The Mama's Boy Myth

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Fathers and Daughters

Fathers and daughters? All systems are go: A father's support, experts agree, is essential to his daughter's self-esteem. And today's dads are strongly urged to be part of their daughters' lives, whether it's coaching their sports teams or escorting them to a father-daughter dance. (Can you imagine a high school sponsoring a mother-son dance? Yeah, me neither.)

If a father flouts gender stereotypes and teaches his daughter a traditional masculine task (working on a car engine, for example), he's one cool dad. The electrician husband of my friend Hannah was just named "Hero Dad" by the PTA of his daughter's all-girl middle school after he gave a one-hour workshop on how to rewire a lamp. But a mom who teaches her son a "feminine" skill, like knitting? Uh, what is she trying to do to that boy?

Even when a mother helps her son talk about his feelings, she's risking criticism -- often from a source uncomfortably close to home. My husband, Michael, is a warm, loving man and a terrific dad -- really. But I can remember many occasions when he reacted as if I was tormenting our son when, say, I encouraged Paul to open up after a heartbreaking soccer loss. "Stop interrogating him," Michael would chide.

Just the other day, my friend Caitlin reports, her 11-year-old son, Jack, came home from middle school visibly upset. When she put her arm around him and asked him what the trouble was, her husband snapped, "Leave the kid alone." But Caitlin persisted, and it turned out that Jack had gotten into a fight with his best friend, leaving him hurt and confused. He was clearly relieved to be able to sort out his emotions with his mom and to discuss ways to handle the situation.

As women, of course, we know how to put these kinds of feelings into words. Boys and men do not. So the world regards mother-daughter gabfests as therapeutic while thinking it's okay to let sons withdraw into muteness and grapple with their worries alone. I can't count the times I've witnessed people not just accept, but embrace, appalling stereotypes about boys. A respected psychologist speaking at my kids' school a few years ago informed the audience that "Boys don't talk" and told us not to worry if our sons replied simply with grunts. Please. How will these boys get through life if they can't communicate? Besides, in my experience, boys are perfectly capable of articulating their thoughts, given the right environment. (Like many moms, I discovered that the car is a great place to get a son talking. Paul divulged some of his thorniest problems and biggest triumphs on the way to and from soccer practice.)

Boys, we constantly hear, are "in crisis." Small wonder: They're bombarded with mixed messages. On one hand, they're supposed to be cool, tough, stoic, and strong; on the other, being overly macho makes them seem clueless, backward, and ripe for mockery. And they're expected to respect women while also having to compete with them, first in the classroom and then in the workplace.

Well, I believe one of the reasons boys are struggling is that they lack the emotional intelligence and verbal skills that their mothers could help them develop. We moms are also in the best position to help combat the crudest elements of a culture that sabotages boys' natural sensitivity and empathy.

Moms like me are tired of hearing that we should back off from our sons in the name of manhood. Here's a news flash from the 21st century: By offering our sons an emotional education, we're not creating wimpy men who cling to their mothers -- we're helping half the population reach its full human potential.

Continued on page 3:  Three Moms Weigh In


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