As with so many of our negative gender stereotypes, we probably have Freud to blame for the enduring dismissal of the "mama’s boy" — not a grown man who can’t make a decision without requiring emotional labour from a woman in his life, but a little boy who is close to his mom, and who might be more sensitive or less rough-and-tumble than the adults around him expect him to be.
"Having a mama's boy completely rocks — as long as you're not raising a mama's boy in the stereotypical way,” says Momsanity blogger Dawn Yanek, who notes that these stereotypes include men who live in their mother’s basement until he’s 50, or a men who can’t find a romantic partner.
"It's having a close, open relationship with your son in which you encourage him to be exactly who he is, encourage him to be sensitive and empathetic, and encourage him to be a good man,” Yanek says.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with being a boy who loves spending time with his father, who is happiest outside covered in mud, and who is full of energy and has a fearless sense of adventure. The harm comes when we assume that this is the only way a boy can be and punish or bully any male child who doesn’t fit those expectations. (Or, of course, when we assume a girl can’t possibly be fearless and muddy and fond of her dad.)
And dismissing sensitivity or an aversion for team sports as the behaviour of a “mama’s boy” can do real harm to young boys. One study of middle-school boys in New York found that boys who were close to their mothers were less likely to define masculinity as toughness or stoicism — and also less likely to be anxious or struggling academically.
So if you’ve got a “mama’s boy” here are eight stereotypes to reject so you can focus on celebrating what makes your little boy unique.
Boys don’t cry: Even when they’re very young, many boys are told not to cry. But those early lessons in bottling in emotions can have long-term effects that become unhealthy in the teen and adult years, including mental health issues.
Boys will be boys: "It is so incredibly limiting and psychologically damaging for boys, and I think that it leads to an acceptance and a perpetuation of rape culture,” Yanek says. This dismissive phrasing encourages children to adhere to gender stereotypes and implies that boys are not responsible for their actions, no matter how serious or intentional.
Boys shouldn’t be so attached to their moms: It’s healthy for children to form attachments with any and all of their loving and caring parents, regardless of gender — which of course, for boys, includes mothers. One 2010 study found baby boys grew up to be more destructive and aggressive children if they didn’t form strong attachments to their mothers, for example. And in general, close emotional relationships are helpful for reducing stress, fostering a sense of safety and well-being, and even improving health.
Boys don’t talk about their feelings: Yanek’s five-year-old son talks to his mother about everything, she says, and she thinks that’s healthy for them both. "It has been so important for him as a preschooler, as his personality and his outlook on the world are developing,” she says. "But because of that, we have been able to work out things together. It has also made him feel like his feelings are valid.” Teaching children an emotional vocabulary is important for all genders.
Boys are tough: Mothers of boys are sometimes encouraged to “toughen” them up, particularly if their children are sensitive or attached to them. But a focus on toughness for a small child can discourage them from expressing their feelings, which is unhealthy and unproductive. "There is no way that I am going to 'toughen him up,’” Yanek says. "We will work through problems together and he will be brave, but he is also allowed to be upset and to have feelings."
Boys are rough: Roughness and aggression are not inherent traits in men and boys, and excusing them can keep children from developing the tools they need to deal with anger and frustration in appropriate ways. It’s OK to be active or competitive or energetic, but ensuring boys have the tools to deal with negative emotions can help them channel that in positive ways instead of harmful ones.
Boys don’t like “girl” toys: By insisting that “girl” toys — dolls, things that are pink, toys that centre around home activities — are not OK for boys to play with, the message is sent that those toys are somehow lesser. The natural conclusion for a kid then becomes that traits associated with girls are also lesser. This also cuts boys off from positive play experiences: for example, the nurturing of playing with a baby doll, or the valuable, pretend, play that comes with playing kitchen or house.
Boys are only one way: Humans are unique, with different feelings and personalities and interests. Why deny that part of what makes your kid so great? Forget the stereotypes and celebrate what’s special about your child.