How Raising Emotionally Literate Boys Challenges Our Perceptions of Masculinity

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About Heather Gray

As a therapist, Heather Gray guides people from ambivalence toward change so they can be actively and effectively engaged in their own lives. When men and are looking for mental health support, they often find advice and articles geared toward women.  Heather, a member of the GMP Marriage Editorial team, fills the gap with her straightforward approach.  Join her in changing the conversation on Google, and Twitter. Gray is available for individual and couples counseling in Wakefield, Mass.

Comments

  1. Heather, thank you for challenging us to think about our prejudices and fears when it comes to raising our sons to be emotionally literate.

  2. Interesting article, since in many cases the biggest gender ‘policing’ of small boys comes from their mothers. I speak from experience.

    • Chaz, I agree. I have noticed this, too, at times. I’d be interested to know about your experience and what you are referring to. My story about it has been that any parent has a hard time seeing “intense” (for lack of a better word) emotion in their kids. However, when it’s a son, it hits harder because “it is so unlike them” to get upset so parents rush in to shut it down and problem solve it away. I am not sure the intent is so much as to police emotions away all the time. Sometimes, like I said in the article, it’s because hearing the pain is so hard for parents and they just want to make go away but in turn, they shut down the emotional experience.

      • I also think Moms bear the brunt of societal judgement about how their kid’s behave – and, since anger is a big no-no in our culture, moms can often freeze up and/or try to shut that expression down so as not to feel the intense judgement that can come our way if we have the ‘wrong kind of kid’.
        I’m not trying to say it’s OK, but I think it’s important to look at the deeper cut of *why* these things happen, so we can address them most effectively…
        As the mom of a (very expressed!) boy, I have really noticed how much more socially acceptable ‘girl’ behavior & play is… And also how often the ways girls are mean is over-looked (i.e. a little girl standing too close to my son & refusing to move), but the boy’s response is often punished (in the example above: my son yelling at her) – drives me *insane*!!!!
        I appreciate this article & am saving it for later – because I know I am only at the beginning, with my 4.5 year old & I may very well need the reminder as he becomes a teenager :)

  3. Heather,

    While I can tell you have good intentions, I’m not sure you’re qualified to give optimal parenting advice to just everyone. One big clue to me is you make it sound like there’s just one way to “fix” boys, like we guys are all psychologically uniform, which is in addition modeled after your feminine, and personal, expectations. From my end, it sounds like you want to mold men to your needs, ie you want them to talk about their feelings to balance out the fact that a lot of women need to do just that as part of their emotional well-being.

    Fun fact: If you want a personal example of what made me clam up when I was growing up… One of the rare times I confided in my mother, which I assumed to be private conversations, she ended up using what I said against me or gossiped about it with some of our relatives at a later time. What’s the moral in there? hint: It’s not what you think it is.

    Another reason that men do not talk to their partner about what may be internalizing is that talking to a women is never 100% safe and can for example lead to her feeling hurt or anxious because it’s going to set off some deep-rooted insecurity, while the original topic might not even involve her directly. I’m again talking from experience.

    I’m not saying there aren’t other, for instance cultural, causes to that, but it certainly isn’t the least and it’s one I’m not seeing getting much attention.

    And feel free not to believe me on this one, but I’ve met a fair proportion of women who would never have a long-term relationship with the “sensitive” boys you’re trying to raise.

    • I absolutely believe you and your experience. You’re right that there are times when boys are encouraged to talk, only to have it used against them. You raise an important point about helping kids discern who is “safe” to talk to. That, as you imply, also means helping kids cope when that safe person isn’t their parent.

      I know, too, that this pattern can only continue to interpersonal relationships, as your experience has been.

      It was not at all my intention to show only one way of parenting boys. I wasn’t trying to make boys more sensitive–merely giving boys who happen to be sensitive permission to be so. The discussion is really about emotional literacy, and I wish I had taken the time to define it. Emotional intelligence is about helping boys to connect to what they are thinking and feeling–to know why they do things. There are many ways parents can do this and there are ways they can intentionally, or unintentionally, screw it up.

      My hope here was to help parents help their sons connect to their feelings. To start a conversation on ways that will challenge us. Thanks for contributing. Parenting discussions are certainly not one size fits all but dialogue like this is important.

    • Tom Anderson says:

      Any time a man becomes vulnerable, women treat the vulnerability as a weakness and quite frequently use the opportunity to disrespect the man, degrade him, belittle him. Men should not talk to women. That would be one way for them to become a little more emotionally literate.

      And if women do not see the vulnerability was weakness, they view the man as probably homosexual, since “real” men don’t show emotions.

      This is one the main reasons why men get turned off to women in general. It’s why the pickings for women is going down. All the beautiful men, men capable of reacting as fully human beings, tend, actually, to be homosexual, as they see the futility of trying to have a decent sexual relationship with a woman that is also emotionally resonant.

      The vast majority of men still prefer sex with women, but it is just sex, not real loving, for the simple reason is that a man cannot love a woman with whom he cannot share himself, and that means all of himself, not just the parts the woman wants or thinks she needs.

      Society has become a woman-centric universe. The culture suffocates boys, fills them with drugs so they’ll act more like females rather than the robust males they might become.

      Is it any wonder that so many men only see women as objects for sexual release? Or else they deny their natures to become what women think they want and then are rejected for being insufficiently “masculine.” Why do you think women like “bad bods”?

    • Tom Anderson says:

      Any time a man becomes vulnerable, women treat the vulnerability as a weakness and quite frequently use the opportunity to disrespect the man, degrade him, belittle him. Men should not talk to women. That would be one way for them to become a little more emotionally literate.

      And if women do not see the vulnerability was weakness, they view the man as probably homosexual, since “real” men don’t show emotions.

      This is one the main reasons why men get turned off to women in general. It’s why the pickings for women is going down. All the beautiful men, men capable of reacting as fully human beings, tend, actually, to be homosexual, as they see the futility of trying to have a decent sexual relationship with a woman that is also emotionally resonant.

      The vast majority of men still prefer sex with women, but it is just sex, not real loving, for the simple reason is that a man cannot love a woman with whom he cannot share himself, and that means all of himself, not just the parts the woman wants or thinks she needs.

      Society has become a woman-centric universe. The culture suffocates boys, fills them with drugs so they’ll act more like females rather than the robust males they might become.

      Is it any wonder that so many men only see women as objects for sexual release? Or else they deny their natures to become what women think they want and then are rejected for being insufficiently “masculine.” Why do you think women like “bad boys”?

  4. Heather, your message means well. But raising Emotionally Literate Boys isn’t going to solve any of their problems alone.

    Because, whether you agree or not, we still live in a world that prefers the pain of boys and men be swept under the rug. Sure, boys may be in tune with their emotions and capable of expressing their wants and feelings with your proposal but that’s not going to mean anything so long as society prefers to turn a blind eye towards their plight anyway.

    Male victims of sexual abuse/domestic violence, boys victims of rape, boys falling behind in education, misandry, making girls out to be well-rounded and boys a “Problem”, you can equip boys with all the awareness of their emotions but should they face any of these issues in their life, none of it will matter. Nobody wants a “Whiner” (as many people call men who are fighting to get their issues heard) and their pain is not a priority.

    Until we change that too, Emotional Literacy will only be a tool that means nothing in the face of an apathetic society.

    • I don’t think any single blog or thought will solve all of the problems alone. I see emotional literacy as one step or skill set that boys need to manage a whole host of problems they might face. Absolutely, we have to change perceptions of our society and culture when men express themselves, I just couldn’t cover all of that in a single piece.

    • Mr Supertypo says:

      Eagle, I think that maybe with boys learning to improve their emotional skills will at one point contribute to convince the world that men are also humans and that will be to great help into solving the issues you mention.

      • Yes, but first people have to be willing to consider that notion of men as human beings. So far, society still has a major problem with that.

        • Mr Supertypo says:

          I do agree that they for the most dont see men as humans but either thugs, rapist or super privileged kids without a clue. And these stereotypes are also still prevalent (sadly) between feminist’s. But IMO one dont exclude the others, showing emotion IMO will also help breaking the firewall of stupidity surrounding the image of men.

  5. Good article. I grew up without a father in the home and as far as I am able I tend to be a pretty sensitive man. Some of this i attribute to my physicality, I’m short and thin and thus from the get haven’t completely fit into a hetero-normative narrative of what it means to be masculine. But, ironically the person who tried the hardest in my life to impose a much more standard view of masculinity was my mother. Part of why she did that was to protect me from what she perceived as a world that would take advantage of a small male (to this day she openly laments my height and size.)

    As an adult, i have feelings and i’m very able to quantify what they are; this makes me slow to anger (regarding your point above) but what I have always struggled with is expressing my emotions. I find that when i do try and express emotions to a female partner I’m expected to suck it up while at the same time expected to render aid to them in times of emotional crisis. Case in point, my gf and I aren’t happy in our current jobs. I’d like to just up and quit mine and when i voiced this to her, i expected some kind of sympathy, what i got instead was her telling me that I should know that she wasn’t going to be able to support me. The thing is I never mentioned that at all. The ironic thing is, not a week later she told me that she might get fired, what i told her was what i wanted her to tell me, that we’d find a way to make it work. She realized the irony and apologized but the lesson echoes some of the things that my mother told me growing up. Namely that men can’t rely on anyone else to help them after all that’s why they’re men.

    There needs to be a redefinition of what it means to be male, but what the current narrative gets wrong in my opinion is that ignores the role of assertiveness in what it means to be a functioning adult. The message about being a more open male is well and good but it needs to be tempered with showing boys how not to be a push over. I feel that the most nuanced exploration of what it means to be male is actually going on right now in the gay community.

    Annnd now I’ve lost my narrative thread and am just going to stop short here.

    Again, thanks for posting.

    • AC, You and others have talked about a need to educate women on masculinity when men are vulnerable and I absolutely agree, I don’t think women are well educated about this and male vulnerability tends to be met with defensiveness, What you’re talking about here is that we are preaching to the choir in a way–we’re talking to men who get it already but are frustrated when their awareness isn’t accepted. I do think women need to be challenged and educated in their response to men when men are direct and expressive. Maybe that’ll be my next piece. Better yet, maybe it can be yours. Your response here is the start of a really good article that I would enjoy reading.

  6. A worthwhile read.

  7. Brilliant thoughtful article. I will apply some of your ideas at home with my 6yo son.
    Thank you.

  8. A good summary of what’s needed. The new generation of Dads who are stay at home get this. Unintentionally, my life has led me to be more emotionally aware of myself and others. Our focus in our house is for our son and daughter to be more self-aware. It’s a worthwhile journey for all of us.

  9. I am an editor of a parenting magazine in South Africa and I have shared this with my readers. The perception of masculinity and what boys should and shouldn’t do is a real problem in our society and I believe is why we are such a violent and paternalistic one with a huge rape culture to boot. While this blog isn’t going to change everyone or everything I enjoyed (especially as a mother to a son) the practical tips and advice as a starting point to changing our way of thinking. Thank you!

  10. Phillip Bernal says:

    Kudos to you, today the male is lost and needs direction. Male energy is often looked upon with fear and shame only to be suppressed and this has not been good for anyone mostly the women who have to deal with the Rage that is the result… Books like Iron John and organizations like the Mankind Project address these issues head on! and let men be men without shame or guilt. keep up the great work.

  11. This article was just posted on the site. I think it compliments what I am trying to say here.
    http://goodmenproject.com/uncategorized/andrew-smiler-five-suggestions-for-talking-to-a-boy-about-difficult-topics/

  12. Hear Hear* Just saying lol

  13. If you really want to understand boys better it might be a good start to see if they have a different way to process emotions. we all need safety to process emotions and boys and girls have different places to feel safe. I wrote a recent blog post on helping women understand men and emotions you can see it here http://menaregood.com

    • Hi Tom

      I visited your blog and read the articles.
      If this is true, then living with a man will aways be a lonely thing.
      You write:
      “”However, it is likely that your husband uses some type of action to tell his story and if you know how he does it you will be in a much better position to both understand him and connect with him. But how does he do it?”

      I probably need to read your article many times until I get it.
      My question is :” why are they afraid of the women they are with?”.
      And is a need for safety before you open up and share your deepest thoughts and feelings a proof that men regulate feelings in a different way that women?
      What you describes look like men need to communicate indirectly . Do you say they have to, otherwise the flooding of strong feelings will overwhelm them?
      To me that sounds like a traumatized persons reactions and not a heathy human being.
      Is what how most men are like , no matter upbringing and their emotional health?

      A women can never be there shudder to shoulder like an other man, and to constantly try to guess what is going on inside of him by looking at his work and what he produces is a way no doubt but it give me an intense feeing of loneliness to read your article . Like it is no hope for women to be genuinely emotionally close to a man( the 80%) unless we come in through his work, through the book he is writing, the projects he designs and work on. The fights he take part in.

      If he knows himself why he invests time in a project, why is he afraid to say so right a way.
      We have to meet half way.
      I am willing to try to understand the way you writes about it, and let’s hope men also put some effort into communication with women the way many of us like it. What on earth are there to be afraid of!

      • Hi Iben – Glad you had a look. Actually, I would suggest you have a look at the second article in that series about why men’s emotional pain is invisible. It may help you understand why he tends to choose to not publicize his emotional pain. you can find it here: http://menaregood.com/wordpress/why-is-it-that-mens-grief-is-so-invisible/

        Women will rarely understand this difference since they are treated very differently from men. A woman’s emotional pain is often seen as a call to action while a man’s emotional pain is more a taboo and is avoided. Men know this very well and are not dumb enough to go out and freely emote in public. What they have is taboo and they will be more likely to find ways to deal with it that are not so connected with public emoting.

        It seems that you are seeing the feminine path to healing as being the primary mode. I would urge you to try and step out of that and be open to different ways to heal. In the long run they are not better or worse, they are simply different. Intolerance for a person’s different path will always bring separation and a lack of understanding. Understanding breeds intimacy. Best to you.

        • Hi Tom

          I will return to your blog to learn more. Just remember that what you say here is not aways true

          “”"”Women will rarely understand this difference since they are treated very differently from men. A woman’s emotional pain is often seen as a call to action while a man’s emotional pain is more a taboo and is avoided. “”"”
          If women’s and girls pains was responded to we would not have many woman with serious emotional disorders. The whole register of disorders from neuroses,personalty disorders to psychoses disorders are seen in women. You do not develop them if your emotions need are met and your feelings responded to and validated. Some disorder probably has biological and genetic componats, but it matters a lot how people treat you.

          If girls and women’s emotions paints was responded to we would have less emotional health problems among women. Women have seek help it not ” given as gift” without us lifting a finger.

          I do not doubt that men and women are treated differently , but it not true that all women are raised to freely express their emotions and reach out for help in a healthy way when distressed.
          I have no idea what gives you that idea.

          But have happy holidays now and a great new year :)

  14. Boysen Hodgson says:

    Heather – Thank you, I enjoyed the article. YES. I think that in the cultural dynamics of gender, we need lots of education and communication – from both sides – to give boys and girls what they need to thrive in the world we’re living in. We’re all carrying the responsibility for our future.

    I’ve been working with men in men’s groups (mankindproject.org) for nearly a decade now, and emotional intelligence is one of our key practices. Emotional MATURITY is the outcome we’re looking for. Sensitivity, empathy, self-awareness – these are all core – with RADICAL personal responsibility being the key to success.

    The responsibility is the work. It takes serious strength and courage to stop blaming and externalizing emotions once men really get in touch with and understand what they feel. I think this is an essential part of the mentoring and modeling that men and women need to practice more – otherwise we end up with a highly sensitive boy-culture unable to take responsibility for emotional states. And for boys and men – I think this is where almost all violence begins. (Self-directed or externally directed.)

    My experience with all kinds of men is that far from having stunted feelings … men spend a lot of time overwhelmed with feelings they don’t know how to identify or experience. And helping them identify, experience, take responsibility for, and communicate their feelings – and help others do the same! – is truly men’s work. It takes serious guts.

  15. I was reading through some of the counter arguments to this article. They would address the fact that an emotional boy would face challenges in today’s society as they grew up. Sharing their feelings might get them further in trouble with women who aren’t willing to understand or accept their issues. There are certainly good points to be made with the consequences of well-meaning strategies of child rearing.

    But in a larger sense, gender equality, like all movements of social justice, exists within a cultural catch-22. You take a cause which you believe to be just and reasonable (like teaching boys emotional intelligence) and work toward its realization in your own world, but in the meantime, society changes slowly. So, you’re stuck between how you believe things should be and how they really are. In this case, you bring your boys up to understand their own emotions and allow themselves the ability to express them with the idea that it will be the better for them. But will society be ready to accept their vulnerable sensitivity when they begin daily interaction? No one would want to set their son up for failure and hurt.

    If I were a parent, I would want to teach both emotional understanding and internal toughness, and I would teach it as much to my daughter as I would my son. Maybe I’m naive in this, but with the spectrum of personalities and cultural beliefs out there, I think it makes sense to inform kids that not everyone is going to accept certain behaviors, so be ready for it, and try to be strong.

    Emotional repression of boys/men is certainly a problem in our society, in my opinion. But whiny, emotionally selfish girls/women are also a problem. Girls need the encouragement to be able to appropriately control their emotions, take responsibility for their expression, and pick themselves up if necessary. I think boys and girls are often not given enough credit for their capabilities in both regards, and if they were, they would be the healthier for it.

    • Paul. I loved what you had to say and I think you have an article of your own, here. I encourage you to contact Good Men to write something up. Thanks for such a thoughtful response that takes this discussion in a new direction.

  16. Mark Sherman says:

    Though I think it’s a complex issue (I don’t know if boys will, on average, ever be as emotionally open as girls), I applaud attempts to instill in in boys “emotional literacy.” But I also think it’s very important to encourage boys become just plain literate as well, i.e., do as well in school as they can. They have not gotten nearly the attention in this area as girls have, and it clearly shows up in data.

    I recently published here and on the Psychology Today site an open letter to President Obama urging him to devote attention to the fact that boys are clearly lagging behind girls in school, from kindergarten right through college (and to other issues facing young males) http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/hesaid-dear-mr-president-our-nations-boys-need-your-attention/.

    The President gives his State of the Union message tonight. I would be beyond overjoyed if he touched on this, but I am sadly doubtful that he will. Someday, a president will because the gender difference in educational attainment will so be glaring that he or she simply won’t be able to ignore it.

  17. Difficult article for me to respond to.

    I appreciate the situation of those men or boys who have been taught to bury their real emotions from actual events, and have suffered because of it. I also understand that their suffering usually translates into suffering for others in their lives. And I support those who, as in the case of this article, try to help those with actual problems recover from them.

    At the same time, I’ve seen article after article trying to deal with the perceived problem that, generally speaking, men and boys are not as emotionally involved in things as women and girls are. To me that is not a problem – that is a fact of life.

    Invariably, such articles put the problem in very simple terms, usually at the expense of boys – girls are “more mature emotionally” or “more aware” or, in the case of this article, more “literate”. Invariably, it is a put-down of the boys. Invariably, the answer is to be more like the girls.

    I find this very inaccurate, as well as very short-sighted. Rarely does a woman like it when she is told that she is “too emotional” – yet they seem to be perfectly fine with stating that a man isn’t emotional enough and is therefore damaged because of it.

    As a coach of high-school athletes, both girls and boys, I find such statements harmful to kids – whether they are meant to be or not. It is one thing to address actual problems that individuals have, and yes that would include emotional issues with boys as well as girls – it is quite another to lump together an entire gender under one general heading of “damaged”.

    My final thought it this: Long before I became a coach, I spent decades living what most in this website would say is a typically “macho” life. Soldier, firefighter, semi-pro football player, truck driver, lumberjack, and so on. However, I don’t see my lifestyle as either “macho” or “deprived of intimacy” in any way. In fact, one cannot be a combat soldier in war, and keep one’s sanity, by refusing to know what is going on inside of yourself. Instead, I see that most in my chosen professions have developed a healthy balance between feeling emotion and dealing with reality. There is a time and a place to go ahead and let emotion flow – and another time and place where it will get you, or someone else, killed. Emotion has a place – there is also a time and a place to leave it on the shelf.

    To me, the last sentence above is the real problem today – for the most part, neither males nor females have any such balance in their lives during times of stress, and we have failed to teach them how to manage themselves under stressful times. This would is what I try teach the boys AND girls that I work with – and I have seen good results from it.

  18. I think it’s just as important that we ourselves (speaking as a mom) learn that boys are different physiologically and the sexes typically have very different brains and naturally express our emotions very differently – boys more showing it with body language and girls through communication verbally. We should value this while improving both sides.

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