‘Mama’s boy’ is a flex, not an insult, for a new generation of men

A boy walks with his mother.

A young woman holds the hand of a child in this file photo. (Courtesy of Vystekimages/Getty Images/Photononstop RF via NPR)

It’s a simple schoolyard insult.

For eons, people — often men — hurled “mama’s boy” at each other as an emasculating put-down. To be called the son of a mother suggested an essential unmanliness. “Mama’s boys” were comically inept, even pathological, in movies and television shows ranging from the pathetic Buster Bluth in Arrested Development to The Waterboy‘s Bobby Boucher to Norman Bates in Psycho.

Looking way, way back, Beowulf’s Grendel could even be called the mother of literary mama’s boys.

But a new generation of men seems to be rejecting the toxic masculinity inherent in the phrase and radically reinventing it.

“I am a proud mama’s boy,” declares Sahil Bloom. The glamorous 31-year-old tech entrepreneur is now awaiting the birth of his own infant son. “I expect him to be a mama’s boy, in the same way. In the old sense of the phrase, it was about being a wuss or weak. But there’s nothing more powerful than a mother’s love.”

“I am definitely a mama’s boy because I love my mom,” agrees college soccer star Shaquan Reid. The 21-year-old Chicago State University sophomore says he owes everything to his mother’s encouragement and care. “I like having her around, motivating me, consoling me.”

Reid adds that plenty of athletes are self-proclaimed mama’s boys, and that’s certainly true of such NFL stars as Victor Cruz, John Elway, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb and Michael Strahan. All starred in mama’s boy-themed ads for Campbell’s soup. Not long ago, Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker went viral when he couldn’t find his mother in the stands during a 2019 game.

“It’s OK to be a mama’s boy. There’s nothing wrong with it,” Baker told NPR. “Everybody knew I was a mama’s boy [growing up]. People did try to make fun of me. But I was different. I was proud. Lots of people wasn’t proud to be a mama’s boy.”

These days, plenty of strong, loveable male characters who are confidently close to their moms populate screens and pages. Proud fictional mama’s boys range from Percy Jackson, of Rick Riordan’s young adult series, to Detective Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine to Luke Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Mama’s Boy pride is the subjects of songs and speeches.

All this is a far cry from when psychologist and bestselling author Harriet Lerner, the bestselling author of books such as The Mother Dance, first started her practice.

“During my career, mothers received the message, including from therapists, that her closeness to her sons, her failure to ‘separate’ and to ‘let go’ of her son, especially around his adolescence and then onward — that that would be a danger to the boy,” she says. “That could turn him into a mama’s boy and damage her son in his journey to manhood. Another false belief that shamed mothers — and made mothers even more anxious — was the belief that single mothers or households without a man could not raise sons. Because who would teach that boy to become a man?”

Such sexist double standards, Lerner suggests, can also be gleaned from comparing long-held cultural assumptions about “mama’s boys” and “daddy’s girls.”

“Being a daddy’s girl is seen as a good thing,” she observes. “It means you’re adorable and loved, and know how to flirt with men.”

Back in the 1980s, when Lerner’s two sons were children, Lerner often saw cute little girls wearing t-shirts reading ‘Daddy’s girl.’

“I didn’t know why there weren’t any t-shirts that said ‘mama’s boys,’ ” she says dryly.

These days, such shirts for boys are easy to find. In fact, Google searches for “mama’s boy shirt” have notably climbed for the past few years.

It wasn’t difficult to find data proving we’ve evolved in our use of the phrase “mama’s boy.” After all, this is 2022. Every single thing is tracked by some major company, it seems, and “mama’s boy” is no exception.

“There’s been over 3 million mentions of terms like ‘momma’s boy’ on people’s profiles over the past few years,” wrote Michael Kaye, the associate director of global communications at OkCupid, in an email. “Between December and April there was a 20% increase in these terms being mentioned. Men who include ‘momma’s boy’ on their profiles have a 7% higher probability of exchanging phone numbers with another user.”

Kaye (who also was quick to identify himself as a proud mama’s boy in a phone interview) said sure, seven percent might not seem like much. “But when you think about there being millions and millions of people on dating apps like OkCupid, it’s actually a pretty high success rate,” he points out.

“It’s a very clever strategy,” agrees Helen Fisher. She’s chief science advisor for Match.com. Fisher did not crunch any numbers specifically for the term “mama’s boy,” but she checked Match.com data about men who reference their moms in their profiles.

“It’s only 1.4 percent of men who actually used the terms ‘my mother,’ my mom’ or ‘my mamma’ but those 1.4 percent of men had a 26 percent increase in the likelihood to resign from the site because they had met somebody,” she announced.

That sounds about right to Garret Watts, a 32-year-old YouTube personality and proud mama’s boy. When he sees guys using that self-descriptor on dating apps, there’s really just one word that comes to mind: honest.

After all, Watts points out, the vast majority of men are technically mama’s boys, including himself. “Go ahead and call me a mama’s boy,” he says. ” You’re just calling me a human. You’re just calling me a base-level emotionally responsible human.”

Watts is pleased more people are reclaiming the expression “mama’s boy” as a point of pride, but he says fundamentally, it’s antiquated. “Let the stigma go,” he says. “I say, let the phrase ‘mamma’s boy’ burn. That belongs in the past.”

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