The Importance of Strong Role Models in Raising Sons and How to Find Them

The fact is that no parent -- be it mom or dad -- should/can be all things at all times to his or her child.
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At my final meeting with 10-year-old Quentin, a boy I'd been observing for many years, I gave him a gift. It was a video called Yankee Sluggers, and told the stories of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. For me, the gift symbolized my journey with Quentin and spoke directly to the very boyish boy I had come to know so well.

Quentin, the son of two mothers, was wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt he'd inherited from an older cousin. He examined the package thoughtfully and analytically -- very Quentin-like behavior -- shaking it, measuring it, and making some guesses about its contents. As he gingerly unwrapped the gift and began to see what it was, he began talking about how, exactly, he was going to extract and share information from the video. "I give a 1-minute quiz to my friends every morning and now Babe Ruth is going to be in that quiz," Quentin told me excitedly. "I'm going to teach Jake, Noah, and Alan all about Babe Ruth."

Our culture is obsessed with the idea that boys who don't have fathers living in the home are somehow being deprived. But does a boy need a man in the mother's bedroom in order to have men to look up to? The answer is no. I've observed that boys can -- and will -- find their own role models. This is good news for all parents, whether in a mom-only household or the "traditional" mom-dad-kids configuration. Boys in mainstream families don't always have as much access to their fathers as they'd like.

The fact is that no parent -- be it mom or dad -- should/can be all things at all times to his or her child. There are four easy ways to encourage your son to crave, and relate to, strong role models:

1. Actively recruit. For single and partnered moms, this could mean seeking out male figures like babysitters, coaches, tutors, and neighbors. But for any parent, this can also mean seeking out men your son will never even come into contact with. Boys will naturally extract male models from the culture (even boys with dads will develop heroes from other sources). But you can, and should, help guide him in his selection and steer him toward those who exhibit the kinds of human qualities you deem important. That can be a sports hero, an author, a scientist, or a CEO. It could even be a fictional character, like Harry Potter. Go for a range; your son will pull what he needs and admires from each.

Tasha and Hannah, moms to 12-year-old Kenny, consciously and specifically pointed Kenny toward basketball player Grant Hill. After receiving and reading a few books about Hill, Kenny said, "it seems like Grant's a really cool guy. He thinks kids should be good sports and put their all into things, but first and foremost treat other kids with respect. After reading that, I thought, 'Wow, he's a really good player.' So I'm gonna go on with him." 8-year-old Brad was an outstanding athlete, but small for his age, which elicited some teasing. One day, Brad discovered the story of David and Goliath, in which the smaller David uses smarts to defeat the giant Goliath. "Goliath is one of those guys who just goes out there and hits," Brad said. "But David thinks about it. He uses his mind." Like David, Brad told me, "I try to think before I act."

2."Dad" is not the only parent that embodies so called "male qualities". So you're not a man. So what? Not only can strong mothers provide their sons with a range of models for manhood, but they themselves can model what we traditionally consider "masculine" attributes, such as the heroism and cool-headedness our culture traditionally associates with dads.

When he was 3, Henry and his two moms were tossing a beach ball besides a pool. The ball slipped out of his hands, and Henry instinctively went after it -- even though he hadn't yet learned to swim. Mary, his biological mom, panicked. "But," Henry recalled with admiration, "Laurie came into the pool to save me." The modeling can transcend biology as well as gender. 8-year-old Nathan, who aspired to be a pro basketball player, credited his athleticism to his adoptive mom, Stephanie. "Nessa's my birth mom," he said. "I look like her and I act like her, but she and my dad -- they're not good at sports. Stephanie's good at sports, and that's something I think I got from her."

3. Encourage selectivity. Our culture still implies that to become a man, a boy must toughen up, turn away from his mother, and identify with his more aggressive father. But this notion not only separates boys from their mothers; it can also propel them toward dangerous tendencies. Though we often idealize and elevate the role of dad in a boy's life, we don't admit that actual fathers can be destructive. And, in fact, in my observations, the sons of mother-only families often had less to "prove," because they weren't faced every day with an idealized masculine model.

Boys who have the ability to pick and choose their role models, however, can be selective about which of the qualities they want to emulate and which they want to step back from. Though Nathan admired his soccer coach for being smart, he looked to his engineer neighbor, Bob, for help with school papers. 10-year-old Steve liked playing guitar with his teenage babysitter, Julian, but opted not to sing all of Julian's sometimes-racy lyrics. One mother told me, "There was a neighbor who took an interest in our son and wanted to play ball with him. Only this guy was rigid and militaristic -- he had lots of rules and set specific 'goals' for the ball playing -- and our son hated it! He knew this wasn't what he wanted and just sort of pushed the guy away."

4. You're a woman, so embrace it (he will, too). Make it clear to your son that he can choose qualities to emulate from both men and women. The boys I observed did not grow up in male-dominated homes where competition and control can be mainstays. Instead, they developed what are thought of as more "womanly" traits, such as self-expression, the ability to compromise, and a stronger attachment to the people, pets, and places in their lives.

After we'd been working together for a number of months, I learned that Henry had asked for a tape recorder as a holiday gift. "Your asking me questions made me think about what I want to know about other kids," Henry told me. "I want to find out what people are like and then report on them." I realized that Henry had formed a strong attachment to me -- as I had to him -- and wanted, in this way, to be like me. If two people spend time together, as we had, an emotional bond develops. They will learn from and draw strength from each other -- no matter what their gender.