Save Our Sons’ Emotional Intelligence: What Dads Can Do NOW!

The time has come to break the damaging cycle of male emotional withdrawal and silence.


A dad I know recently wrote:

“I remember clearly being seven or eight years old and being told I was a crybaby by a camp counselor. It made a huge impression on me. From then on I knew what was expected of me as a man. I have spent many years unlearning the lesson that I must remain bottled up.”

At first glance most people wouldn’t make much of his story. We all shrug and say, “So someone told you to quit being a crybaby, so what? Get over it.” But if you think about it a bit longer, you soon realize how absolutely universal my friend’s story is.

“Don’t be a crybaby” is the most consistent message American boys get. Whether you grew up in the relative security of the suburbs or on the rough streets of the inner city, ask any American man and they’ll tell you the same thing. Boys and men don’t cry. If you do, you’re a wimp, or a pussy… or a target.

Instead of capitalizing on this amazing developmental phase, our sons are being pressured to conform to a cultural norm which encourages suppressing their emotions.

And make no mistake, “Don’t be a crybaby” is code for a bigger, more overarching cultural message; a message which is reinforced over and over again in every professional, social and interpersonal context we encounter. The message boys and men receive boils down to this: don’t show your emotions. This message begins to make itself known the day our little sons enter the world, gently at first, but with ever increasing degrees of severity.

Whether we are fathers or sons, young or old, we can all learn to explore and express our emotions at any age. The question is, will we, as fathers, teach our sons to pursue a mindful process of emotional learning or will our sons be left with little choice but to suppress their emotions, as dictated by a range of damaging cultural influences?

One of the earliest crossroads at which our sons confront the message to hide their emotions comes at about seven years of age. At seven, they encounter one of the most important emotional developmental stages of their lives. But instead of capitalizing on this phase, our sons are being pressured to conform to a cultural norm which encourages suppressing their emotions. The long-term challenges this can create are incalculable. Living emotionally guarded lives is robbing men of their hope, their aspirations and in some cases, their very lives.

Think I’m overstating the problem? Read on. It’s time for all of us to save our sons.


The Case for Growing Your Sons’ Emotional Engagement in the World

People call it emotional intelligence, emotional fluency or emotional engagement. But whatever you choose to call it, the ability to connect emotionally with others is one of our most powerful human capacities and something that our sons should definitely be learning about.

At age seven, your son has fully entered the complex social web of the world, and the world is telling him who he is. He already knows how our culture thinks boys should behave. He gets told what a boy should be over and over by camp counselors, coaches, religious leaders, teachers, television, toys, and, most of all, his peers.

Your seven-year-old son’s physical and intellectual capacities are accelerating. He’s beginning to see complex levels of nuance and meaning. The language skills he needs to express those levels are evolving dramatically. In relation to his friends, he is ever more aware and adaptive. He is taking on their slang and humor, bringing home edgy jokes and surprisingly sarcastic ways of seeing the world. Your sweet little toddler has suddenly become a miniature Chris Rock or Rodney Dangerfield. Everything is up for debate, critique and derision. Welcome to the perfect storm of social connectivity and accelerating brain growth.

Sue Douglass Fleiss writes at that “the most significant changes in the brain occur at age seven. The most notable being that the frontal and temporal lobes, which control cognitive functions, grow enormously – more than at any other time in a person’s life. And at the same time, these lobes are making neural connections with the system that controls emotions. In other words, both thinking and feeling get a major overhaul.”

In her article, Fliess quotes Michael Gurian, therapist and author, who tells us, “Parts of the brain devoted to learning through relationship really flourish in the child of seven to ten.”

But in a section of her article titled Emotions, Fliess goes on to offer parenting advice that is deeply troubling. She writes, “Seven-year-old boys will tend to cry less than girls and will try to handle suffering by not showing weakness. They’ll also withdraw more. While this can confuse parents, it is very natural for development. Girls on the other hand are more apt to cry to get help. Instead of withdrawing, they reach into their bonding system and let their emotions rise to the surface.”

Accepting emotional withdrawal in our sons as being “natural” makes about as much sense as suggesting we send them out to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet with a cinderblock tied to one leg.

Fliess can hardly be faulted for echoing one of the primary narratives about boys in our culture. It tells us that, unlike our daughters, our sons are predestined to do two things; to hide their emotions and to withdraw. But accepting this emotional withdrawal as being “natural” makes about as much sense as suggesting we send them out to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet with a cinderblock tied to one leg.

While girls are encouraged to continue communicating their emotional needs and responses, thereby growing their emotional engagement in the world, boys are put on a developmental hiatus by a dominant cultural narrative which equates displaying a full range of emotions with weakness. “Shake it off, crybaby” is the omnipresent mantra by which our boys are taught to go forward as emotionally guarded men. And once this withdrawal narrative takes hold it never stops being reinforced.

Which leads to the following question, why the hell do we all buy into this?


The High Costs of Emotional Withdrawal

For generations, the idea of boys or men revealing the full range of our emotions has been viewed as anything but a path to empowerment. In fact, it’s been an invitation to get your ass kicked, rhetorically, or in some circumstances, literally. And not only by the tough guys down at the bar, but often as not, by our own spouse or family members who have bought into the narrative that men are here to provide silent strength.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, and you end up with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Go ahead, take a minute and watch. Its funny to us men, because on some level, the Black Knight is eerily familiar. Men are anything but encouraged to show emotions like uncertainty, sadness, confusion, loneliness or fear. Men who express these emotions are branded as weak. As men, we are expected to keep those parts of our emotional landscape hidden, maintaining the illusion that we are not experiencing these emotions at all.


Just a flesh wound, indeed. And what are women rewarded with when men agree to suppress their emotions? What we all get is a nation of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers enduring catastrophic levels of stress, untreated mental illness, heart disease, social dysfunction, violence, anger, and epidemically high rates of drug and alcohol abuse. A large percentage of American men are rotting away in prisons and psychiatric hospitals because they are unable to successfully integrate into a society from which they feel deeply and fundamentally alienated. Their connection with the rest of society has been broken or worse, was never allowed to develop in the first place.


About the time our sons are leaving first grade, when the gentle world of kindergarten is far enough in the rear view mirror, we parents are encouraged to help our sons “toughen up” instead of grow emotionally flexible. We are encouraged to have them “deal with it” instead of fully engage their responses to life. We abandon them to a cultural narrative that says, “Emotions equal weakness.”

Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is what creates and sustains vibrant and nourishing relationships. Like business partnerships. And marriages. And families. You know…that stuff.

Instead of putting our sons on a path to empowered emotional self confidence, our culture of male emotional withdrawal prescribes pushing them off an emotional cliff.

And please don’t get me wrong here. Teaching our sons how to be independent is a valid and necessary part of their development. But our culture’s drastic overemphasis on independence leaves boys few options but to shield their emotional selves behind a wall of withdrawal. And it comes with a high cost. Without the capacity to engage emotionally in self-assured and effective ways, our sons will be at a lifelong disadvantage in their professional, personal and spiritual lives.

Why? Because men and women, boys and girls, all of us, are not independent social creatures—we are interdependent social creatures. No man is an island, right? No matter what we do, we will be doing it in relation to others. The crucial distinction here is to differentiate between the perfectly valid benefits of being able to function independently and the much more empowering, but much less understood, benefits of being able to function in relation to and collaboration with others.

Our success at forming relationships is the key to our success as social animals. Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is what creates and sustains vibrant and nourishing relationships.

Like business partnerships. And marriages. And families. You know…that stuff.

If all we do is teach our sons to man up and tough it out, we’re setting them up for an ugly fall somewhere down the road. Especially when tragedies befall them.

In The Expanded Family Life Cycle, McGoldrick, Carter and Preto write “Men who are raised to deny their emotional interdependence face a terrible awakening during divorce, illness, job loss, or other adversities of life. Indeed the traditional norms of male development have emphasized many of the characteristics including keeping emotional distance, striving for hierarchical dominance in family relationships; toughness; competition; avoidance of dependence on others; aggression as a means of conflict resolution; avoidance of closeness and affection with other males; suppression of feelings except anger; and avoidance of “feminine” behaviors such as nurturing, tenderness and expressions of vulnerability. Such norms make it almost impossible for boys to achieve the sense of interdependence required for mature relationships through life” [p22-23].


The Transforming Power of Emotional Intelligence

It is said that boys are facing a crisis in our culture. That they are falling behind girls in almost every measurable indicator of economic, educational and social success. If this is indeed true, it is in great part because they are being denied the crucial skills they need to navigate complex emotional interactions. An opportunity, by the way, that is not denied to girls.

Remember the Bolshoi Ballet with the cinderblock?

As a society, we mount a highly coordinated, decades-long effort to develop the physical and intellectual skills of our sons. But support for their emotional skills is either an afterthought or entirely non-existent. When we do address emotional issues for our sons, it’s typically crowd control; triggered by an event that’s requires correction of some “negative” emotional behavior. Put simply, ours sons all get the same short list of approved emotional responses in relation to sports, school, the playground and the family. Its a defensive strategy. Instead of teaching them what to do, we’re focused on teaching them what not to do.

Imagine we are all putting our sons in a football game but only drilling them on two things, over and over again. #1: Don’t tackle your own quarterback, and #2: don’t run the ball into the opposing team’s end zone. Game after game, this is all we say over and over again. Don’t run the ball into the wrong end zone, and don’t tackle your quarterback. And that’s it. That’s all we tell them. How well do you think they’d do? When they come to the coach and ask to try something new we tell ’em, “Don’t worry about offense or defense or any of that stuff. It’s way too complicated for you. Just don’t grab your quarterback around the legs, okay? Now go get ’em, tiger!”

That would be pretty stupid, yes? And yet, that’s pretty much how we educate our sons about their emotions. A whole range of capabilities and capacities our sons are ready to explore and develop, and all we give them is, “Don’t be a crybaby.” Oh, and meanwhile, guess who is given permission to continue exploring and expressing emotions?  …Girls.

ARGH! It makes you want to throw your helmet, doesn’t it?!! I mean, why are we limiting what we teach our boys about the game of life?

Over and over, we collectively teach our sons to “shake it off” and “don’t show weakness.” As if getting smacked by a hard-hit ground ball somehow constitutes an adequate exploration of their vast interior emotional landscapes. We need to insure that our sons grow as strong and flexible emotionally as they do physically and intellectually. It is a process that can and should begin at home.

We fathers play a key role in allowing our sons to develop full emotional engagement in the world. While mothers and sisters play an absolutely crucial role in creating the space for our boys to explore and master their emotions, it is up to us men, (whether we are their fathers, uncles, grandpas, male caregivers or father figures), to model for our sons how to break the generations-old cycle of male emotional withdrawal and silence.

Even as our seven year-old sons are making fart jokes at top volume inBurger King, they are struggling to organize a vast new range of mental capacities that are flooding them with emotional and social awareness. They’re seeing it all. And it can be overwhelming for them. But what are we as parents, if not the persons obligated to help them make sense of the world? When we commit to helping them parse the nuances of their own emotional interactions, we put them on a path to developing a crucial skill set.

How our sons observe, track, organize, interpret, understand and, in turn, effectively engage others emotionally is central to building a strong and stable core of self esteem, which in turn is central to all other endeavors they will pursue in life. By growing these capacities, our sons will better manage conflict, confusion, change, collaboration and complexity. They will be able to engage with the emotions of others who are struggling, because confusion and complexity will become something they can hang in with and hold. They’ll be able to maintain their personal integrity against peer pressure, confrontations and the chaos of the social world.

And they’ll hit a baseball farther, too.

But here’s the good news. The path to growing our son’s capacity for emotional engagement involves lots of play, games, love and fun. And through the use of play with our sons, we find out that none of this is really all that hard to do.

But how do we grow our son’s capacity for emotional engagement? (As if we parents don’t already have enough insanely confusing and complex stuff to figure out…)

And Now for the Good News

Continued on page 2

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About Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava

Emmy winner Mark Greene writes in partnership with his wife, change consultant and couples therapist, Saliha Bava. As ThinkPlay Partners, they write, think and talk (quite a lot) about relationships, society, and political issues. Occasionally they write from a first person male perspective. Mark provides the male perspective. Saliha provides the lofty intellectual efficacy. (Or vice-versa.) Follow Mark on Twitter and Google. Follow Saliha on Twitter and Google.


  1. How many times does this article need to be written? Here’s something to think about. How long have humans been thinking, self-conscious beings? How much longer have we been animals? Here’s something we learned in the forest primeval: Don’t show weakness to predators. Humans are predators. There you go.

  2. Mark, Great piece, particularly enjoyed this –

    ‘Welcome to the perfect storm of social connectivity and accelerating brain growth.’ I have two boys, four and six, and I can already see this storm on the horizon!

    I’ve just been looking at the ‘Story in 22 pictures’ on GMP. It charts the life of a young couple before and after he loses both his arms and both his legs. Here’s the thing; to come back from a disaster like this must require a tremendous amount of toughness and manning up and yet you suggest that these values alone will work against us in the face of adveristy.

    My father like many British men of his generation lost his father in WW2 and rasied my brothers and I with these very same messages. I repeat them to my boys because I believe they have great value but its a tightrope because I also want them to be their own men. Tricky.

    Anyway, thankyou for giving me plenty to think about!

  3. The influencers of emotional permission are vast in numbers. Boys lack the experience to discern the weight and validity of any of them. Some boys take input from the bully as similarly valid to that of his father.

    Basically, without societal buy-in to at least the broad concept, boys’ emotional intel and practical-scope of emotions are like a Walmart bag in the wind. I’ve seen no evidence to conclude anything else.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    Good stuff here.

    I think too often we men think of expressing emotions as a simple binary – if you don’t stuff it deep down, then you’ll just be wallowing in your feelings and constantly whining. You’re either a rock or a total emotional mess, those are the only choices.

    But, there are lots of things in between. There shouldn’t be any shame and embarrassment in being quite matter-of-fact about feeling things besides anger. Of course feelings run deep and can be very powerful, complex things inexpressible in words, but there are essentially four emotions: glad, sad, mad, and afraid.

    Expressing feelings is not necessarily an expression of vulnerability or a reaching out for intimacy. In one sense, expressing feelings is just being honest about reality. “I feel sad about that” is on one level just a statement of fact. “I own a car” or “I got sunburned” or “I have sadness about that” are really just objective facts. We are really messed up if we can’t even state something factual.

    We do boys a disservice if we always talk about emotions in terms of vulnerability or risk or making personal connections. Sometimes feelings are simply feelings. Expressing them should always make you feel vulnerable. That’s totally dysfunctional, too, the whole equation of feelings with vulnerability.

    A lot of teaching boys to be emotionally healthier is pretty basic stuff. It’s not always deep psychotherapeutic encounter sessions and beating drums in the woods. Sometimes it’s just showing boys that it’s okay to state an emotional fact, and it’s good to claim ownership of your feelings. I feel mad about that. I felt said when I heard that. I have a fear of that happening. I feel happy about that.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Correction: expressing your feelings should NOT always make you feel vulnerable.

    • Well said, wellokaythen,
      The other issue that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, is the question of how much? Yes, we get mad, but in the moment we are feeling mad, are we sort of mad? Or very mad? Learning to gauge one’s LEVEL of emotion is the first step to managing our responses in the world. Boy’s can learn the levels of any given emotion. When your kid starts saying I’m annoyed or that makes me uncomfortable, instead of I’m MAD or I’m SCARED, its a sign that they are hosting the emotions instead of being taken over by them.

  5. I’m grateful for the suggested games because I’ve been trying to tackle this issue with my eldest (I have two boys). He’s about to turn 3 (which is younger than the target age most discussed in the article), and what I always loved and admired most about him is his capacity for compassion, kindness and affection. Still the terrible twos/threes have yielded some typical tantrums, wake-ups from night terrors and nightmares, the dreaded NO, and such.

    I hear us saying “don’t cry”, but in our defence, it’s usually in response to incoherent whining or screaming – which isn’t the way to express emotions either – when he’s literally kicking and screaming from a midnight wake-up, he’s not getting closer to relieving whatever fear or discomfort he’s experiencing, he’s just waking the baby (and both parents). We want him to communicate what might be causing the problem – and we seem to be failing in this goal. When we ask him “what’s wrong” we’re met with silence usually (or more of the same incoherent stuff), and requests to explain or more leading questions are just as futile. When I try to guess at the problem, he will usually answer with a yes to whatever my first guess is, which makes me think he’s more interested in satisfying me than resolving his emotional state through any form of communication or expression. I fear we’re heading down that road of stoic isolation and alienation in spite of my best efforts (I’m in tears at my desk typing this, by the way).

    What are we doing wrong? You can’t simply start this stuff at age 7, but the doors to emotional communication already seem to be shut before age 3.

    • He’s probably too young to fully vocalize his emotions, it’s a tall order to ask for a nearly-3 year old to accurately gauge their feelings.

      Instead of saying don’t cry, say “I understand you’re upset but kicking and screaming is the wrong way to express it”. He may not understand it at 3 but one day he will. Maybe try distract him if he’s upset, but if he’s kicking or screaming I’d be inclined to ignore him for a bit and not reward any attention seeking behaviour like that. Does he do it knowing he will get attention from you both? If he can express himself without going over the top in his behaviour then praise him for it. Basically reward good behaviour, and take yourselves away/punish for bad behaviour.

    • Hey Axel,
      First let me say thanks for your post. Your honest and forthright expression takes a lot of courage. And I admire you for doing so. I agree with Archy that expressing emotions is a tall order for a 3 year old. But I think you could try and button game with him. Is he reading at all yet? If so, on a normal happy day, you and he could sit down with a piece of poster board and drawing some big circles for buttons ask him what emotions/states of mind he’d like to assign to the buttons. Happy! Mad! Sad. Lonely for Daddy. Lonely for Mommy. Funny. Hungry. Laughing. Sleepy. Pee Pee. Etc. If you create symbols for the buttons (hearts, frowning faces, smiling faces, and so on and color them with crayons) then you can hang it on the wall and when he is feeling something strong you can suggest he hit a button. What are you feeling? Can you show me on the button game? Hit the button. This will be easier for him than speaking but at the same time he will begin to see the connection between naming an emotion and moving past it or celebrating it. Remember to do this when he is happy too. Play the game during happy times. Add buttons for Fart and Tickle too.
      The point here is take a moment that is proving to be challenging for you (getting your son to explain why he is upset) and create a game in which he can begin to learn and practice the skill set you are seeking from him. Again, he is very young, but not too young, I think, to try this game. Even if he is not quite reading, use pictures for the bottoms. OH AND DON’T FORGET TO INCLUDE A BUTTON FOR HUG! With a big heart on it.

      You’ll see more about the button game and an example of how we drew it further on in this article. Try it out. And let me know if it works for you and your son.
      And thanks again for your post.

      • I loved this article and the many suggestions in it, even though I’m a father to twin 3 1/2-yr-old daughters and no sons. The Button Game sounds like a fantastic idea, and I like your ideas for modifying it for pre-literate kids. I’m too deep into the communication-resistant stage that Axel described to think it will solve everything, but it sounds worth a try, and even if they’re not ready for it now, I could see giving it another go in a couple years.

        Archy, your tips to Axel were all good, but it’s sooo much easier to have that mindset about how you’re going to be with kids, than to actually put all that into action when they’re with you 24/7. If I ignore an all-out tantrum so as not to reinforce it with attention, I risk injuries to self, others, or property, and believe me when I say kids don’t just realize you’ve stopped watching and give the tantrum up. (Maybe some are genetically predisposed to do so, but not my kids.) Naturally, I can compensate by removing them to a child-safe room to let the tantrum play out in isolation, but given the frequency and stubbornness of tantrums right now, that amounts to locking them up several times a day, which also seems less than ideal. It seems like every emotion that my kids express right now – positive or negative – is over the top, just because that’s where their development is at. Sort of like they hardly ever walk from point A to point B, because anywhere worth going is worth running to. There are many fun and lovable things about 3 1/2 yr. olds, but a high degree of emotional literacy isn’t one of them.

        • I’m not actually a father so you can probably spot the wild guesses I was making. My tips are my best guess based on what I’ve seen others do and also part of the training you do with animals:P (eg ignoring barking dogs,same principle). If my tantrums got out of hand as a kid though and I started hitting I’d get a swift slap on the ass for it. Do people still spank their kids if they go into a tantrum? I dunno if its the correct method to use but it seems very common, seems to also work too in the times I’ve seen it.

          I think I’ll stay childless for quite some time, if my kid had a tantrum I’d want to get a tazer:P

  6. As a first-time poster, I’m afraid to say what I’m about to, but here goes:
    1. This was perhaps the longest article on what (even after reading the whole article) is such a simple topic. Boys stop crying after age 7 because of one thing: other boys. Most boys I knew still cried after 7, but I can see how it was more prominent before that age.
    2. As a father of 3 daughters of varying ages, I can also tell you something else. Girls ridicule other girls who cry. Doubt it? I would challenge you to follow a 9 – 15 year old girl around for one week. The first time you notice a girl crying, watch the response.

    It’s not a matter of emotional connection. I’m not being contrarian for the sake of it. After a certain age, the response that anyone receives for crying is the same because when children mature, they’re expected to stop feeling sorry for themselves (the predominance of childhood tears). That’s because their conditioned response as a smaller child was to get comforted when they cried. No more complicated than that.

    Tears as an expression of joy, sadness from loss or heartbreak are rarely met with shame regardless of gender.

    • Might I suggest that as our culture continues it’s march towards more competition, girls find themselves having to compete in a world that is increasingly “masculine” in nature. The Women’s Movement, at least in American, has not really resulted in a society that is genuinely more inclusive of “feminine” traits. To the contrary, as women “compete” in the world of work with their male counterparts, they must become more “masculine.” And thusly, for me men to stay competitive, they perceive the need to be more “masculine”.

      I agree that we are more similar and that your point serves to show that none of us fit nicely in the stereotypical box, but I also wonder if we are seeing the masculinization of girls in their attempt to compete.

  7. Just a flesh wound, indeed. And what are women rewarded with when men agree to suppress their emotions? What we all get is a nation of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers enduring catastrophic levels of stress, untreated mental illness, heart disease, social dysfunction, violence, anger, and epidemically high rates of drug and alcohol abuse. A large percentage of American men are rotting away in prisons and psychiatric hospitals because they are unable to successfully integrate into a society from which they feel deeply and fundamentally alienated.

    also results in alot more men committing suicide too, even in cultures without easy access to guns [like here in the UK]

  8. Love this! My son receives once a week peer counseling sessions in middle school—it warms my heart to see him reaching out and helping other kids….he definitely has matured over the years and I think counseling has helped him to name that feeling and how to handle his emotions better…His demeanor is sweet, polite, and respectful…sometimes he behaves more maturely than the adults around him!

  9. I always think I’m very aware of emotions and teaching my boys to respect their own feelings, but I think Mark and Saliha have keyed into a few things I hadn’t quite understood… I”m so grateful for this article, and I think a lot of these parenting ideas are applicable to girls, too, have their own different but overlapping issues around emotions and communication.

  10. Great article. I’ve always hated the way boys are treated differently, told to bottle up and shut up their emotions, like they need it less than women. Society is still conditioned to give extremes to genders and control them that way, it damages them even more. Girls are encouraged to show their feelings but when they get older, their boyfriends and husband’s will still comment on them being too emotional. So what is the use of conditioning one gender to be unemotional and the other to be so despite that most women are told at least once in their lifetime that they cry too much/are overemotional? If boys aren’t shown that they need to express themselves through emotion, as men, they will never understand why women need to and they can’t understand why they themselves need to. It’s a human trait to show emotion but teach kids that it’s a thing only girls can have and boys can’t creates so many problems. Some men look down on the idea, thinking its something only fit for women and therefore beneath them and some become so emotionally stunted they can’t have a full relationship. Without emotion, we are just robots

  11. Great article!

  12. This was an amazing article! I loved it. I have two children under three, older girl and younger boy, and I love teaching them everything about the world and their places in it.

    I’ve always been more in touch with my own emotions, but sometimes I fall into stereotypical man mode. It isn’t always easy to shake that off, but I want my little boy to be comfortable in his own skin and mind.


  1. […] We abandon our sons to a cultural narrative that says, "Don't show your emotions or you will be defined as weak." It's time that changed.  […]

  2. […] To see our full article on the crucial importance of emotional literacy for our sons, visit Save Our Sons’ Emotional Intelligence: What Dads Can Do NOW! […]

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