Parent’s Role in Boy’s Gender and Sexual Identification

In my opinion (and in the opinion of an increasing number ofresearchers), the father plays an essential role in a boy's normal development as a man. The truth is, Dad is more important than Mom. Mothers make boys. Fathers make men. In infancy, both boys and girls are emotionally attached to the mother. In psychoanalytic language, Mother is the first love object. She meets all her child's primary needs.

Girls can continue to grow in their identification with their mothers. On the other hand, a boy has an additional developmental task—to disidentify from his mother and identify with his father. At this point [beginning about eighteen months], a little boy will not only begin to observe the difference, he must now decide, "Which one am I going to be?" In making this shift in identity, the little boy begins to take his father as a model of masculinity. At this early stage, generally before the age of three, Ralph Greenson observed, the boy decides that he would like togrow up like his father.16 This is a choice. Implicit in that choice is the decision that he would not like to grow up like his mother. According to Robert Stoller, "The first order of business in being a man is, 'don't be a woman.'"

Meanwhile, the boy's father has to do his part. He needs to mirror and affirm his son's maleness. He can play rough-and-tumble games with his son, in ways that are decidedly different from the games he would play with a little girl. He can help hisson learn to throw and catch a ball. He can teach him to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.

Based on my work with adult homosexuals, I try to avoid the necessity of a long and sometimes painful therapy by encouraging parents, particularly fathers, to affirm their sons' maleness. Parental education, in this area and all others, can prevent a lifetime of unhappiness and a sense of alienation. When boys begin to relate to their fathers, and begin to understand what is exciting, fun and energizing about their fathers, they will learn to accept their own masculinity. They will find a sense of freedom—of power—by being different from their mothers, outgrowing them as they move into a man's world. If parents encourage their sons in these ways, they will help them develop masculine identities and be well on their way to growing up straight. In 15 years, I have spoken with hundreds of homosexual men. I have never met one who said he had a loving, respectful relationship with his father.

Many of these fathers loved their sons and wanted the best forthem, but for whatever reason (perhaps there was a mismatch between the father's and son's temperaments), the boy perceived his father as a negative or inadequate role model. Dad was "not who I am" or "not who I want to be." A boy needs to see his father as confident, self-assured and decisive. He also needs himto be supportive, sensitive and caring. Mom needs to back off a bit. What I mean is, don't smother him. Let him do more things for himself. Don't try to be both Mom and Dad for him.If he has questions, tell him to ask Dad. She should defer to her husband anything that will give him a chance to demonstrate that he is interested in his son—that he isn't rejecting him.

But this natural process of gender identification can sometimes go awry. The late Irving Bieber, a prominent researcher, observed that prehomosexual boys are sometimes the victims of their parents' unhappy marital relationship. In a scenario where Mom and Dad are battling, one way Dad can "get even" with Mom is by emotionally abandoning their son.

Some fathers find a way to get involved in everything but their sons. They lose themselves in their careers, in travel, in golf, or in any number of activities that become so all-important to them that they have no time for their boys—or for that "one particular son" who is harder to relate to because he does not share Dad's interests. Perhaps the activities this particular son enjoys are more social and less typically masculine.

I've even seen fathers who did not necessarily have other distracting interests but simply remained emotionally removed from the entire family. I saw one father—an immature and inadequate man who emphatically told his wife, before the son was born, that he did not want a boy—completely reject and ignore their son and dote on their daughter. Apparently threatened by the idea of having another "man in the house," this father made his displeasure so clear that, by the age of two, his son was (not surprisingly) wearing dresses and playing with a doll collection.

For a variety of reasons, some mothers also have a tendency to prolong their sons' infancy. A mother's intimacy with her son is primal, complete, exclusive; theirs is a powerful bond which can deepen into what psychiatrist Robert Stoller calls a "blissful symbiosis." But the mother may be inclined to hold onto her son in what becomes an unhealthy mutual dependency, especially if she does not have a satisfying, intimate relationship with the boy's father. She can put too much energy into the boy, using him to fulfill her own needs in a way that is not good for him. In reparative therapy [a psychologist's name for treatment of homosexuals], effeminate boys yearn for what is called "the three A's." They are: their father's affection, attention and approval.

If [a father] wants his son to grow up straight, he has to break the mother-son connection that is proper to infancy but not in the boy's interest after the age of three. In this way, the father has to be a model, demonstrating that it is possible for hisson to maintain a loving relationship with this woman, his mom, while maintaining his own independence. In this way, thefather is a healthy buffer between mother and son.

Recalling the words of psychologist Robert Stoller, he said, "Masculinity is an achievement." [He] meant that growing up straight isn't something that happens. It requires good parenting. It requires societal support. And it takes time. The crucial years arefrom one and a half to three years old, but the optimal time is before age twelve. Once mothers and fathers recognize the problems their children face, agree to work together to help resolve them, and seek the guidance and expertise of a psychotherapist who believes change is possible, there is great hope.

Once again, this short synopsis from Dr. Nicolosi's book is the most insightful material available on the subject. The bottom line is that homosexuality is not primarily about sex. It is about everything else, including loneliness, rejection, affirmation, intimacy, identity, relationships, parenting, self-hatred, gender confusion, and a search for belonging. This explains why the homosexual experience is so intense—and why there is such anger expressed against those who are perceived as disrespecting gays and lesbians or making their experience more painful. I suppose if we who are straight had walked in the shoes of those in that "other world," we would be angry too.

There is much more useful information in Nicolosi's book, of course. If you as a parent have an effeminate boy or a masculinized girl, I urge you to get a copy and then seek immediate professional help. Be very careful whom you consult, however. Getting the wrong advice at this stage could be most unfortunate, solidifying the tendencies that are developing. Given the direction the mental-health profession has gone, most secular psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors would, I believe, take the wrong approach—telling your child that he is homosexual and needs to accept that fact. You as parents would then be urged to consider the effeminate behavior to be healthy and normal. That is exactly what you and your son don't need! You do need to accept the child and affirm his worth regardless of the characteristics you observe but also work patiently with a therapist in redirecting those tendencies. When deciding to seek that help, however, you must be aware that for many prehomosexual boys, the signs may be more subtle, such as an inability to bond with same-sex peers, feeling different and inferior, or a discomfort with one's gender. Sometimes a visit with a professional is needed just to determine whether or not a child is at risk.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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