Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Raise your son to be a mama's boy

By Peggy Drexler
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1446 GMT (2246 HKT)
Bill Clinton gets a hug from his mother, Virginia Kelley, in 1993 before heading off to Washington for his first inauguration.
Bill Clinton gets a hug from his mother, Virginia Kelley, in 1993 before heading off to Washington for his first inauguration.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peggy Drexler: People stigmatize "mama's boys," thinking they're weak
  • In fact, studies show close relationship to mother can yield many benefits, she says
  • Drexler: Mama's boys are less aggressive, more adaptable and patient
  • She says one downside is that a close mother-son bond could disrupt the son's marriage

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- What do LeBron James and Bill Clinton have in common? Both were mama's boys.

And contrary to popular belief, that's not a bad thing. People tend to think of mama's boys as coddled and carried and then, later on, too attached for their own good. Mama's boys are often perceived as weak; a close relationship between mother and son is viewed as suspect.

And yet studies support the idea that boys who grow up having tight relationships with their mothers have a certain advantage. They become strong, independent leaders. Just look at the commander in chief. Barack Obama has gladly admitted: He was a mama's boy.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

But there's scientific proof that the close mother-son bond is healthy and beneficial. A 2010 study out of the University of Reading, an analysis of more than 69 studies featuring more than 6,000 children, found that kids, especially boys, who have secure attachments to their mothers tended to have fewer behavioral problems throughout their childhoods.

Later on, they were expected to display fewer signs of aggression and hostility. They were, it stands to reason, more adaptable, more patient. A 2011 study published in the journal Child Development, meanwhile, found that the quality of the mother-son bond directly related to his sense of morality and his likelihood to have healthy romantic relationships, and that conflict was the biggest predictor of delinquency.

And in 2012's "The Mama's Boy Myth," author Kate Lombardi used her relationship with her son as a base from which to explore mother-son closeness, ultimately arguing that despite the pressure many mothers feel to let their sons learn to cope largely on their own, keeping them in a closer relationship ultimately helps boys grow into well-adjusted men.

Men who grew up having close relationships with their mothers, she writes, are less inclined to argue and more inclined to "work it out." They have an easier time in adult relationships.

In my own work, I have encountered many close mother-son relationships, particularly while researching my first book, "Raising Boys Without Men," which looked at many single mothers raising boys on their own.

A mother's quest to end dating violence
Son tweets about mother's final moments
Same-sex moms: School sent mixed messages

These mothers were, perhaps not surprisingly, inclined to develop very close bonds with their sons. I followed these families for many years and came to understand that mothers, as a whole who refused to buy into the fear of being too close to their sons tended to raise boys who were more responsible, sensitive to the needs of others and more self-assured.

They were more likely to have a healthy respect for women. I learned that mothers who allowed and encouraged boys to show their more emotional side helped their sons develop confidence and empathy.

There is one place where a tight mother-son bond could come at a disadvantage: Once the mama's boy marries. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that mothers worry far more when their sons marry than when their daughters marry, and that these worries can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the man feeling jealousy, anger or sadness that, in the worst-case scenario, can destabilize his marriage.

Maybe no one's surprised that mothers could feel threatened by their daughters-in-law, but it's still no reason to avoid marrying a mama's boy. A confident mama's boy, after all, is often well-equipped to navigate tricky social territory.

But what about mama's girls? No one seems to bat an eyelash at the concept of close mother-daughter relationships, at least not while the daughters are small. But, in fact, "mama's girls" may walk a fine line between close and too close.

A study published in the July issue of Social and Behavioral Sciences found that relationships between mothers and daughters that could be described as "connected" helped foster better self-esteem than those relationships that could be described as something closer to "interdependent." That is, sharing and caring works; smothering does not.

A study out of the University of Georgia, for instance, also concluded that too-close relationships -- those in which mothers were hyper-involved and overly critical -- could result in women with poor social skills and disordered attitudes about eating. We do know that the mother-daughter relationship tends to work best when the roles remain, for the most part, traditional.

Indeed, mothers of both sons and daughters should worry less about getting caught up in "perception" and what other people think, especially at Mother's Day. If you suspect your son is a mama's boy, be thankful. Chances are, he will be, too.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT