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Parenting: Boys Need Mums

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Fathers are in fashion again with the Families Commission, the Plunket Society and various other heavyweights all discovering them at the moment and starting up their own projects.

More grassroots organisations are doing their own thing too, such as the fathers and boys breakfast at Belfast School the other day (see ‘Letters’).

Many of those events have father-son connotations, and, according to a Children’s Commissioner’s survey back in 2000, there is a bit of a feeling that sons are dad’s job and daughters are mum’s job (although large majorities thought that both should do it together for both sexes).

The idea behind the father-son theme is, of course, that fathers are the key to the development of their son’s masculinity and identity as men. But quite possibly this is not entirely true.

We know that where a boy’s ideas of masculinity are seriously out of kilter and lead to antisocial behaviour, that boy has usually grown up without a live-in father for most of his life.

However, we know from rather compelling large-scale studies that it is fathers, not mothers, who play the crucial role in the development of a girl’s female identity. There are indications that the same mechanisms are true for sons and their mothers when it comes to developing a male identity.

For starters, ‘male’ and ‘female’ don’t make sense on their own, just like ‘big’ and ‘small’ don’t. No other definition is possible for male and female than being not-female or not-male. It is a definition pair, like hot or cold, big and small etc.

So for boys to know about male-ness they need to know about female-ness. And they can’t learn that from their dads.

In fact, research has quite consistently pointed out that high father involvement leads to less stereotypical behaviour in both girls and boys. This means the benefit of father involvement is not so much providing a male role model, but showing that men and women are not really so different at all when it comes to the basics of being human.

Fathers provide a real-life adjustment to the myths and expectations of manhood.

When I first started doing some work with prisoners, especially young ones, it soon became obvious that I am dealing with largely ‘fatherless’ boys’, and that was expected.

What I didn’t expect was how consistently bad the stories are I hear about their mums. Apart from very severe physical punishment being meted out, often using implements, a lot of the young men are left with the impression that they are getting it on behalf of their fathers, or the male sex in general. The beatings are accompanied by comments along the lines of ‘you male bastards are all the same’ .

When your own sexuality and gender identity develops, messages from the other sex are generally much more powerful than the ones from your own.

The mother-son relationship is especially loaded, since the son will eventually have to break free from his mother’s control. How hard or easy this is will tell him a lot about what he can expect from entering into a relationship with a female, and it will define a great deal about how he will behave within that relationship.

Regardless of the stereotypes we have about teenage males, it is not actually normal or healthy for them to go through a dozen different ‘relationships’ a year. This is not ‘trying out’, this is fear of handing control over to another woman, and therefore keeping them at arm’s length in sex-only relationships.

The relationship with their mothers can define boys’ behaviour much earlier than the teenage years. Children start their journey of gender identity with sorting and classifying. At kindergarten age (even before that), children divide people into groups of men and women, boys and girls largely on the basis of superficial differences.. From a young boy’s point of view, women have total control in the world.

Nearly all the people who can tell him what to do will be female. His father may be an exception, but he, too, may take his instructions or cues in the home (which is the only environment that counts for the child at this stage) from mum.

Those women may very well, without wanting to, classify boys as the ‘naughty’ gender. Those little comments he overhears (‘he’s a boy, that’s why’, ‘boys learn a bit slower’ etc) tell him what role he is expected to play as a boy, and will in fact, reinforce the very behaviour you may be trying to moderate.

Especially when it comes to learning, teachers are overwhelmingly female, and the more you emphasise gender differences, the more a boy will start to think learning and studying is something only girls and women do. Boys’ role is merely to be told what to do.

As parents we need to be careful not to over-sex our children too early in their lives, and to avoid double-standards.

What isn’t acceptable to do for a girl should not be acceptable for a boy either, and vice versa. Mothers may subconsciously burden their sons with their own ideas of male-ness, fueled by a large number of publications telling us how different boys and girls are.

It is easy to limit our children’s options once we buy into gender-specific child raising, and to bring our own gender prejudices into it too early. If, inside, a mother’s son is not a stereotypical male, it’s his mother’s acceptance he needs most.

Next: The Different Schools

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