More and more I believe boys may be from another planet … and some mornings, there are no space shuttles.
I don’t know if things are better in two parent households, but I do know that some mornings I would rather be on the moon. In our house, the third day of school was one of those days. After a horrible night of sleep and an early morning nightmare, I woke up with little patience and less creativity. My ten-year-old son woke up on the same side of the bed. He stormed around, kicked around, refused to eat and barely made it out the door with bag, shoes and some semblance of coherence for the walk to school.
The walk to school is usually one of our favorite times of day. We have sibling-free time, and the walks usually begin by him saying, “So, what do you want to talk about today?”
This was not one of those days. He was cloudy and stormy and I was pissed off.
“Well,” I said, “that was kind of a rough start. Do you want to talk about it?” He just looked sullenly forward.
“Well,” I said, thinking I would make a bold parenting move and tell him the truth, “I woke up a little sad and angry and scared and I don’t really know why—do you feel like that at all?”
He stopped short. “I will walk alone.”
“Do you want to walk alone?”
“I don’t want to talk about my feelings.”
Somehow I managed to get back in on the walk, but I floundered for a minute, not sure what on earth to say next … .
“Why don’t you tell me about your football pool?” And that was it. He chattered happily in Martian for the next 20 minutes and I sent him off to school light and happy and ready for the day. I walked home entirely dumbfounded.
There are so many levels on which boys need to cope with their feelings—personal, interpersonal, socially and even politically. I am never sure I am telling him the right thing. Furthermore, I feel very often like I am speaking an entirely different language from him … . Is it possible that boys are from Mars and parents are another solar system?
For a little insight into the ideas about boys and emotions I turned to Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School whose private clinical practice often centers around boys. First I asked if there is a difference between boys and girls in the way that they experience, learn and communicate emotions; the resounding answer was an emphatic, “definitely.”
“With boys, emotions are basically on the same level of expression and reflectiveness [as girls] when they are very young, but from the time they are about six and seven, boys are taught that certain emotions are more acceptable than others,” he said.
This makes perfect sense. For boys, it is more acceptable to be happy or angry—and it is less acceptable to be sad and anxious. The problem with this is two-fold. Not only are boys taught that natural emotions are not acceptable, but they can quickly develop feelings of shame when they inevitably encounter those feelings inside of themselves. They can then start to feel week and ashamed, and these feelings can lead to depression and self-loathing. “It’s bad enough to be in distress,” said Olivardia, “but it’s worse to start shaming yourself for feeling that distress.”
Human beings are subject to a range of emotions, from happiness and joy to sadness, aggression and anger. But boys in our culture are taught from an early age that to feel sadness or fear is to be weak, vulnerable: not manly. Because of this, many boys feel ashamed when they feel these natural emotions. And that shame can lead a lot of boys and men to simply numb themselves into feeling nothing.
Ralph Fletcher is an author who writes for teachers and students about teaching writing and specifically teaching writing to boys. As the father of four boys he sees the same thing as his boys grow up. Fletcher teaches writing as an outlet that can allow boys both the world of their fantasies and their emotions. Boys, he says, may benefit from a vehicle serving as a buffer between their experiences and unadulterated emotional expression.
At the same time, it is important to remember that boys do feel with a depth of emotion, and we can make things more difficult for them if we expect them to be shut down.
“It may be that boys are less able to share emotions because of the way that they are brought up—but I’m often surprised at how tender they are.” Fletcher, who often goes on author visits to schools, said one day he was surprised by one of the boys chosen to have lunch with him.
“One of the boys said, ‘I feel so loved,’ and I asked him why he said that. ‘Because I was chosen to have lunch with you.’ It reminds you that those emotions are there. If we make a mistake of making too much of a demarcation between emotional girls and unemotional boys, we run the risk of losing a lot.”
We know, though, expressions of emotions like love and sadness can be bludgeoned out of boys. The question remains, what can we—as parents, mentors and loved ones of either gender—do to support our boys as they make their way through this confusing education of life.
The good news is, there are some things we can focus on to help.
Being emotionally present is the very first and very best thing we can do for our boys. We can only come to parenting from where we are ourselves, but our love, involvement and our own connection are the best things we can offer. It’s okay not to be perfect about all of this—in fact, that’s pretty much the point.
Support the whole range of human emotions.
“It’s okay for him to see you cry,” says Olivardia. “Share with him how you got through it without judging or shaming yourself. It means that you’re human and it means that you are connected.”
Creative outlets can be very helpful.
“Boys may be very stoic on the outside—all those roles that we ask them to play—but I’ve noticed when they are given a choice and some space that they will be very emotional with their writing,” Fletcher said.
Writing, music, art and creative play can really offer an important outlet as well as place for boys to be more sensitive and open.
Deal with negative emotions through activity.
“We shouldn’t assume that talking about it is the only way to work through an emotion,” said Olivardia.
Doing an activity can really help boys to work through an emotion. Shooting some hoops or taking a run might be just what he needs to get to the other side. The activity really is the way that they are processing it, and you may get a few moments talking connection while outwardly concentrating on something else.
Be very aware of the messages you are giving him.
So many of the things we tell boys have to do with asking them to numb their emotions. Commands like, “suck it up,” “man up” and “crying like a girl” all give the message that it is not okay to feel pain. We need to notice if we ourselves are embarrassed by our boy’s show of emotion, and work hard to understand the messages we and they are taught from an early age.
Validate his feelings.
Phrases like, “I think anyone would feel like that” allow him to understand that the way he is feeling is normal. Contrary to the messages he might be getting, the range of emotion is human, natural and most of all crucial to living a full, happy and connected life.
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Illustration of the planet Earth courtesy of Shutterstock