of instilling “feminine qualities” in the son. “Some single mothers feel that if they have their sons do domestic chores and study, it will make them too feminine,” says Dr. Kunjufu.
“Tough love is critical,” says Dr. Kunjufu. “And some mothers, unfortunately, do not want to give their sons tough love. I think that God designed the family perfectly with a father and a mother. One [the father] primarily looks at the law, and the other [the mother] looks at grace. But when the law is missing, then unfortunately many times boys get grace only and they begin to take advantage of it. So a single mother has got to understand that with the father not being there, she has to give tough love and lay down the law.”
Dr. Elmore adds that mothers should give sons options along with discipline in an effort to teach them decision-making rather than how to passively follow instructions. For instance, it can be made clear that if grades don’t improve, then sports and social activities must be curtailed. “You don’t want to cut off the freedom to make independent decisions and learn self-management,” says Dr. Elmore. “A boy who doesn’t master self-management ends up in prison with another set of role models.”
He also says that with boys, criticism is not as effective as rewarding good behavior. “Behavior that you reward is the behavior that he repeats,” says Dr. Elmore. “Approval is a great discipline factor for boys.”
Dr. Berry emphasizes that mothers should start early talking to their sons about what is expected of them. She says they should be given responsibilities and taught how to take care of themselves — how to shop, cook, wash dishes, do laundry, get the car repaired. “Tell them that they are expected to make good grades and go to college,” she advises. “Teach them how to get a job, to earn money, and then teach them to manage their money. Let them know they are expected to get their own places, and then take care of themselves rather than depending on someone else to do it.”
Another challenge for mothers in particular is encouraging sons to communicate effectively. “It is important for mothers to talk to their boys, but also to listen to what they have to say,” says Dr. Elmore. “We tend to let the boys get away with being non verbal whereas we encourage girls to talk. Listen to the son as though what he is saying is extremely important, even if you disagree. Listen, and then comment and correct, if necessary.”
Nearly every mother knows how hard it can be to communicate with her son. Sometimes it seems as her son grows older, he grows more distant. How can we get our sons to talk to us?
Don’t try to approach your son like you would your daughter. Wait and watch for cues that your son is willing to talk. Ease into a conversation slowly and carefully. Give him something to keep his hands busy while he talk. Don’t make an emotional or dramatic response. Remember the “male code.” Let him choose the time to talk.
Counselors point out that many mothers have difficulty finding the right balance of love and discipline. “You can’t be all discipline and no fun and love, but it can’t be all fun and no discipline,” Dr. Elmore advises. “Sons notice this balance between strength and softness… If a mother does the job right, what she can expect is the son growing up and away from her, becoming increasingly independent of her. This can be traumatic for a mother, but it means that she did right rather than wrong.”
What about single mams? If there is no father figure living in the house to help a son feel “manly,” can a single mother ever hope to succeed with her son?
Whether single or married, the mother-son relationship is very important, and single mams can be just as successful as a couple in raising boys. It just takes a very conscious effort to understand and practice the “male code.” Don’t solve problems for him. Let him find “manly” ways to solve his problem. Also, be sure there are positive, trustworthy males in his life to add to what you do: grandparent, teacher, adult family friends, etc.
A mama’s boy who grows up to be a responsible, caring and committed man, one who respects women and makes a contribution to society, is more than enough to make his mother proud.
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