In this second post in my series on boys’ relationships with their mothers, I want to say something about the background to my research on this topic. As I noted in the last post, studies of young masculinity have until recently overlooked the family as a site for the development of young male identities. This has also been true of youth studies more generally. In the words of Aapola, Gonick and Harris, ‘the realm of family life as the context for young people’s growing up process has been a neglected area of youth research.’ (1) Val Gillies has suggested that part of the explanation might be the location of research on young people, and work on the family, in separate academic disciplines – youth studies and family studies. But she argues that this division has also reflected ‘the assumption that youth is a period marked by increasing autonomy and independence from family ties’. (2)

With a few notable exceptions, the main sites for studying the lives and changing experience of young people generally, and boys in particular, have been the school and the peer group. The picture is beginning to change, as more studies emerge that consider young people’s experience of family life as a vital component of their experience of the transition to adulthood. Studies that adopt a biographical approach – such as the longitudinal ‘Inventing Adulthoods’ research which provided the data for the study I’ll be discussing later – have begun to consider ‘home’ and ‘family’ as key contexts for young people’s unfolding lives. (3)

Val Gillies’ own work, with Jane McCarthy and Janet Holland, on the family lives of young people, went a long way to redressing the imbalance. Countering the stereotypical image of young people as increasingly alienated from family life, they found that the vast majority of young people ‘describe their family relationships in positive terms, emphasising the supportive and emotionally meaningful nature of their lives together’. (4)

The fact that research on boys and young men, in particular, has emphasised the importance of friendship groups and overlooked family life, partly reflects the dominance of the subcultural tradition in youth studies. But it also reflects the dominant assumptions of developmental psychology which, as Aapola and colleagues point out, has tended to see girls as more dependent on other people, and particularly their families, than boys.

This is not to say that work on young men has completed ignored family relationships. For example, Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix and Rob Pattman, in their major study of young masculinities (5), though basing their research in the school context, talked to young men about their relationships with their parents, as did Martin Mac an Ghaill in his groundbreaking study (6). But we still lack research that takes those parental and other family relationships as a primary focus for exploring the development of young men’s identities, and which sees relationships with mothers, fathers and siblings as key factors in the shaping of young masculinities.

Where young men’s family relationships have come into focus, whether in research or in policy discourse, there has been an almost exclusive emphasis on boys’ relationships with their fathers. This reflects the influence of what we might call the ‘male role model’ discourse in discussion of young men’s gender formation, something I discussed in an earlier post.

Briefly, I would argue that a great deal of debate around family policy – whether it’s about single mothers, absent fathers, or young men and anti-social behaviour – has rested on assumptions about the necessity of strong male role models for boys’ healthy development. There’s a conservative or traditionalist version of this – seen in the work of New Right thinkers such as Charles Murray in the USA (7) and Dennis and Erdos in the UK (8)– which argues that the presence of fathers is essential for the development of responsible young masculinity, and the absence of strong father figures to blame for rising youth crime, welfare dependence, and so forth.

But there’s also a ‘progressive’ or egalitarian version of the male role model discourse, which lies behind much of the advocacy for greater involvement by men in hands-on fathering and in early years childcare. The assumption here is that alternative male role models are necessary to ensure that boys develop more caring and expressive masculine identities.

In both versions, the influence of mothers – and female professionals – on young men’s development tends to get left out of the picture. There’s an assumption, not only of a rather simplistic social learning model of gender development, but also that this learning has to be from a parent or professional of the same sex.

I would argue that we need a more complex, relational model of how gender identities develop, in which the multiplicity of relationships in which young men are situated is taken into account – including the potential for cross-gender identifications. This will mean paying greater attention to boys’ relationships with adults (parents, carers, professionals) of both genders.

It also means putting mothers back into the picture, as I tried to do in my own small-scale study. In the next post, I’ll explain what prompted me to undertake the study, and how I set about it.


(1) Aapola, S., Gonick, M. and Harris, A. (2005) Young Femininity: Girlhood, Power and Social Change, Basingstoke, Palgrave

(2) Gillies, V. (2000), ‘Young people and family life: analysing and comparing disciplinary discourses’, Journal of Youth Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 211-28

(3) Henderson, S., Holland, J., McGrellis, S., Sharpe, S. and Thomson, R. (2007), Inventing Adulthoods: A Biographical Approach to Youth Transitions, London, Sage/The Open University

(4) Gillies, V., Ribbens McCarthy, J. and Holland, J. (2001) Pulling Together, Pulling Apart: The Family Lives of Young People, London, Family Policy Studies Centre/Joseph Rowntree Foundation

(5) Frosh, S., Phoenix, A. and Pattman, R. (2002) Young Masculinities, Cambridge, Polity Press

(6) Mac an Ghaill, M. (1994) The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling, Buckingham, Open University Press

(7) Murray, C. (1994) Underclass: The Crisis Deepens, London, Institute of Economic Affairs

(8) Dennis, N. and Erdos, G. (1992) Families without Fatherhood, London, IEA Health and Welfare Unit