Raising A Boy To Become A Man

I’ve been a mother for about 3 1/2 years now, but before I even conceived, I’ve engaged in the conversation about whether or not women can teach their sons how to be men. On the surface, the answers may seem really simple: Yes, of course or No, of course not. Having engaged in this debate and heard many sides, I wanted to perhaps begin a discussion here on Cocoa Mamas about this idea.

This debate usually comes about when discussing single motherhood. The statistics state that 3.1 million Black mothers are single (unmarried or divorced) which means that at least 3.1 million Black children are being raised without a father figure in their home. This is not to say there is no paternal presence at all, it just is not in the home. In all fairness, that 3.1 million figure does not break down whether or not these women share custody equally, are simply unmarried/divorced (meaning they could have a significant other, male or female), or if they are even custodial parents. If you’ve read my blogs, you know that I’m not the primary custodian of my son, but I do consider myself a single mother.  For argument’s sake, let us assume they mean 3.1 million Black women are raising children on their own, as primary custodians.

So if we assume about 40-50% of those homes contain male children, we’re dealing with about 1.5 million women who have to figure out the best ways to raise their sons  to be intelligent, sensitive, caring, respectful, hardworking, strong Black men.  These will be men who will venture out into the world bearing with them the perspective and world views instilled in them by their mothers. Roughly 80% will carry these views into their interactions with women.  These mothers have to take into account all of the demands society places on men in general, as well as all of the negative statistics about Black men and the lowered expectations by that same society, and try to do their best to produce the most well-rounded, adjusted, positive men possible. 

As one might expect, this is a daunting task. 

Obstacle #1: Women are NOT men. We are physiologically, mentally, and emotionally different. Some things are purely biologically based while others are due to socialization. This creates a disconnect.

Can women overcome this in some ways? Yes, absolutely. We can teach our boys how to pee standing up. Can we relate to the external sensation of having to pee? No.  Can we talk to our sons about wet dreams? Yes. We can even explain how semen is formed, how is travels, and how it shoots out. Can we relate to the embarassment of spontaneous erections 15 times a day? No. The question is then: Are we inevitably disconnected from fully engaging in intimate discussions with our sons about things we have never experienced and cannot relate to? What say you?

Obstacle #2: Boys learn differently than girls. Women tend to teach their children things the way they process them themselves, which does boys a disservice.  Their brains are wired differently and if we cannot teach them along those lines, we risk alienating them.

Most of us do not realize this and we get frustrated when it seems our sons are knuckleheads when they begin to drift off in school. Or we are bothered when our toddler and pre-school sons are running on 150 tons of energy and seem to absorb more of what we say when they are in that state than when they are sitting still quietly, as we have asked them to do 1473 times in an hour. We want them to process what we are teaching as far as manners, respect, and social behavioral norms, but we are teaching them the way we see it and the way we learned it, which is not registering the same with them.  Does this mean there will inevitably be a disconnected between what we teach and what they learn from us? What say you?

Obstacle #3: Women cannot effectively lead by example. Boys and girls generally model their behavior after their parents and those closest to them.  A woman cannot role model being a man.

This is probably the biggest issue that comes up and pretty much encompasses the majority of the debates/discussions. We assume, of course, that there are set codes and standards of masculinity and manhood. (I reject that because I reject heteronormative thinking ,but that’s another blog). We assume that women cannot emulate those standards and therefor, they cannot effectively set the appropriate example of masculinity and manhood. (Again, this does not allow for varying gender identities that female-sexed individuals self-identify with).

Can a woman teach her son how to play basketball? Yes. Can she teach him how to change the oil in the car? Yes. Can she teach him to say “Please” and “Thank you” when interacting with others? Of course.  What she cannot do, as a single mother, is model how a man should treat a woman.  She can speak, write, teach, tell him on the telephone until she is blue in the face, but if that boy does not bear witness to his mother being treated in a positive way by an authoritative male figure, I posit that there IS a disconnect in his understanding of how to treat women (even with his own father or another father figure present).  That’s jsut one idea. What say you?

I did not dig as deep as I could have on this subject because I would love for people to weigh in and offer their own sides to the debate. I know where I stand and will respond in time.

Discussion questions:

Can women, single mothers specifically, effectively raise their sons to be “men”?

Does society’s notions of masculinity and manhood play a role in how women should be raising their sons?

If you are raising a son, what are you doing to ensure he is being raised with a strong sense of his masculinity (however you might define that for your family)?

Why do you think some women are successful at single-parenting sons and others are not as successful? What other factors do you think contribute to their successes or failures?

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3 thoughts on “Raising A Boy To Become A Man

  1. I think you hit the nail when you mentioned gender roles and societal expectations. My goal in raising both my children, one boy and one girl, is to raise people as unencumbered by societal gender roles as possible. I teach both my children how to respect and be respected, something that i don’t believe should vary by gender. When my son makes comments such as “only boys do x” we talk about why he is saying such a thing and whether it makes sense to make such a distinction. He has his father in the home, yes, so I’m sure there are things that are invisible to me that I don’t see that are being taught about being a man. But I try very hard to make sure that even my husband is not sterotypically harder on my son bc he’s a boy, or restricts him from things like wearing pink or playing with dolls. I want him to make those kind of choices bc he wants to, not bc society tells him he should. He likes pink, princess Tiana, and Dora. I want to shelter him from traditional gender roles for as long as possible, until I can properly explain to him that gender is partly a sham.

    That being said, I do think a single mother can raise a boy to be a man, if she approaches it as raising a child to be a functioning adult. Gender roles box people in, constrict them, when the basic building blocks for adult men and women are the same.


    1. I have a problem with gender roles. At the same time, I recognize that in my personal life, there are times when I subscribe to them. I admit that I’ve been socialized in some interesting ways and my actions and beliefs are often contradictory.

      I have made these behavioral choices for myself, though, and that is what I think is important. I don’t feel I act a certain way because my parents raised me to be that way. I think my parents gave me the space to figure out who I am and grow into my own behaviors. I want to do the same for my children. I want them to explore everything that interests them, regardless of whether or not other people feel it is acceptable or not.

      My first encounter with this was at his doctor’s office. I think he was about 18 months or 2 years old; it was a check up. The nurse was tending to him and I think he was baby-flirting with her. I told him to stop, playfully, and commented “He is always flirting with the ladies” She said “No, don’t stop him! At least you know he is straight! He is supposed to flirt with women. You should encourage that.” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point).

      I was SHOCKED and steaming mad! How dare she try to assign sexual orientation to a BABY and then try to instruct me on how to make sure he stays straight! She had NO idea what my sexual orientation was or that of his father. She just assumed, as is the heteronormative way, that we were anti-gay, like she was. I hate to say it, but she was also West Indian, so I wasn’t completely surprised.

      I just find it sad that so many people subscribe to this idea that you can “turn” someone gay by doing things like letting them play with dolls or wearing pink (for boys). At the same time, I recognize that a boy raised primarily around women likely will pick up more womanly mannerisms and might model that behavior. This doesn’t make him “gay” though, or any less of a “man”. Of course, we associated being gay with being less manly anyway, so….

      My baby is 3. He loves his “babies” (a trio of stuffed animals, George, Elmo, and Rabbit) and takes care to nurture them (feed, clothe, read stories, tuck them in at night, give kisses and hugs) just as I nurture him. I don’t see anything wrong with this, nor do I see how people might conclude it will “turn him gay”. I see it as his being able to show love, caring, concern, empathy, etc. Those are great qualities for a MAN to have. I don’t shame him when he cries… I try to get him to better understand his emotions. I want him to find his own path.

      We tried putting him in sports training class this semester. He failed miserably at it. We switched him back to gymnastics and he is flourishing. I feel bad because I feel part of that was us trying to get him to do “boy” things, with other boys, rather than focusing on what made him happiest. He is happy flipping around in gymnastics in classes mostly filled with girls. And when he is happy, so am I.


  2. As far as why some women are “successful” and others aren’t, every kid is different. Take water, sugar and salt, for example. Mixing sugar and water yields one result; salt and water yields another. Are there mothers who are not so hot? Yes. Are there kids who are off the chain at the first moment of independence? Yes. But you’re not waved with a wand where you know all the answers, and sometimes, more often than we are willing to admit, even the most diligent mother can be off the mark with her own kid.

    I’m blessed with great male role models for my son. The men in my family (blood and extended) are total rock stars. Toxic men don’t make it into the picture.

    As far as learning how to treat women, it’s a nonstop job. Having a sister, and being the older child, he’s always had a sense of protectiveness, and there were certain things that were just innate to his personality: being helpful, being protective, etc. However, I do also teach him about respect for ALL individuals, and the importance of not being a douchebag. I teach him that it is rude to run over any person to walk through a door, or bypass them. I also teach him by not tolerating rude behavior from other males. He has seen one man disrespect me entirely, and I taught him by the example of having nothing to do with that person. Period. Ever. I think that message resonated with him.

    I’m not sure I have the traditional gender roles in my family, because I teach him that family equals team. I (half) joked with you about the bug killing, catching thing in my family, however, in my family, my daughter is the animal/nature lover, so she catches and releases bugs. They both mop and they both take out the trash. One of his aspirations is to be a chef, and has perfected the art of the turkey burger. He was happier to receive the George Foreman grill than I was. I’m slightly disturbed that one of his favorite songs is “Bad Romance,” but a) that’s partially my fault, and b) I think he does it to mess with me.

    He also loves sports, and other stuff that makes him a well rounded person.

    He does live with two very strong willed female people, and neither of us take a whole lot of guff, but I also try to temper it in a way so as not to crush his spirit, and so as not to create one of those dudes that hates women with opinions.

    At the end of the day, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope we have the right formula. Even in families with both parents, especially in the old days, you can have a bunch of kids that are model citizens, and one that can’t get their shyte together. *shrug* What can ya do? I don’t think any of us will ever have the real answer. We can just do our best.


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