Hey single mom— Do you tell your son he’s the man of the house?

how to raise sons single mom man of house

Ever since he was a tiny boy, my son has been a little dude. By this, I mean he takes on typically masculine roles. Even when he was 3 years old, he would make sure his older sister and I stood behind the orange safety line while waiting for the subway train — maneuvering his stout little body like an Australian Shepherd herding dog.

Since that age, while teaching my kids to partner dance in the kitchen to Motown, he somehow knew that he was the one who was supposed to spin me — and never the other way around.

When both he and his sister recoiled in terror when faced with immunizations at the pediatrician's office, it was Luke who did an about-face, calmed himself, then volunteered to hop onto the exam table where he yanked up his T-shirt sleeve, facing the shot — a clear exertion of bravery on his face.

Despite my efforts to never instruct either of my kids on gender-specific behavior, and certainly never suggest that anyone but me is the boss of the house, seeing my son exert these typical “manly” qualities made me wonder: Is this just how he is? Or am I somehow informing that he is the ‘man of the house.'

I know plenty of men who were raised by single moms, and were told by these women and other people in the kid's orbit that because there wasn't a dad around, he was the man of the house. 

The message is:

Every house needs a man.

Women need protecting.

Your gender renders you the boss. 

You do not have a boss or childhood.

You are an adult now because there is no man around.

You have responsibilities of a man. 

That is all so messed up. Wrong.

Yes, children benefit from the influence of positive adult women and men in their lives. Both genders is ideal. In a perfect world, all children would have competent, involved mothers and fathers in their lives at least weekly, if not daily.

That is not the case for most families.

Single parents without a co-parent can raise healthy, dynamic members of society, and you are, every single day! Mothers can and do thrive without a man in the house.

But these are the kids who know when they are the kid, and they have adults in their lives who they can count. These are children whose adult loved ones cultivate authority in their families and homes, and that makes children feel safe. Clear power lines in a family are what give children the foundation to grow into adult men and women who then thrive in relationships and communities. Men who are taught to respect the role of his mother (and other women in his life) grow up to respect women as their equals — not incomplete beings requiring male supplementation.

When you tell a child he is the “man of the house,” you tell him: It is your responsibility to take care of this house and family.

That is terrifying to that child, because he can't take care of the family.

He can't earn money to pay the bills.

He can't keep his family safe.

He can't pay taxes, run family members to school and activities, or make sure everyone is healthy.

So not only are you giving him responsibilities he is not developmentally able to process, you are telling him he is repressible for things he has no control over.

It's like if I told you it is your responsibility to turn around global warming, and every time a polar bear died, you faced 5 years in jail.

Tips for single moms raising boys

If you have found your family slipping into the “You're the man of the house,” here is what you can do:

  • Tell your children — all of them — that they are enough.
  • Make it clear that you are the parent, and they are the kids. That is the rule, no exceptions. That means that you make the decisions on important matters, and you will protect them in times of trouble.
  • Point out the other loving adults in your lives — especially the men. Uncles, neighbors, grandparents, friends, teachers, coaches. Express gratitude for the wide net of love, care and support that benefits your whole family.
  • Be cognizant of chores you assign. Girls can take out stinky garbage, wield power tools  and clean gutters just as well as boys. And boys can learn to hem jeans, bake pastries and babysit younger siblings just as well as girls.
  • Take on “male” chores around the house. If you're not inclined to mow, repair, build, make it a family project to learn. Home Depot and community colleges offer courses on basic car repair, electrical and pluming and woodworking.
  • Advocate for equally shared parenting in your relationship, and all relationships. When parenting is shared equally in separated families, fathers are far less likely to drop out of their kids' lives. Even if 50-50 parenting is not at play in your family now, push for it. Work on your co-parenting arrangement and skills. If that is not possible, support lawmakers and advocates who fight for shared parenting time, and encourage people you know to equally split physical custody with their child's other parent.
  • Call out anyone who tries to “You're the man of the house” your son, right there in front of your son. Even when a well intentioned person says such nonsense, reply with: “He is a child and I am the adult. We don't say that in our house.”

And that's the end of that. Because you're the adult.

Related: A father explains why he doesn't see his child

Single moms do it all. Does that tell our sons they’re obsolete?

It's a fascinating exercise to raise both a son and a daughter. The experience of having both male and female children gives me so much insight into the genders, my own issues and relationships with each, and myself. I find that I write a lot more about my daughter Helena, 6 than my son, Lucas, 4. Maybe I spend more time thinking about the female role model I want her to have. And it is only natural that I see so much of myself in her, being that we are not only both females but also happen to share a lot of personality traits (assertive, curious, prone to emotional extremes, and love of storytelling in all its forms).

I also, of course, love Lucas just as much. And I am just as important of a parent to him as I am to his sister. It is also important I also be a strong, female role model for him — for all the reasons you should, too. That he will one day choose to surround himself with other smart, strong women. That he will expect for women to be his equal. And because, well, that is just what is going on in our house so get used to it, kid!

But with boys something else is at play. Both Helena and Lucas see a mom who “does it all” — work, family, home. He doesn't see a man doing that every day. This is the story for millions of boys.

That is not to say that Lucas doesn't have a lot of great men in his life. He has awesome uncles, soccer coaches, my boyfriend, male teachers. But not the all-day, everyday, every-part-of-life stuff. There's a difference. There just is.

He has a loving and caring dad who teaches him all kinds of important life skills (shoe laces, speaking multiple languages, soccer playing). But his father chooses to be a weekend dad.

As a mom and primary, residential parent, here are lots of challenges in general that come with parenting without a full-time, live-in romantic partner. My kids don't organically learn what it means to be in a romantic partnership. They don't have the benefits of two parents supporting each other — thus making more space and energy for good things to happen in a family.

Boys do benefit from their fathers, and fatherlessness is associated with every social ill: addiction, dropout rates, incarceration, early sexual activity and teen pregnancy, poor academics, aggression and violence.

Warren Farrell, an early leader of National Organization of Women, and now a leading activist on behalf of boys, shared this on the Institute for Family Studies blog, about how single moms of boys can help their sons thrive:

Single moms are among society’s most devoted, giving people. So for their sons to often have so many problems is heart-breaking. Here’s why it is not the fault of the mom, but there is something crucial moms can do.

A boy looks at his dad and sees the man he could become. If his dad is minimally present, that doesn’t give him much hope that marriage with children will lead to him having the emotional satisfaction of being a fully-involved dad. Some dad-deprived boys see their dad living in a small apartment after divorce, and having to fight in court to be more involved with them, even as their dads are working a job they don’t like to pay for the children they can’t see as much as they’d like. That reinforces their purpose void and an abyss of hopelessness.

The solution is for a mom to become a pioneer in understanding what dads contribute, and why their more-frequent propensities toward rough-housing, tough-love, boundary enforcement, and letting boys work it out on their own often seem like insensitive parenting when in fact they are a crucial balance to a mom’s contribution to children’s development in general, and to boys’ development in particular. The Boy Crisis gives a lot more detail, but I hope this gives a clue.

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But when a child doesn't have a same-sex role model for life, does that relay the message that life doesn't need him?

It's a slippery slope, but single moms raising boys — especially those who handle the vast bulk of responsibility — can raise empowered men:

How to raise boys

  • Stop trying to do it all, because no one can do it all. People are not meant to be autonomous robotrons. If you haven't already, build a community. This might be an old group of friends you see often. Maybe a new group of friends you know through your kids' school and activities. If you are lucky enough to have a great extended family nearby — celebrate it! For me, my immediate community is a combination of friends and neighbors who live in the area, plus my brother and sister-in-law who live in my building. This grows and changes as our lives change, and extends to family and friends who live afar. Let your children see that you are human, vulnerable and require support. Let them see you ask for support. That is not only OK, it is good — because that support comes in the form of loving people who are now a part of your kids' lives, too.
  • Careful with the pride. On one hand I feel very proud of the life I've created for my family. I'm proud of my kids, my business, our community and the life we live. It is not easy, and in fact it is downright rotten with difficulty some days. Express gratitude for your riches, but check your ego and avoid espousing that you do it all (even though you're likely are doing most of it!).
  • Emphasize the positive qualities your son shares with other men in their lives. Especially their dads. The other day Helena was upset at bedtime, owing to some scratches she acquired rolling down a hill. Lucas got out of bed, fetched her favorite Jessie doll and quietly brought it to his big sister. “You are such a sweet and thoughtful boy,” I said to him. “You know who else is sweet like that? Daddy.”
  • Work on your issues with men. Do you kinda secretly hate men? Say generalizing, negative things about the male sex? Your kids pick up on that. Work through it. Heal yourself.
  • Date. Not every week or every day, if you don't want to. But make it clear to your son that a man, a romantic partner is an important part of a family. Even if you are not yet ready to date, or burnt out on dating, let your kids know you believe life would improve with the right guy in your lives — all your lives.

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About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.

7 Comments

  1. […] post Hey single mom— Do you tell your son he’s the man of the house? appeared first on Emma […]

  2. Kate on June 11, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    Great post! I firmly believe childhood is a time to learn what it feels like to be protected and nurtured…so that one can eventually provide for one’s own protection. So turning the tables too early interferes with the learning.

    • Camille Johnson on June 12, 2019 at 2:54 pm

      Wonderful article for EVERY parent, step parent, grandparent, coach, neighbor, uncle, and on and on.

  3. dandy on June 5, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    I dated someone long ago that had a very dysfunctional family and he had to be head of the house (we were in high school at the time), dad was long gone and mom was a drunk. He had to walk back and forth to work several miles each way, in addition to going to school, taking care of younger siblings, taking care of their very old and unsafe, delapidated house etc. When we started getting seriously involved he totally fell apart. Very insecure and needy, and was afraid to say no to anyone in his family. Then he totally cracked and turned into a raging nacissist and very nearly physically assaulted me. Men that were raised this way have a lot of bottled up anger and resentment that will eventually surface and they’ll take it out on you.

  4. blah blah on October 28, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Your son can become the man of the house when he proves to simply be a man. If he moves back in, pays the bills, pays the mortgage, and is essentially taking care of you… then he’s the head of household. Hence he would be the man of the house. However, a mother would need to still choose to give up that much control to their son.

    There are various situations that come in in life where a son is living with his mother gain. When he’s young and a child, he is not a man, and thus not a man of the house. He is his mother’s son.

    When a son moves back in due to hardship… he is still not a man, and is thus not the man of the house, regardless of how old he is. If your mother is still paying the bills at the place and (even more so) paying to take care of you, then you are still your mother’s son. If a submissive mother needs a male presence in the house to help take care of certain things, like helping fix something, staying at home to deal with a service contractor, etc.. it’s perfectly ok for her to ask her son to help her in that regard. Learning to “man up” and help look after your mother is part of becoming a man. Learning to pitch in is part of becoming a man. Doing things you know you should do before your mother has to tell you is part of being a man. If you’re living at home for college with your single mother, and she has to harp on you to clean your room… you are not a man, which means you are not the man of the house.

    As a mother ages, she will start to decline in health and perhaps income. When a son moves back in to take care of a mother, or moves back in to split bills with her if it makes economical sense (eg: they’re both under some economic hardships, so it makes sense to move in together), then he may or may not be the man of the house. A mother and son can live together in a similar fashion like a married couple (sans sex, of course). He handles responsibilities in his life and around the house, and she handles her responsibilities, too. But, they pitch in and help look after each other.

    When a guy is able to put someone before himself, then he has learned a part of what it is to be a man. When a guy has learned to keep up with his responsibilties without being told, then he has learned part of what it is to be a man. When people come to rely on him, because they know he is level-headed, makes good decisions, is accountable, trustworthy, thinks of the big picture, thinks of how his decisions impact everyone (not just himself) he has generally become a man.

    Some women have lived without a partner in their life for so long that when an adult son comes back into their life and lvies with them, and he’s grown up and become a man, then they are willing to relenquish the head of household to him. This is a great show of trust. An older mother knows that she won’t be around forever, and knowing she can entrust her son to take care of the household means she’s done a good job as a mother. She can let him be the man of the house by letting him be head of household. But, in doing so there is also a bit of power-exchange… he is then in charge. So, she only makes this decision if she feels he’s a good leader and trusts his judgement and knows he’s thinking about what’s best for her. Some mothers and adult sons live together as equals. Some mothers and adult sons live together and the mother has given up power to her son and let him be the disciplinarian of the household (over her.. these are usually really submissive women that have a hard time exerting control or get used easily, so their adult son needs to step up and manage situations for them or protect them from being taken advantage of … but, it could also turn the tables on disciplinarian roles… if the mother keeps getting speeding tickets that the son has to pay for when she can’t afford them, then he may lay down the law and discipline her as a surrogate husband-figure.)

    I’ve seen 20-somethings move back in with their mothers, and make great heads of household and be the man of the house. They take care of pretty much everything, and remove a great burden from their mother’s life.

    I’ve also seen 50-somethings living at home with their mothers, and pretty much just take her for granted, she’s paying all the bills, they exploit her, etc, etc.

    So, it’s really about how grown up and mature a person is.

    A guy can’t be the man of the house until a) he learns to be a man, and b) he learns that a house is not just an object but an intangible place of safety and nurturing… it’s a home. So, to be the man of the house means you have the maturity of a man and the responsibility of a home.

    Most men go off and get married and have kids and learn all of this on their own. Some move back in with their mothers and learn it. Some never learn it. It depends on the guy, the situations he’s in, and his willingness to “man up” and take responsibility.

    So, yeah, tl;dr, this is not something you say of your child… “he’s the man of the house”. No, he’s not. But, children that go through adult situations when young do mature pretty fast if they can come to terms with them. So, he may not be the “man of the house”, but he’s sure gotten a big head start at becoming a man if he’s had to go through some seriuos stuff in life and has learned to cope with it.

  5. Alison on April 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Ugh this is such a good post. I make it a point to tell my son it’s MY job to protect him NOT the other way around.

    In a divorce it’s hard to control anything (especially the other parent) so I know my son could be picking up care taking somewhere else. But maybe not…who knows? I’ll never know.

    The only think I can do is support him to feel like the kid he is and let him know he’s safe. I found that when he’s in protector mode he’s actually feeling a little insecure so I double my efforts at reminding him he’s safe.

    Love this post!

    • Emma on April 21, 2016 at 8:49 am

      Great response – you’ve got this one handled!

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