My son is a mama's boy, I confess. Even at age 4, he often curls up on my lap during play dates while the other kids rampage through the house. Shyness isn't the issue – he's gregarious at preschool. But my son says he'd rather have "mommy time" on the days I'm home.
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"I love mama best," he often chimes, despite my husband's efforts to bond with him through sword-fighting, marshmallow roasting and bedtime stories. They've grown closer lately, but at times I've wondered if our boy will ever give his dad the time of day. So it's a relief to know the mother-son connection gives boys a good start in life, according to The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger.
Mothers needn't worry about raising a mama's boy, says author and journalist Kate Stone Lombardi. Drawing on academic research and interviews with moms and dads, she explains why the mother-son relationship has been stigmatized thanks to our lousy grasp of Freud. Ms. Lombardi spoke to The Globe and Mail from Westchester County, N.Y.
What is the mama's boy myth?
It's that boys who are close to their moms are going to grow up to be sissies or wimps, that they'll never grow up to be independent men who can form healthy relationships. It's not true.
Do people still believe that?
Well, a new TV show just came out called Mama's Boys of the Bronx. It basically shows a bunch of grown men whose mamas still cook their meals and iron their shirts and take care of them. The stereotype is still very much prevalent.
I guess there's Oedipus, Norman Bates and mammismos – Italian mama's boys. Why does the mother-son bond get such a bad rap?
I was amazed by the number of moms I interviewed who referred to the Oedipus complex. The shadow of Sigmund. Mother and son incest is extremely rare and yet there's so much anxiety, especially when boys become teenagers. There's this fear that mom's affection is going to be misconstrued as seduction. But a teenaged boy still needs affection and reassurance and hugs. I argue that it's a very bad time for a mother to withdraw from her son.
On the flip side, there's the fear of homosexuality.
Yes, it's homophobia. Freud viewed homosexuality as a developmental problem and it turned into this idea that if a mom was too close to her son, she would feminize him and somehow, 'make him gay.' There is no science behind that. What I think did happen is that boys who were effeminate were often pushed away by their fathers so their mothers drew them close. People said, 'well, he's effeminate and close to his mother – his mother must have made him that way.'
How do sons benefit from connecting to their moms?
Being close to a mom is good for boys at every stage of development. A study in the journal Child Development that involved almost 6,000 children found that baby boys who didn't have secure bonds with their mothers went on to act much more aggressively later in life and had more problems with authority.
Then, looking at school-aged boys, a study presented at the American Psychological Association in 2010 found that boys who are closer to their moms have a more open idea of what it means to be a man – those boys in turn have better mental health. And new research shows that moms are the most influential when it comes to helping]/note> teenaged boys avoid risky behaviours.
What does that mean for dad-oriented boys?
I don't like this to be a mom versus dad conversation. I think another myth is that if a boy is really close to his mother, he must have a distant relationship with his father and that certainly isn't true.
In Italy, eight out of 10 men aged 18 to 30 live at home. Isn't there a danger of raising infantile men who cling to mama in perpetuity?
What goes on in Italy is partly cultural but it's also economic and I don't think you can compare Italy to the United States. Keeping your son emotionally close does not mean keeping him dependent, or it shouldn't – that's not healthy closeness.
How can a mother stay close to her son without getting in the way of a wife or girlfriend?
I think you need to be appropriate at every stage and know when to recognize that your child is an adult. While you're still connected to them, they're in charge of their life, not you.
What's the best comeback when a disapproving relative warns a mother against raising a wuss?
'I'm keeping him close and I think he's going to be stronger for it.'
This interview has been condensed and edited.