Talk about bad headlines. Following a study presented to the American Psychological Association, the media asked, “Being A Mama’s Boy: Good For Your Health?”
The gist of the study by Dr. Carlos Santos of Arizona State University suggested that boys who “resist” male stereotypes and are close to their mothers grow up with better mental health. There’s lots of room for discussion here — starting with who defines “healthy” and what it looks like in the researcher’s mind! The study focused on middle school students, prior to the tremendous physical and emotional changes that take place in later adolescence. There’s also the implicit belief that it’s somehow wrong or unhealthy for men to have emotional reserve. I prefer to think of it as self-control, and if you think that’s not crucial to solid manhood, you haven’t considered the alternative.
The problem with the headline and the assumption underlying it is that a boy or man who talks about feelings is somehow soft, effeminate … a wimp. Isn’t that the image of “mama’s boy”? Obviously, some people would appreciate a wimpier sort of manhood – after all, look at the popularity of pouty actors who start as teenagers and never seem to grow out of it. But I believe most men reject that ideal as too squishy for our own self-respect … hence the stereotype of cold, emotionally distant men.
The problem, I believe, is balance. There is a strong, active, aggressive pattern for mature manhood as described in Scripture and through history. Some aspects of the stereotype are really what we want in men. We want them to be hard working, ambitious, willing to take considered risks, willing to suffer hardship, willing to stand alone or to lead family, church, community, business.
We need to be teaching our sons to control their emotions on the one hand, not to be overwhelmed and carried about by them — while showing them to understand, accept, and communicate those feelings appropriately. Consider strong, adventurous, entrepreneurial men who were also gentle, kind, and affectionate — especially toward Mom. Robert E. Lee and Theodore Roosevelt were warriors, men of tremendous courage, able to inspire men to charge into the very jaws of death — and were known for their tenderness toward their mothers, wives, and children. Jesus Christ, the perfect Man, walked through angry crowds, confronted greed and hypocrisy in the seats of power, and knowingly embraced His own death — yet He wept at the death of a friend, and attracted the love of the innocents, the weak, the downtrodden and children. Come to think of it, one of His dying acts was to provide for the care of His mother. He was a man of perfect balance.
We can raise our sons for that ideal, as well. We don’t need to tell them big boys don’t cry — sometimes they do, and ought to. Instead, we need to teach them when and where. They need our help gaining perspective. I’ve noticed toddlers fall down and look quickly to Mom or Dad, as if to ask, “Am I okay?” If there’s no obvious injury, I try to show them it’s just your average mishap. “Wow, that’s a big noise. Hop up and come over here,” rather than “Oh! You poor thing!” When they’re angry with a brother or their feelings get hurt, coach them. “Okay, son, that’s not a reason to cry. Suck it up and let’s move on.” If they want to discuss it, we encourage them to talk it out – but not to weep and wail. They need to see Dad dealing with his own emotions, whether anger, disappointment, love or fear, and see an example of balance in his life to instruct their own.
There are times to let the tears flow. Funerals, weddings, the birth of a child, true cataclysms like the loss of a country or a major catastrophe. Our sons need to know that’s the time it’s okay to let the bars down. But in the daily struggle of life, and the heat of the moment when a man needs to step up and deal with the situation, I want them to have the self control to do what must be done. A man in a passion rides a wild horse, someone said; I want my sons to keep close hold of the reins, so that even in those high-charged moments, he stays firmly in his saddle!