Like mother, like son?
October 22, 2008 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Plenty of little boys want to grow up to be just like Dad. But to what extent (and how) are boys' interests/activities/identities influenced by their mothers?

My firsthand experience with boy-parenting is nil, but it's always seemed to me that the moms of boys get a raw deal. Most of the men I know admire their fathers and share interests/hobbies with them and try to live up to their example; by contrast, they may love their moms, a lot, but there's also a sense of other-ness that prevents any real identification or comradeship (as distinct from simple affection/comfort/nurture).

In fact, articles like this one seem to suggest that boys of a certain age will actually turn up their noses at activities (however exciting) that are initiated by women, while they clamor for inclusion in any project, however dull, that has a big strong Guy at the helm. It doesn't seem to go both ways: growing up as a girl, I definitely wanted to be like my dad in many ways, and absorbed many of his interests and values. But I haven't heard from any boys who want to emulate their mothers.

I'm wondering whether this is just a biological thing, or whether it's possible to shape a different mother-son dynamic. (The issue isn't entirely academic for me, because I have a ~51% chance of becoming a mother to a boy in a few months' time. My husband will be a great role model, but there are also parts of myself that I'd like to share with kids of either gender-- an interest in building/fixing stuff, for instance, and in exploring the outdoors-- and it would be sad to think that a son might spurn these things as girly or uninteresting just because they're associated with Mom. I know any son I might have will, first and foremost, be himself; but I'd like to think he'd turn out at least a little like me, as well.)

I know the mother/son relationship has been discussed before, but just now I'm looking for comments on the female role model issue specifically. Can anyone share personal anecdotes/reading suggestions/recent studies that might help me understand how sons learn from and are shaped by their mothers?
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My bf doesn't relate with his Dad on anything other than sports. He was/is a complete momma's boy, sadly, she passed away a few years ago and it still hurts him quite a bit. He claims she was solely responsible for his manners (he is extremely well-mannered), his baking ability (quite the baker), and his fiscal responsibility (miserly?). I guess that makes him a bit of an anomaly. He also said he spent quite a lot of time with her while he was growing up, and, even though I didn't get the chance to meet his Mom, I'm sure he is like her in quite a lot more ways. If only because I've met his Dad a number of times and, personality-wise, they are opposites.
posted by LunaticFringe at 11:22 AM on October 22, 2008

an interest in building/fixing stuff, for instance, and in exploring the outdoors

What if you have a son who prefers bookreading over these stereotypical guy things? I ask because there's a certain amount of "memememememe" in your question, though not in a necessarily negative way.

Be a good parent, who listens and thinks and encourages a love of life and people and they'll cherish you and love you in return, while taking your values forward. Isn't that more important than a stereotypical skill set or activity?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:27 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well. My son's only 11, but so far, he seems to enjoy activities that both his father and I enjoy -- and these are way, way different activities. Unlike my son's father, I like science and reading and cooking and investigating the intellectual minutia of everyday things, and the kid likes to do those things both with me and alone. The boy's father likes aviation, history, and computer geekery, things I can really take or leave, but the kid adores them.

And in return, both of us parents have discovered enjoyable things because our son liked them first.
posted by houseofdanie at 11:45 AM on October 22, 2008

Not based on my own childhood, but parents I know who seem to doing OK:

Don't think of it as either/or, think of things that you all do together as a group (even if it's something that one of the adults thinks of as tedious).
posted by mandal at 11:49 AM on October 22, 2008

As the mom of a two year old boy, this was a fear of mine, but so far it turns out to be not so. Of course, his dad is the cook in our house and I'm the baseball fan, but our son also wants to help me sew as much as he wants to swordfight (yeah, really) like his dad.

The key at our house is, more than anything, that we're not all into the "be a man" gender roles. His dad can do certain things that mom cannot because he (Dad) is tall and strong. On the flip side, mom can do certain things because her attention to detail is much better than Dads. But its all about individual ability at our house, rather than rigid gender roles. And I hope it stays that way.
posted by anastasiav at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2008

My mom has worked in bank branches since I got out of elementary school, I spent a lot of my teen years around banks. Now I work in one, too. And for competition, to boot (though we live in different cities).
Don't know if that connects, but I enjoy my work, and now when my mom and I get together we'll talk "bank stuff" for hours, it's ridiculous.
posted by smitt at 11:52 AM on October 22, 2008

Best answer: 1. One of my best friends is a maritime historian and sails historic-rig vessels. Her husband is a musician and ethnomusicologist. Their son (a) plays in a rock band and (b) spends his free time and summers volunteering at a boat livery and on historic vessels.

2. My mother is a writer. My brother became a book dealer.

3. I have several male friends who are teachers whose mothers were/are teachers.

4. My father has always talked very highly of his mother. He has many of the same values and behaviors as she did - planning and organization, an OCD-like approach to work around the house, attention to detail.

I think you see what you go looking for. Most men are happy to tell you how both parents influenced them.

It may be true that there's a cultural idea that kids want to be "just like dad." I would chalk that up largely (not completely, of course) to two phenomena: one, that for the bulk of American history, Dad had the more exotic job. It was probably more glorified, more lucrative, less visible, and not in the home where it became the white noise of everyday life. Hobbies may have been similarly outside the home, more social, more glorified, and less dismissed. All this may have lent a mystique to men's activities that created a starry-eyed impression on kids. The other factor might be that until the "human-potential" movement of the 60s and 70s, American men were not particularly encouraged to be emotionally close or emotionally involved with the family. Children desperately try to get the attention of parents, and they try harder when they're not getting that attention. One way to get the attention is to emulate the distant parent's behavior, even so far as to adopt their interests and hobbies as your own. The gender roles in our culture were of course ready and available to reinforce the choice of dad's activities for boys, and mom's activities for girls, even cruelly labelling kids who made the opposite choice ("mama's boy," "tomboy.")

There is probably still a lot of holdover from the family structures of industrialization that makes it seem like only boys want to be like their dads. But it's true that there are also girls and boys who want to be like their moms, and girls who want to be like their dads, and always have been, despite whether they were rewarded for those feelings or not.
posted by Miko at 12:15 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am most definitely a chip off my mother's father's log. I didn't spend enough time with him for it to be nurture, and I've seen at least one article saying certain traits follow this genetic path.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:48 PM on October 22, 2008

My father was a machinist and NC programmer. Mom was heavily involved in theater.

I am a software engineer and (sometimes) filmmaker. I never thought that these choices were influenced by the parental units as I had little respect for either after grade school. And yet, there they are. Dammitall.
posted by trinity8-director at 1:03 PM on October 22, 2008

Here is some completely anecdotal musings, based on nothing but the internet and my own experiences. I think that, when it comes to "gendering" activities, your son won't think that "It's a girl thing because mom does it", but rather, "It's a girl thing because DAD/TEACHERS/FRIENDS/TV say it is a girl thing, and furthermore that girl things are bad". When children are raised in an environment where they are not taught a) that some activities are only for girls, and b) that girls are not as worthy as boys, then they tend to find interest in a mix of activities.

It's also a tempermental thing. My husband and his mother are strikingly similar, temperment-wise. He learned to enjoy cooking from her, and he also learned a wicked sense of humor. He loves his father, and they are still close, but it's clear to me that MuddDude is just "more like his mother", and it's natural that the hobbies that attract his mother will also attract MuddDude.
posted by muddgirl at 1:11 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

My mother was a huge influence on my career choice.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 1:48 PM on October 22, 2008

My boys are 12 and 14 and while there is a certain physical awareness that kicks in when they hit puberty, actual activities and time together hasn't changed much. I'm the mom, and they've had the benefit of both male and female influences along the way. It's all about growing up in an accepting, open environment and not so much about gender-defined roles. Your potential male child's worldview will include assigned gender roles if assigned gender roles are part of his world.
posted by headnsouth at 2:25 PM on October 22, 2008

My boy is studying right now (as am I) in history (which both his parents love) and his spare time is spent on computers (his father's industry) playing games (which his dad does also). If he has a question about history, he asks me (though he has far eclipsed my knowledge already) or a question about the world/relationships/cooking. In fact, his dad is not very good at being a conversationalist but they love each other and they look like differently aged clones.
posted by b33j at 2:28 PM on October 22, 2008

For the most part, my father's influence (good and bad) is more obvious to me than my mother's. However, there are a few interests I got from my mother:

1 Food & Cooking. I once asked my mother what she thought she did that got both my brother and I into cooking. She was dismissive of the idea that she'd done anything special. She thought that we saw that she cooked, and figured that if she could do it, we could do it to.

2. Sewing. My mother sewed and mended a lot of clothes when I was younger. I saw her do that too, and she showed me how to do the basics and let me use her old machine. As a teenager, I mended and altered my own new and "vintage" clothes, and out of college, I made my friends a baby blanket.

3. When I was a kid, my mother threw pots, sometimes we'd go by the class studio so she could check on stuff coming out of the kiln. In college, I took some pottery classes, and I'd like to do pottery again.

My wife's father learned to fish from his grandmother.
posted by Good Brain at 2:32 PM on October 22, 2008

My husband was a farmer and truck driver who hunted, fished and played golf. I am a laboratory technologist who loves to read, hunt and fish. Our son is 23 and in his second year of his PhD studies in English Rhetoric. He hates hunting and fishing but loves to read.
My husband read newspapers and trucking mags. He did finish "The Godfather" it took him a month but he was always proud to say he read it.
posted by bjgeiger at 2:42 PM on October 22, 2008

Father's where you get the soul, mother's where you get the heart.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:34 PM on October 22, 2008

My dad is retired, but was VP of sales for an international wire and cable conglomerate and loved his job. I can't generally sell anything to save my life, and absolutely loathe the idea of my doing anything in a sales position.

My father is an audiophile, who has been known to drop a couple of thousand dollars on a stereo component searching for that perfect clarity. My surround sound "system" in my house is a head unit from Costco that I bought because it does component video switching internally, not because of any audio quality properties, with the speakers from Radio Shack. Half of my speakers could be blown and I probably wouldn't notice.

I love computers and technology in general. Except for the aforementioned stereo equipment, my Dad doesn't really get tech. He has a computer, but it's a black box he has never explored the workings of, nor does he have any desire to.

General trait I have noticed that's gotta be genetic:
My dad and my sister both have short tempers, will freak out about something, and then 10 minutes later be as happy as a clam like nothing happened.
I and my mom both take quite a bit to get angry, but once we are fully angered, we'll hold a grudge about it until it's solved, or the end of time, which ever comes first.
posted by barc0001 at 3:37 PM on October 22, 2008

Best answer: This may not be helpful, but my experience was shaped by the absent-father-protective-mother paradigm. It's not surprising that I'm gay, but OTOH, my brothers are straight.

My father, an Air Force pilot, was typically off flying somewhere and I didn't see him that much. My mother was huge influence, encouraging reading, intellectualism, critical thinking, and questioning authority. She was a true individual and she molded my quirky sense of humor.

I never had a sense of wanting to emulate my father, in the sense that I knew that my core personality and best choices would be unlike his. I did want to be like my mother, not in a career sense or wanting to do the things she did (Married with five kids? No way!) but rather in following her example of being strong-minded, self-reliant, and thinking for herself.

Most of that probably isn't relevant to you, except that you can be confident that it's not biological nor predetermined. Your child will be unique, and he or she will be influenced by both parents.
posted by Robert Angelo at 4:31 PM on October 22, 2008

Best answer: I (and my young brother) have a traditional mom and dad- mom is the housewife, dad is the office worker. Mom is in charge of practically everything- Dad handles money, barbecuing, and sports.
My brother is in middle school now. He hasn't gone through any sort of "girls are bad" stage yet, and hopefully he won't. He still happily accepts hugs from me and kisses and hugs from Mom. (We're not a high-touch family, so it's not like hugs are so frequently given that it goes unnoticed.) Like the other commenters have said, he seems to have inherited interests from both parents and come up with some of his own. He does play baseball (Dad is, of course, heavily involved with that) but he also dances.

Perhaps Dads are so idolized because they frequently are the primary wage earners- they often spend much of their time working. I spend very little time with my father, so I try harder to gain evidence of his love than that of my mother's. I know my mom loves me. I know my dad loves me, too, but that's more of an intellectual knowledge- I want proof, approval.
My mother is more like water- she is so much a part of me that it would (will, unfortunately) be damned hard to live without her somewhere in my life.
posted by Baethan at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2008

Well, as the (female) primary caregiver of 2 sons, aged 6 and 8, I can tell you that even though they enjoy spending time with their dad and have some overlap with their hobbies, I'm the one they come to with the philosophical questions and the problem solving. I'm also with them a far larger amount of hours so they hear my thinking on most issues first, even if Dad ends up joining the discussion later. So I think I'm actually shaping them more than he is.
posted by agentwills at 8:28 AM on October 23, 2008

Well, my son became a musician like his dad, but I always attributed it to the fact that he's scary-talented. I like to think that he felt comfortable making that choice because I did things like work as an artist through his childhood, and then gave up a lucrative executive job to be a youth sport coach when he was in high school, while his Dad worked pretty much 9 to 5 (in music, to be sure, but still regular employment). So the choice of interest/profession isn't the only thing that your kids are being influenced by.
posted by nax at 11:56 AM on October 23, 2008

My man talks a lot about the ways in which he identifies with his mother...they are both physically affectionate, gregarious, strong personalities, and love to clean. To the point where most of our arguments reach a point where "my mom says" is the rejoinder :) (Only a bit annoying, actually kind of sweet). In his case, his mom has a strong personality and his dad is much more of a shrinking sweetie's main memories of his dad are of the discipline he doled out.

Its a good question you raise--I often wonder similar things as I negotiate my relationship with my boyfriend's son and try to instill some of my values. I think it is working; my boyfriend often tells me about the times the kid tells him to tell me that he stopped eating McDonalds, helped walk a dog, went for a hike instead of playing video games, etc....
posted by vegsister at 12:33 PM on November 17, 2008

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