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, and that is OK. 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 do anything to keep everyone 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 is 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.
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 very 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.
- If you're not inclined for typically “male” jobs around the house, make it a family project to learn. Home Depot and community colleges offer courses on basic car repair, electrical and pluming and woodworking.
- 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.
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.