Mama’s boy and daddy’s little girl: Making sense of the bonds between mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters

Parents’ roles in developing both their sons and daughters’ personalities have changed considerably in recent decades. Bonds between fathers and sons, for example, have become more maternal due to mothers and fathers sharing the protective role that has solely defined fatherhood since the beginning of time—even if most dads would prefer to keep this role for themselves.

Author, psychologist and psychoanalyst, Louise Grenier has dissected the common features and differences between each type of relationship.

Father and daughter

This paternal bond has something in common with the father-son relationship, according to Grenier.

“The father also helps his daughter detach from her mother, so that she will eventually meet other men,” Grenier says. The commonalities generally end there, though. A relationship between girls and their dads deviate from father-son relationships around 4–5 years old as they become conscious of sexual differences and their own femininity.

At that point, the father becomes less involved in his daughter’s activities—or, that is to say, he’s more involved in his son’s activities. (e.g. Mothers begin taking their daughters to ballet classes much more often, where as fathers take their sons to hockey.)

The relationship becomes more complex when daughters reach puberty. Some fathers detach from their daughters almost entirely, but most of the time, that sense of complicity remains. However, there is a lingering sense of prudishness around the fact that she’s becoming a woman, so this detachment takes any ambiguity out of the relationship.

Mother and daughter

Young girls’ affection for their mothers has no limits. This relationship is fusional and lasts longer than the one that bonds a little boy to his mother, according to Grenier. Mothers usually find it harder to accept the psychological separation of their teenage or adult daughters, whereas they more easily accept separation with their sons.

Gradual detachment, though, occurs when the daughter gets closer to her dad as she tries to seduce him away from her rival, the mother.

Young girls define their identities through their fathers as much as their mothers, but the latter builds her sexual identity, while the former contributes to her feminine identity (as an object of desire) by providing love, as Grenier notes.

However, mother-daughter relationships are not necessarily made any easier by sharing a common gender. The mother-daughter relationship, in fact, is often a battleground during puberty.

“We tend to think that sharing a gender makes a daughter and her mother understand each other better, but we’re mistaken to think so. We can be very different even if we’re of the same sex,” Grenier explains. “Moms listen to their sons more because they can perceive differences right away. With her daughter, both think they know best.”

Mother and son

The first apple of a little boy’s eye is always his mom. After all, she’s the one who takes care of him and gives him the necessary information to take care of himself.

Mothers also tend to be much more lenient and compassionate with their sons and more demanding with their daughters “because they want their daughters to become as strong as they are in all aspects,” according to Grenier.

This relationship can be very strong and very intense. Some specialists argue that it’s the most complex of the four parental bonds. With the male child being different from her, the mother can’t fall back on her own experience—or even her own mother’s experience—to raise her son.

Sigmund Freud once said that the mother-son relationship is the least ambiguous and, most often, the happiest. This bond can become ambiguous, however, when a single mom (unconsciously) treats her son as a substitute for a man.

Nothing definitive

Grenier insists, however, that these descriptions aren’t always clear-cut.

“We must pay attention to the way we look at our children and to the way we judge them according to their gender. Those are social values that lead us to adopt different attitudes. It’s an unconscious form of sexism,” she says.

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