03.20.13 Parenting

Mothers and Sons: How Close Is Too Close?

Mothers and Sons: How Close Is Too Close?

BY Dr. Peggy Drexler

Is your son in danger of becoming a mama’s boy? That’s the stereotype so many people associate with sons raised by women alone. Like most stereotypes, it simply doesn’t hold up to reality. In fact, fostering a close connection with your son actually strengthens and confirms his identity and helps him grow toward independence.

Hugs and Kisses
Who says boys don’t need hugging? Of course they do. Physical contact is essential in infancy and our desire and need for it develops and varies throughout life. What’s important is to take our children’s cues and respect them as they grow.

As a small child, Henry was physically affectionate, even to the point of holding his little sister’s hand and carrying her around. Then at Christmas one year, when everyone got to say a holiday wish, Henry’s was, “Don’t kiss me in front of my friends.”
“It’s a signal of transition,” his mother said. “I can accept that. We are very close, but it’s just no longer okay for me to jump out of the car and give him a big kiss when I pick him up from school.” They worked out a compromise. Now she is allowed to kiss him when he gets in the car.

Will you make him gay?
A persistent myth tells us that too much closeness with our sons can make them gay or feminine. In fact, most boys turn out to be heterosexual, no matter how their mothers raise them. What boys need is their parents’ full acceptance, whether they are gay or straight. When her son came out Marcy knew nothing about gays. “I went to the library and learned. I read propaganda. I read scientific journals.” Then she ran it all past her son, Jeb. “We’re a family that communicates. I told Jeb that no matter what I read or who I talked to, he needed to be my primary resource, because I can’t know about this. I’m not gay.”

Margaret, another mother, is haunted by the memory of a psychiatrist telling her not to hug her son too much. She rejected the assumption that moms are responsible for making boys gay and that boys do not have the same need for nurturing.
“Young boys who learn to be giving and gentle and kind have not lost any of their masculinity,” she says. A boy needs tools to experience the world and freedom to grow into a complete person, she believes. “If more adults were accepted for the complete people they truly are, more children in the world would receive the same kind of nurturing.”

Building Emotional Connections
What I call “Head and Heart” boys are those who combine strong male identity with an unusual capacity for connection and emotional awareness. They usually have mothers that make time, and find creative ways, to communicate with their boys and talk about feelings, including negative ones.

Kenny, the son of two moms, deals with his anger the way his mother Crystal does, holding it in for a long time and then spewing it all out. On one occasion, when his anger erupted all over his other mother, Tami, she was baffled and upset. But Crystal pointed out “how great it was that he told me he felt safe enough to get so angry.” While we mothers might sometimes wish our kids didn’t feel quite so safe, we certainly don’t want the reverse: the boy who won’t express his emotions for fear of reprisal and ridicule.

Maintaining a Lifetime Connection
Being loving and involved, but respecting your sons’ choices and boundaries, helps mothers stay close when their children become adults. Jane Snyder has spent a lot of time pondering her grown son Nicholas’ decision to become a Muslim, but has never tried to dissuade him from it. “All I want is for my children to be well and to do well and have a life that is enhancing to them,” she says.

Holly Saxton says connection became especially important after her son left home and couldn’t find a job. Often, she missed her evening yoga class to talk with him as he struggled. “This was a year of parenting that I hadn’t planned on, but it was probably the most crucial year of parenting I did,” she remembers.

It’s time to acknowledge that mothering does not equal smothering. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. To raise a son who is both strong and sensitive, stay close to him-now and throughout your lives.

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Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, author, speaker, and a regular featured contributor to a range of publications and Web sites – from The Huffington Post to Psychology Today to HelloGiggles. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Peggy has spent her career studying the magic and mysteries of families. Her recent book: Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers And The Changing American Family, explores the powerful – and sometimes surprising – connection between dads and a new generation of independent, accomplished women. Peggy’s bestselling book, the highly acclaimed Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, is a seminal work in the social sciences. It offers an illuminating look at how single mothers by choice, chance and circumstance and two-mother lesbian families are raising happy, healthy and masculine young men. The book was nominated for the Books for a Better Life award and the Lamda Literary award. Peggy can be found on  Facebook, Twitter @DrPeggyDrexler and on her Website.


  • Gypsey

    I have raised 2 healthy sons 22 and 27 by myself. I have always been very affectionate to both of them and them to me and no they are not gay, wouldn’t care if they were. My boys have grown up with a deep respect for women because of their experience being raised by a single mum. I do agree they need a strong male role model in there life also, if not one available, maybe an uncle, work colleague, or an organisation like big brother. In addition to that I think bonding in a male oriented team sport is great, ie football. I love my boys dearly, they have taught me alot about men and how we are so different. They are no were near as complex as us women. Raising boys is not a hard job I think for a single mum I would rather raise 2 sons rather than 2 daughters, the hormones in the house would have probably driven me mad.

  • leslie

    I can report 3 compassionate , kind, and emotionally intelligent, boys to men. My 3rd son it just so happens is gay . I spared none of the boys my affection but simply took my cues from them individually. I have always believed I had an obligation to raise good men. Thank you Dr. Drexler

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