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

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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. 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.

  2. Great article!

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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]

  7. 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.

    • Thanks for the comment Brian. Welcome to the world of posting! Well done!

      • Mark,
        You’re way too kind to thank me for that cruddy comment. The article was thoughtful, sympathetic and articulate. My apologies for the unwarranted criticism. Love the site by the way (to you and the staff at GMP).

        • I don’t see your comment as cruddy. You’re advancing the discussion by communicating a different point of view (both intelligently and respectfully, I might add). Most importantly you remind us that life experiences don’t vary as much between the genders as we like to kid ourselves.

    • 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.


  1. [...] 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! [...]

  2. […] 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.  […]

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