Baylor Researcher Says "Psycho"-inspired TV Show Offers Moms and Sons Food for Thought

Moms and Sons
Actors Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates in the TV series "Bates Motel." (Photo by Joe Lederer, Courtesy of NBCUniversal)
April 16, 2013

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WACO, Texas (April 17, 2013) -- With a new TV series turning the spotlight on one of Hollywood's most famous mom-son relationships -- that of Norman Bates and his late mother in the classic thriller "Psycho" -- a Baylor University researcher suggests it may be time to take a closer look at what makes for closeness (or not) between a man and his mother.

The simple trait of "being there" -- and not in the macabre maternal way that Norman's mom was tucked away at the creepy Bates mansion -- was mentioned most frequently by young men as critical in how they related to their mothers, according to a study by Mark Morman, Ph.D., a professor of communication studies in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.

That meant everything from talking about romance to choosing a college major to discussing faith to getting support during a struggle with weight loss, said Morman, whose studies on parent-child and sibling relationships have been published in several journals.

A&E's "Bates Motel," a "contemporary prequel" which debuted last month and was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," explores in a present-day setting the connection Bates might have had with his mother during his youth - a crucial time for mother-son bonding. But while movies and television shows often touch on mother-son closeness and conflicts, real-life research on that particular parent-child relationship is sparse, Morman said.

"That's unfortunate, as there are a variety of reasons to believe that mothers specifically influence their sons in a host of significant ways" -- including on such issues as antisocial behavior, use of alcohol and suicidal thoughts, Morman said.

While father-daughter closeness tends to revolve around shared activities -- sports in particular -- conversation is more important for bonding between moms and sons. The most prominent forms involved advice about relationships, according to the mother-son study, published in the Journal of Family Communication in 2012.

The category of "social support" or "being there" drew the most varied responses among young men, with mothers also most frequently citing such support as crucial to their closeness with sons.

Study participants were 139 sons and 68 unrelated mothers, with the sons being at least age 18. Mothers were asked to write about a memorable time they shared with their sons, while sons were asked to relate one about their mothers.

For the most part, mothers and sons in the study were in "remarkable agreement" about incidents they saw as critical -- social support, family crisis, divorce, son maturing and son leaving for college or becoming physically distant for another reason, Morman said.

"Being There"

One son wrote that when he got into a fight in high school, "this created a lot of tension between my dad and myself. My mother helped communicate between us, and she was understanding of my situation. I was able to confide in her, and we have been close ever since."

Another said he grew close to his mother as she helped him lose a great deal of weight in elementary school.

Then there was the matter of religion.

"An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy," according to a Spanish proverb, and that seemed to hold true for some young men in the Baylor study. "The biggest moment (of closeness) was probably struggling with my faith in high school and being able to communicate with my mom," one son wrote.

Support during or after a breakup with someone who is a romantic interest, as well as disagreement over that person, also was mentioned by several sons.

Hard Times

Family crisis --such as illness, injury, death or problems with the authorities -- emerged as the second largest category of responses among sons and mothers, with several men mentioning times when their mother's health was at stake.

"My mother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer two years ago," one young man related. "I was a junior in high school, and I became distinctly aware that I could lose my mom forever."

One mother recalled a time she yelled at her son and humiliated him because he did not seem to be trying during homeschooling. "He began to cry and said that he was stupid. At that point I knew that I was the stupid one . . . I realized that his spirit was more sensitive than I knew. It made me love him and be careful to affirm him much more after that."

Out of the Nest

Physical distance -- such as when a son left for college -- was the category that drew the third largest response for sons, with many reporting that the miles actually brought them emotionally closer. "Something like, 'you don't know what you have until it's gone,'" one son wrote.

For mothers, meanwhile, a son's marriage was the third most frequent pivotal time, with other changes in closeness occurring when a son matured, went to college or became a father. One woman said that her son's marriage to "the perfect daughter-in-law" made it easy to stay close, but "in a different way." Another woman said her "strained relationship" with her son changed when he joined the military -- "mainly because the Army helped him to grow and mature as a young man."

Discord

Conflict, whether in shouting matches or the silent treatment, sometimes drove mothers and sons apart, but it often had an upside as they worked through differences.

"I became close to my mother in high school when she caught me sneaking out of the house to go hang out with friends," one son wrote. "At first, it distanced us. But as I came to realize her forgiveness, my relationship with her became closer."

Sometimes, conflict resolution comes about in unusual ways.

*Analysis of the sons' responses produced a total of 130 different items, with most reporting only one critical incident. Mothers' responses totaled 72 items. While many reported only one incident, others reported multiple events. Morman and Marianna Whiteley, a former graduate student and teaching assistant at Baylor and now an assistant professor of communication studies at McLennan Community College in Waco, conducted the study.

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Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

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The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.

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