What a Son Needs From His Mom
Examining what the research tells us.
Posted Dec 26, 2020
"Raising a son has been the greatest joy of my life." —Probably what my mom would say if I had asked her.
This is the second entry of a four-part series focused on empirical evidence related to parent-child relationships as stratified by gender. To read about what a daughter needs from her dad, click here or read what a daughter needs from her mom here. As always, let me clearly state that I recognize not all children are raised in heterosexual two-parent homes and that it is not my intention to imply that these children are necessarily at a disadvantage. However, interesting research has been done on parent-child relationships by gender and I would like to outline some of those findings in this series of articles. With that in mind, let's explore the evidence related to what a son needs from his mom while growing up!
Non-coercive parenting during early childhood—or risk a variety of negative social consequences. Coercive parenting is the all-too-common cycle in which a parent directs a child behavior, is then met with refusal, "ups the ante," so to speak, by increasing the severity of their demand to the child, who then "calls" their parent with arguing, yelling, or acting out. Finally, the parent backs off and/or gives up, which reinforces the child's misbehavior.
With a large sample of young boys and their mothers followed across more than 10 years of their childhood, researchers found that boys with mothers who employed coercive parenting experienced higher rates of conduct problems and social problems, including rejection by other children at their school. On the other side of the spectrum, more positive, adaptive parenting strategies help boys (and girls too, of course) develop their social skills and sense of self within a developmentally appropriate framework .
Minimal conflict and maximum warmth. Don't get me wrong—warmth does not mean permissiveness or over-indulgence. Instead, warm mothers are loving, firm, kind, and invested in their son's development. Another consideration is that conflict and warmth are not variables that are entirely under the control of a parent. Like all relationships, it's a two-way street! Still, moms who work hard to minimize the conflict and maximize the warmth they share with their son are more likely to set their kiddo up for beneficial social skills like making friends, improve their son's moral development, and even lessen their son's likelihood to engage in anti-social behavior like acting out in school .
Support of their self-regulation and freedom from antagonism. It's well known that modeling is an important part of positive parenting. The "do as I say, not as I do" parenting philosophy is not a firm foundation on which to teach the younger generation about the more complex skills necessary to function as an adult. It's easy to teach a child how to brush their teeth—at least, compared to teaching a teen how to manage his anxiety.
In a study about what attributes helped mothers build their son's ability to self-regulate (which broadly encompasses self-control, decision making, and emotion-management skills), the authors established two important factors. First, the degree to which a mother invests in her son's autonomy and personal responsibility for self-regulation by establishing and maintaining a trusting, attached relationship with her son. And second, antagonistic parenting practices, such as undermining or manipulation, were associated with lower levels of the son's ability to self-regulate . This finding is unsurprising provided the well-established research connecting manipulative parenting strategies to negative outcomes for kids.
Responsiveness, level-headedness, and warmth—or risk defiance and problems with attention. Again, I'm going to throw out my two-way street warning. When it comes to parent-child relationships, like any relationship, we can't place 100 percent of the responsibility on either party. But, mothers who expressed less responsiveness towards their son were more likely to see him struggle with problems of attention and defiance. Furthermore, over-reactive disciplinary strategies like expressing strong negative feelings towards their son's behaviors or expressing an authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative) parenting philosophy also correlated with defiance and attention problems, possibly due to the coercive parenting cycle discussed above. These results held the same regardless of the son's ADHD diagnosis subtype (hyperactive vs. inattentive) and whether or not the child was medicated for his symptoms .
Avoid harsh criticism and emotional over-involvement—to help prevent conduct problems. It's interesting that studies on boys seem to focus on externalizing problems like misbehavior and anti-social conduct. In another study that examined the role of mothers' criticism and emotional over-involvement in predicting young boys' symptoms of oppositional defiance, researchers found support for their hypothesis that mothers who employed more criticism would have sons who engaged in more misbehavior.
Savvy readers might be quick to point out that boys who misbehave are more likely to elicit criticism from their mothers. This is, of course, true, but the take-home point is that harsh criticism doesn't help. In other words, moms who employ harsh criticism are not effectively targeting their son's misbehavior. Interestingly, the same relationship was found for emotional over-involvement, which is defined as extreme over-protective and self-sacrificing behaviors. Just as harsh criticism is not an effective behavior management technique, neither is shouldering the burden of one's child's own psychological autonomy .
In general, research on mother-son dynamics predicting meaningful child outcomes seems more limited than what I found on father-daughter relationships. And, the conclusions drawn by the above-cited research—that positive parenting, appropriate autonomy, warmth, etc. are good for mother-son relationships—likely hold true regardless of the gender of the parent or child.
Although not completely comprehensive, the articles cited herein offer a nice summary of the empirical research on the short- and long-term outcomes associated with various mother-son relationship qualities and characteristics. Check back on this blog in the coming weeks for more research findings on what daughters need from their mom and what sons need from their dad!
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Akcinar, B., & Shaw, D. S. (2017;2018;). Independent contributions of early positive parenting and Mother–Son coercion on emerging social development. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 49(3), 385-395. doi:10.1007/s10578-017-0758-4
Moilanen, K. L., Shaw, D. S., & Fitzpatrick, A. (2009;2010;). Self-regulation in early adolescence: Relations with Mother–Son relationship quality and maternal regulatory support and antagonism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39(11), 1357-1367. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9485-x
Psychogiou, L., Daley, D. M., Thompson, M. J., & Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S. (2007). Mothers’ expressed emotion toward their school-aged sons: Associations with child and maternal symptoms of psychopathology. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 16(7), 458-464. doi:10.1007/s00787-007-0619-y
Seipp, C. M., & Johnston, C. (2005). Mother–Son interactions in families of boys with attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder with and without oppositional behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 33(1), 87-98. doi:10.1007/s10802-005-0936-x
Trentacosta, C. J., Shaw, D. S., Hyde, L. W., Criss, M. M., Lacourse, E., & Dishion, T. J. (2011). Antecedents and outcomes of joint trajectories of mother-son conflict and warmth during middle childhood and adolescence. Child Development, 82(5), 1676-1690. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01626.x