Bonding with sons

Speak a language your son understands ...
Speak a language your son understands ... Photo: Getty Images

The image of a dad and his son kicking a ball around is as ubiquitous as mince pies at Christmas. Few boys have a childhood free of countless balls of differing shapes and sizes cluttering up the garden and, on the occasion they sneak in, the house too. Likewise, Saturday mornings are likely to see mums of sporty boys everywhere chopping up oranges and locating errant boots before they stand and cheer-on their future Wallaby or Socceroo as if they were playing in a World Cup Final.

Most mums of boys love the Saturday morning spent by the sideline, watching their son learning vital life lessons about winning, losing and taking part while also navigating the dynamics of an unfamiliar team and its growing camaraderie. How many of those mums though, regularly get involved in the actual physical side of playing sport with their boys and when they do what benefits are brought to the relationship? Sarah Mathur, mum of three sporty boys says “I’d love to make it more often but realistically, about once a week. The boys love it and they actually think you are fun instead of the fun police! And when they think you are fun I think they talk to you more and feel closer.”

This perceived strengthening of the mother/son bond during sport has sound basis according to Dr Marcelle Moore, a clinical psychologist who specialises in child and family issues. According to Dr Moore, by “engaging with them in the play medium the mum is moving into her son’s comfort zone where they are more likely to share with her rather than treating her as a distant parent.”

The accepted pattern of male development, described as ‘The Three Stages of Boyhood’ by Stephen Biddulph in his book ‘Raising Boys’ posits sport firmly in the third stage, ‘learning to be male’.  He discusses the importance of sons and fathers bonding through sport but, taking Dr Moore’s description of the comfort zone it would seem that sport can also offer mums a crucial link to their boys, a link which might otherwise be irrevocably lost.

Catherine Bethall, a champion triathlete and in-demand personal trainer from Sydney, makes the most of their shared love of sport whenever she and son Finn have time just to themselves. It doesn’t have to be for long, she says, in fact “sometimes ten minutes of your time is all you need to give them the knowledge that you are committed to spending time with them and joining in with their game.”

In the Bethall household being inactive is not really an option especially in the summer triathlon season when the weekends begin with Friday night Aquathons and are busy through to Nippers on Sunday morning after which the rest of the day will be spent on the beach. Finn now competes in the junior tri-comp and at only 7 is one of the youngest participants. “He begged us to let him take part.” Catherine says proudly. Could it have been thanks to watching her compete in the club championship? “He gets excited when I do well and his enjoyment of watching me compete does give me a boost. He was so keen that we just felt we couldn’t say no. I think it is so important for kids to want to do sport rather than be told they’re doing it.’ 

The moment Catherine draws on the most in terms of her relationship with Finn is not a competitive one but an hour they spent at their local oval chucking a rugby ball around. “When we finished Finn said, ‘I loved that Mum, you’re awesome.’ That made me so happy.” Maternal sporting involvement runs in the Bethall family; Catherine’s mother-in-law takes part in circuit training twice a week and when they are visiting her Finn loves nothing more than joining in. “He’s not aware that she is amazing for her age,” comments Catherine, “to him it’s just the norm.” 

Seeing their Mum participate in sport is a natural way to encourage boys to form a positive impression of the opposite sex and, according to Dr Moore, can help “set the pace for how they relate to females later on in life.” This is echoed by Laura Hollingsworth, mum to another set of three boys who she says “actually like helping me to learn – as they end up better than me very quickly. It is no bad thing for your boys to see you ‘fail’, laugh at yourself, pick yourself up and try again.” Moore suggests too that using sport as a metaphor when talking to boys is employing “a language they understand and can relate to” which can result in stronger bonds and more open communication between mothers and sons. 

Fundamentally, boys and men love talking and engaging in all things sporty. Dads though do not have to have the monopoly on those joyous kick-about moments; as a mother there is a choice to be made, either get stuck in or miss out. As Laura puts it, “I don’t want my sons to grow up thinking a mum is someone who just makes the picnic and watches the fun.”

Have you used sport to help you connect with your son? Or what other activities have you bonded over?