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.
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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Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. 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.