In 1978, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson covered one of the classic songs of recent decades. Performed first by Ed Bruce, “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” hit number 1 on the charts and touched a cultural chord. No doubt there were a few aspiring cowboys who were diverted to new career paths due to the tongue-in-cheek song.
So much for the backyard reenactments of the Wild West. Mothers, in aggregate, were likely pleased; sons were likely aggravated, at least for a youthful season.
I was reminded recently of the song when listening to a recent episode of Al Mohler’s “The Briefing” podcast. Mohler covered a news story from the New York Times on the phenomenon of mothers searching online for wives for their adult sons (see the multiple mention of TheJMom.com, a site for Jewish mothers). Mammas, it seems, want their babies to grow up to be husbands, but their sons don’t want that.
This kind of story can elicit many responses. In me, it brought out a mixture of thankfulness, sadness, and alarm.
First, I’m thankful for what this story says about mothers. Their sons are, in many cases, struggling to launch into adulthood, and these moms are taking it upon themselves to help their boys. Let’s just appreciate that for a moment. Mothers are a gift of God’s common grace. They often live deeply sacrificial, others-centered lives. I’m not going to make the case that mothers are more virtuous, inherently, than fathers, but I will say that it’s noteworthy, for example, how many single mothers there are in the world. Even when sin breaks a family down, it’s commonly Mom who sticks around and runs herself into the ground to keep her kids fed. That’s worth saying, isn’t it?
The phenomenon in question is not so alarming as single motherhood, but it shows, nonetheless, that even in bad situations, there are American mothers out there who will not abide the immaturity and helplessness of their sons. On a human level, I’m thankful for this.
Second, I’m saddened and troubled by this trend. It spells trouble on many fronts. We’re seeing this problem play out in a more advanced way in Europe already (as Italy and Greece, among other countries, struggle to launch their young men), and it’s going to have dire consequences in America as in the broader West. This trend may seem merely curious, the kind of cultural development you read about, raise your eyebrows, then forget about on your way to the Home + Garden section or Sports forum, but rest assured, this is no drop in the bucket.
Young men, in broad sweep, are struggling today in America. They’re earning far fewer degrees than young women; when it comes to finding a wife, the first step in a lifelong project of stability and strength, they’re nowhere to be found. In too many cases, they’re enmeshed in pornography, driven by their avocations, and disconnected from the old pathway to maturity and self-sacrifice. This is not a problem for just one cultural or religious group to ponder; this is an all-hands-on-deck reality involving our entire civilization.
Third, I’m alarmed by what this says about fathers. Fathers, in this story, are the silent partner. Or, better for this context, they are the silent non-partner.
No doubt there are many good dads out there who prepared their boys for adulthood. Praise the Lord for them.
There are also good reasons for some young men to be single. Some, for example, are pursuing the Lord with single-minded focus. Some are trying to be married but are finding the going difficult. They were prepped for this life-course but have not yet seen the Lord bless them in this regard. Some dads did prepare their sons for maturity, but it’s taking some time to get there.
With those caveats noted, I wonder if many fathers–Christian and otherwise–did not, in point of fact, ready their sons to win a woman’s heart and create a family with her. Where this is true, I find myself wrestling with many feelings, a good number of them, shall we say, vigorous.
Did you, I want to query American fathers, prepare your son for manhood? Did you train him in even a rudimentary way for adulthood? Did you invest in him? Did you ever talk to him about establishing a plan for his life? Did you lay out the fearsome privilege of winning one woman’s heart, and help him get a basic idea of how to attempt it? Did you enumerate the blessings that flow from children, and help him to push past childish thinking about them (i.e., kids are scary or a drag, dirty diapers nullify the pleasures of fatherhood, etc. and etc.)?
Did you, father, let your son retreat for massive chunks of time to his bedroom or the basement, helping him become asocial and self-driven instead of others-centered and self-sacrificial? Did you speak well of your wife around him, and commend the G0d-given institution of the family to him? Did you take the burden of provision on your back, the back the Lord has given you and made for this purpose, and thus release your wife to care for your kids and your home? When you were home from work, did you retreat to your hobbies, or did you push past the tiredness, grab your baseball glove, and play catch with him?
Did you ever, in all your working life, take a day off, surprise your son, pull him out of school, and do the stuff that he loved to do? Did you try skateboarding with him, even if you hated it? Did you go on a road trip with him that was gratuitously loving and totally unexpected?
Did you win your son’s heart, or did you merely manage him?
What, dear father, were you doing while your boy, your God-made son, busied himself in the solipsistic, virtue-undermining world of American adolescence? Did you take note of his lack of growth over the years? Did you chuckle to yourself over his silliness? Did you shush your wife when she raised concerns about his grades, or his lack of any discernible intellectual interests, or his boorish treatment of girls? Or, did you bring the thunder down upon him when he messed up, which only deepened his distrust of you–because there was little expressed love in the bank from which he could draw?
Where were you, dad?
Where are you?
The NYT story is just a cultural snapshot. It’s not a cultural tidal wave. Thankfully, I can indeed think of many fathers who raised their sons well, who sacrificed their time and energy to invest in their boys.
But we shouldn’t miss the underlying message of this piece. The verdict on the last generation of parents is in, and in places, at least, it’s not good. Permissive morality, feminism, frat-boy culture, irreligion, and the loss of traditional notions of virtue and personhood have mixed uneasily and helped to produce, This. 28-year-old boy men spearheading daring missions for home and hearth…wait for it…on Playstation. 26-year-old dudes watching one pornography video after another, soiling their soul and leaving a generation of women to languish. 34-year-old “bros” who spend hours cultivating their Fantasy Football teams and skipping work to watch athletes half their age play football.
Something visceral should awake in the heart of dads and men and even boys reading a story like this one. Fathers should be stirred to repentance and action. In terms of marriage, we may not be a society structured around arranged marriage, but surely dads can do much more to train their sons and help them to marry well. If fathers have not sufficiently engaged and trained their sons, the gospel offers forgiveness, and a fresh start. But if you are newly committed to building into your son, don’t start with toughness.
Start with love–lots and lots of it.
Boys and young men should see the consequences of foolishness and laziness in pieces like the NYT story and chart a course for their lives. If you are reading this and you are a young man, note these problems. Mark how easily they crop up. Resolve never to let your sons–or the boys in your church–grow up only to drift away.
No parent can guarantee happiness for their son; no parent can, in the end, launch their boy into manhood. Sons, at the end of the day, must cross over the line on their own. That’s the deal. But speaking broadly, a good number of parents today–fathers in particular–can surely do more than they are.
A massive part of this is pointing sons to men who have gone this way before. There are great military leaders and family men and politicians and doctors and, yes, cowboys who have grown up, won one woman’s heart, raised children, and blessed those around them by living virtuously and self-sacrificially. The preeminent example of this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human form who took the work of salvation on his shoulders. He paid the debt of sin for his bride, the church (Eph. 5:21-32), and in doing so welcomed us into his Father’s house as sons, heirs of all the eschatological and covenantal promises of God.
Maybe mammas shouldn’t let their sons be cowboys (sounds kind of fun to me, personally); they should, however, with their husbands, train their little boys to grow up to know Jesus, and to live like him.