In “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which became a smash hit in 1978 when sung by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, songwriters Ed and Patsy Bruce warned mothers against the cowboy life:
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don’t let ’em pick guitars or drive them old trucks
Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such
Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
‘Cause they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone
Even with someone they love.”
Here at The Epoch Times and in other publications, I have written about the need for men—fathers, coaches, teachers, pastors, and other mentors—to step up and become involved in the lives of young males. Several years ago, I addressed this same topic in “Movies Make The Man: The Hollywood Guide to Life, Love, and Faith for Young Men,” a book that looks at various movies that can act as mentors and instruct the young in manhood.
Like so many others, I wrote these things in response to the epidemic of fatherless households that continues to afflict our culture. Without male role models, especially dads, many boys and young men lack exemplars of manliness. As a result, they all too often drop out of school, avoid commitments, live without goals or purpose, and rather than tackling adulthood, extend their adolescence by seeking out pleasure and entertainment. The 12-year-old who spent hours a day playing video games is doing the same thing 15 years later.
We need good men to guide young males to manhood.
But what about mothers? What role can they play in developing manly virtues and strengths in their sons?
Recently, I heard a woman in the coffee shop where I sometimes write expressing her dismay and astonishment that one of her employees, a 20-year-old male, had sent his mother to work to discuss problems her son was having on the job.
Most of us have heard of the “helicopter moms” who call professors or college administrators to protest a bad grade or disciplinary action earned by their sons. Some of these young men are old enough to buy beer, drive a car, and enlist in the Army, but rely on Mommy to do their fighting for them.
When we treat legal adults as children, we are creating what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.”
Men and Strong Moms
On the other hand, history both ancient and modern reveals an army of mothers who raised their sons to enter into the fray of life.
As their sons marched off to war, Spartan mothers called out, “Come back with your shield—or on it,” meaning come back honorably alive or bravely dead. Cornelia of Ancient Rome regarded her two boys as her jewels and reared them to be fighters and patriots. Andrew Jackson’s widowed mother raised her son to be tough, telling him in the last words she would speak to him: “You will have to make your own way” and “Sustain your manhood always.” Later Jackson would say of her, “She was gentle as a dove and as brave as a lioness. Her last words have been the law of my life.”
In our own time, we find men who credit their mothers with instilling in them the virtues of manhood. Here let us turn to the example of the famed pediatric neurosurgeon and the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, who has recounted in his autobiography how his working, poorly educated mother insisted that he and his brother read for hours a day, limiting their television time and keeping them off the streets of the poor neighborhood in which they lived.
Because of his mother’s efforts, Carson attended prestigious universities and was eventually selected by the Library of Congress as one of its “Living Legends.”
After my parents divorced in 1974, my mother moved my three younger siblings from Florida to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she found work as an office manager with the Moravian Church and continued to raise her children. Never once during this time did I hear my mother complain about the cards life had handed her. She single-handedly raised her youngest, my brother, from the age of 10 until he graduated from high school and left home, instilling in him lessons like these: tell the truth, work hard, treat others kindly whenever possible, and make your own way.
For me, one of Mom’s most important lessons in manliness came with her dying and death. When doctors diagnosed her with liver cancer, Mom stoically accepted her two-month death sentence, invited friends to her home to say good-bye, maintained her sense of humor, and never asked “Why me?” She died in her own bed surrounded by her children, some of their spouses, and grandchildren, tranquil and stouthearted to the last.
My mom taught me how to die like a man.
Help Is at Hand
Though our culture does indeed need men involved with boys, if we are to see a restoration of manhood, we need the help of women. We need mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and friends to encourage boys and young men to act in manly ways, to treat the opposite sex and the unfortunate with chivalry, to tell the truth even when the consequences are dire, to defend their loved ones, to dream, and to work hard for what they want.
Some women I know, married and single, want to teach these lessons to their sons and so help make their boys into men, but they feel lost. They are comfortable handling a daughter’s needs and questions, but their rough-and-tumble sons baffle them.
Here are two helps for the mom confused by the boy in her life.
Under “Code of the West” at his online site Cowboy Ethics, Jim Owen, who has written two books on this topic as well, gives readers the marks of this code, including such advice as “Live each day with courage,” “Take pride in your work,” “Talk less and say more,” and “Remember that some things are not for sale.”
In his introduction to his book “Cowboy Ethics,” Owen points out that an unwritten but somewhat complicated code of manners prevailed in the Old West, but he then writes: “Cowboy ethics, on the other hand, were far simpler. Knowing right from wrong, following the Golden Rule, and being willing to work hard would take you a long way.”
Far more numerous are the resources at TheArtOfManliness.com. Founded by Brett and Kate McKay, this site and the books this husband-and-wife team have written explore hundreds of subjects having to do with men. From camping to dinner party etiquette, from the virtues practiced by men down through the ages to lessons we can learn from soldiers, construction workers, and lawyers, the McKays and their staff publish their articles to boost the idea of real manhood.
Though intended primarily for male readers, moms looking for insights into raising good men will find them at The Art of Manliness.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
The above sub-header may call to mind the full aphorism: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”
Certainly, many great men have credited the truth of this adage. George Washington, for instance, once said: “All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” Abraham Lincoln followed suit with these words: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Good, strong men are the product of the men and women who raise them. We need those men, now more than ever, and women can help mold them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose father died when Emerson was 8, gave thanks his entire life for the influences of his mother, his aunt Mary, and other women on his development and success, summing up his feelings in words that remain popular today: “Men are what their mothers made them.”
If we are to have good men, we must also have good women.
Oh, and moms, one more thing: You can raise your boys up to “be doctors and lawyers and such.” But leave a little bit of the cowboy in their hearts.
It’s that cowboy who makes him a man.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.