Kate Stone Lombardi learned the unfair expectations involved with mothering a son early in her parenting life.

When her son, Paul, was at the tender age of 4, he was still a novice at tying his shoes. One day, spotting that “for some reason or other he was having a little trouble with the laces, I bent down to see if I could help,” she says. “And my father, his grandfather, bellowed, ‘Leave that boy alone!’”

Stone Lombardi says she got the message loud and clear, just as she had many times before as the mother of a boy: “Mothers should not coddle their sons. If they do, they are sure to make them a mama’s boy.”

In her father’s opinion, a traditional cultural perspective, it was time for this youngster to “man up.”

Not that her dad was trying to be cruel, Stone Lombardi notes; he loved Paul and wanted what was best for him. Apparently, that included a non-meddling mother.

Stone Lombardi believes that mothers of sons routinely get a similar message – that they need to push their sons away emotionally and physically, or the boys won’t develop a sense of masculine independence.

It’s a message that frustrated her enough to write the new book The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger (Avery Penguin Group, 2012).

Paul is now 23, and Stone Lombardi claims that she and other mothers (she interviewed 1,200 for her book) have learned not to broadcast the close relationships they share with their sons, lest they be labeled an overpowering influence and a threat to their masculinity.

An award-winning journalist and regular contributor to The New York Times, Stone Lombardi is also the mother of a younger daughter, Jeanie. She says she wrote her book because she’s tired of cultural and social messages that it’s OK to be emotionally and physically close to a daughter, but not necessarily to a son.

Mama’s Boy Myth

A mama’s boy is commonly defined as a boy excessively influenced by or attached to his mother; the perception is that he’ll never grow up to be a strong, independent man. Or, to put it more colloquially, he’ll always be a sissy or a wimp.

Mothers feel a strong, natural affection and closeness to their children. Yet the mama’s boy myth also suggests that women who raise boys with emotional and physical affection are controlling, smothering and obsessed with their sons.

So just how close is too close? According to Stone Lombardi’s research, the prevailing wisdom has been that closeness between mother and son is always suspect.

In her book, she examines the history of mother-son relationships, reaching back to Greek mythology and the tale of Achilles. As she sees it, the tale lays the blame on mom. One version of the story goes this way: Achilles’ mother immersed him in the river Styx to assure his immortality. To prevent him from drowning, she held him by the heel. But her protectiveness ultimately leaves him vulnerable; Achilles 

later dies from an arrow that struck him in the heel that the waters did not touch.

It’s a myth, yes, but one that continued through the ages, to Sigmund Freud and his famous Oedipus complex theory and beyond, Stone Lombardi asserts. Most of us don’t fully understand Freud’s theory, first introduced in the late 19th century, she contends. Rather, we cling to a watered-down assumption that there’s something wrong and troubling about close relationships between mothers and sons. “Today, we confuse the very normal love between mother and child with what Freud said about unconscious longings,” says Stone Lombardi. “We’ve been culturally conditioned to see this natural love between mother and son as some kind of pathology.”

Even renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock, M.D., author of the extremely popular 1957 book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, supported the notion that mother and son closeness is detrimental, Stone Lombardi says. In her book, she quotes a passage from Spock’s book where he opines that mothers who become too close to their sons are actually looking for a close spiritual companion, someone whom they can interest in feminine pursuits such as interior decoration.

But it’s not just health experts who’ve promoted this mama’s boy myth, Stone Lombardi says. She cites literature such as Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence; Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth; and even today’s reality TV shows, like the recent NBC program Momma’s Boys, as examples depicting mothers as overly obsessed with their sons.

Where, she asks, is an example of a normal, healthy and close mother-son bond?

Today’s Moms of Boys

Some 18 years ago, Shelia Moran, a New York mother of three boys, decided to gather other mothers of only boys together for tea. Mothers of Only Boys (or MOOB) was formed. The once intimate group now has 100 members who meet annually for fun and to discuss mother-son issues.
Moran says she and others in her group are aware of cultural expectations that moms should encourage their sons to “suck it up,” for fear of coddling them. “But thankfully,” she says, “society is changing.”

Kelly Raftery of Colorado agrees. “My husband grew up in a very traditional society and has no issue with our son remaining emotionally close to his mother. I am not sure I buy into this whole mama’s boy thing. … You can let them be independent, spread their wings and fly without cutting them off emotionally.”

“I think you can foster a close relationship [with sons] while still giving them the tools to be proactive, successful on their own,” adds Massachusetts mom Erin Williams. “Mama’s boy doesn’t have to be synonymous with dependent.”

In fact, many moms today believe that attitudes have changed enough to eliminate the need to downplay close relationships with their sons. A boy can be close to his mom and grow up just fine, as long as he’s also allowed to think for himself and learn independence, they say.

“What makes him a ‘mama’s boy’ is overprotecting him,” notes California mom Marilyn Dykstra.

But not everyone fully supports Stone Lombardi’s take on the issue. When The Wall Street Journal ran an essay she wrote about the mama’s boy myth in February, hundreds of comments poured in online – many from men. And while some were interested in pursuing the discussion, a fair number took umbrage with Stone Lombardi’s view. Some criticized her for admitting to having daily chats with her son, which they saw as excessive closeness. Some called her communication on the issue “harsh.”

To be sure, she can sometimes appear single-minded. At a recent public appearance, several in the audience disagreed when she declared that society sees nothing wrong with the term ‘daddy’s girl,’ a point she also makes in her book.

The book also asserts that, as teens, “girls [unlike boys] don’t find it humiliating or shameful to be seen out in public with their parents.” But many parents would argue that teen boys and girls tend to distance themselves from mom and dad, including not wanting to be seen together in public.

Benefits of a Close Relationship

Parents do seem to agree that Stone Lombardi’s quest to encourage emotionally close and healthy mother-son relationships is a good one.
And recent research backs her up. A 2010 Arizona State University study revealed that adolescent boys who are close to their moms have better overall mental health and less depression and anxiety. Other studies link a close mother-son bond to better grades, physical health and self-esteem (or boys who are less likely to succumb to peer pressure). Sons who are close with their mothers also often have a less rigid definition of masculinity, experience more expansive friendships and feel less of a need to “man up,” according to the research Stone Lombardi cites.

Why? Much of the credit, researchers say, goes to a mother’s emotional communication style. “‘Use your words’ is something you hear moms say a lot and it’s helpful to boys who can use that encouragement,” Stone Lombardi says.

Mothers also tend to communicate about an issue in an ongoing fashion, while fathers tend to have one big talk, she says. And that gives boys the benefit of learning better communication skills – something increasingly prized in today’s workforce.

Many of today’s scholars, such as sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History (The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 1996), see the quality of parenting as far more important than the gender of the parent.

Others warn that it’s actually harmful for mothers to essentially push boys away. Psychiatrist Olga Silverstein in her book, The Courage to Raise Good Men (Penguin Books, 1995), argues that if a mother downplays maternal love and affection in an effort to allow her son to “man up,” he can see this as a form of abandonment, which in turn harms his ability to bond successfully with others. Psychologist William S. Pollack, Ph.D., director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at MacLean Hospital in Waltham and author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Henry Holt, 1998), also agrees that a mother’s premature emotional pull-away from her son can be harsh and traumatic.

What About Dad?

While Stone Lombardi’s focus is on mother-son relationships, she’s often asked about father-son relationships and whether a close bond there is just as vital.

“Dads are very important and they too should model emotional intelligence, but until lately many men didn’t have that experience to share,” says Stone Lombardi. Women have been socialized to have this trait, while men traditionally have not, even though it’s really not something that should apply only to one gender, says Stone Lombardi.

“Communication is really a human trait,” not a feminine or masculine trait, she says.

Single mothers, as well as lesbian mothers, should also take note, she says. Research has confirmed that these women are fully capable of raising well-adjusted sons and aren’t destined to create “mama’s boys.”

A mother who helps her son sort out and understand his feelings teaches him emotional intelligence, Stone Lombardi says, a skill that isn’t about becoming overly emotional. Rather, it means that you have an understanding of emotions, which are an integral part of being human.

“It’s almost as if our concept of the mother-son relationship is caught in a distorted hangover,” says Stone Lombardi. “What I hope to encourage is continued discussion; it’s time to play catch up on this issue.”

Jean Sheff is an editor with Dominion Parenting Media.