Our boys are banished to a desert of emotional and physical isolation in the name of toughening them up. THIS is how we create bullies.
In writing about bullying, it is important to state at the outset that girls are just as prone to bullying as boys are, but I want to talk about how boys are raised and how the specific gender-based expectations placed on boys in our culture impacts their level of anxiety and aggression.
As American parents, we collectively make self-reliance and emotional toughness a priority in raising our sons. Around age five, give or take a year or two, we gently but firmly wean our little boys off hugs, kisses and talking about their emotions. We resist holding and comforting them in public when they fall down and cry. We cut short conversations about their sadness or their fears. The public performance of being a boy in America is about being tough, resilient and independent.
So we push our little sons out into the world of competition and roughhousing, encouraging them to man up, in part, to avoid the messy business of helping them navigate emotional complexity. We intentionally create distance between ourselves and our young sons; often without even fully understanding why. We just don’t want them to end up weaklings; momma’s boys, crybabies, wimps.
Love me son, but do it over there. Love me from first base. Love me from the front of the class. Love me from the trading floor. Love me from Iraq.
We force our sons to acquire independence as their most important male trait because we think it will make them strong. It will not. It will isolate them. The saddest part of this entire equation is this: the ability to allow oneself to be cared for and comforted is a crucial human capacity, without which we can not live fully connected emotionally intimate lives. And as human beings, we have to be taught how to receive love and support. It is a skill, a capacity, like any other, without which we can neither give nor receive emotional support in balanced sustainable ways.
And often, as empathy, connection and sources of comfort are withdrawn from our sons, an angry bully within them grows.
Bullying is not some automatic expression of male energy. It is not biologically inevitable. When we attempt to instill independence in our sons by withdrawing comfort and tenderness from their lives, bullying is a likely outcome, because bullying is, at its base level, an expression of loss, isolation, grief and jealousy. It is the rage of boys who are wracked with confusion. “What is suddenly wrong with wanting to be held, comforted and kept safe? Yesterday you held me. Today you pushed me away.”
Although girls face many similar challenges in life, it is boys who are told the suppress and deny their emotions. We need to stay in emotional connection with our sons. Gender is no excuse for cutting a child loose from emotional connection.
Here are three ways to insure that you are growing your son’s capacity to give and receive emotional support.
1) Hold Your Son Close
Yes, he’s getting bigger and yes sometimes he’s talking in complex, sarcastic, even combative ways, but he still wants to be held. He still wants to sit with your arm around him and watch a movie. He still wants to take your hand on the street. He still wants you to lay down and read with him at bedtime. He wants to wrestle, hug and hold on to his parents. Stay in physical contact with your son. As his world gets more complex, your comforting touch is invaluable to your son’s sense of security and self-esteem.
2) Keep the Conversations Going
Give your son opportunities to talk about what he is seeing and feeling in the world. Maybe this happens at bedtime, after the book is closed and the light is turned off. Maybe when you are walking to the park. And don’t make a big deal out of it. We not talking about sitting down for one big conversation. We’re talking about an ongoing back and forth the will last all of your lives. Let his ideas drop in and out of conversations whenever the moment seems right. But notice and engage those moments. Keep a light touch, but be there.
And do this: Resist the urge to tell your son what you think the answers are. Instead, help his own ideas emerge by asking him what he thinks might work in the world. This ongoing conversation with your son, in which you honor his ideas, is the single most powerful way you can ground him and resource him for life and living. He’ll love you for it. And it will build the bridges that will hold as he becomes a teenager and a young adult.
3) Model Interdependence
Your son will do what he sees you do. If you show compassion, affection and emotional vulnerability, he will, too. If you model how it looks to express anger without being mean, if you model how to apologize, to forgive, to laugh, to cry; if you model how to be emotionally available for others, your son will grant himself permission to do so as well. And remember, losing your temper will happen. How you behave during and afterwards is key. Show your son that we all have strong emotions but that we can express them in acceptable and healthy ways. All of these capacities will resource him and help him succeed emotionally throughout his own life.
The world will create plenty of opportunities for your son to learn to be tough. Finding opportunities to practice being tough is not the challenge. Learning how to rely on others is the challenge we confront as independence-obsessed Americans. Learning interdependence is the key to a better life, and we need to model how interdependence works for our sons as well as our daughters. So, let’s stay in emotional connection with our little boys. Encourage them to share their feelings and to speak their stories and their truth.
They will live happier more emotionally rich lives, and so will we.
This article is based in part on the chapter titled: Boys, Independence and Touch Isolation from Mark Greene’s book Remaking Manhood
Photo by: Mathieu Jarry
— Mark Greene (@megaSAHD) January 30, 2015
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