Here’s the Challenge
“Don’t be a crybaby” is the single most consistent message American boys get. Whether you grew up in the relative security of the suburbs or on the 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 sissy… or a target.
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. Don’t show your emotions. This is our culture of male emotional toughness. This is the Man Box.
This message begins to make itself known the day our little sons enter the larger world, gently at first, but with ever increasing degrees of severity.
Whether we are fathers or sons, brothers or husbands, we can learn to explore and express our emotions at any age. The question is, will we teach the next generation of men to pursue lives of emotional literacy and connection or will our sons be left with little choice but to suppress their emotions, as dictated by a range of traditional cultural influences?
Living emotionally guarded lives is robbing men of their hope, their aspirations and for millions of American men, their very lives. And women have it no easier.
Think I’m overstating the problem? Read on.
Emotional Toughness or Emotional Literacy?
Our sons, like our daughters, are hardwired with vast capacities for emotional connection, but to activate these capacities, boys must overcome almost every message our culture gives them about how to be a man. And these damaging messages are coming fast and furious by the time our sons are in kindergarten.
For boys and girls alike, emotional fluency, the capacity to access and share the complex landscape of our emotions, is the result of learning via:
trial and error —> over time —> with people they trust.
Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, by exploring emotional expression in the safe spaces created by our families.
Think of it this way. As we learn a language, the broadest and most obvious rules, the simplest and most useful words quickly become second nature. Then, we spend years drilling down to the nuances and subtleties of language. We learn what to accentuate in order to be better understood. We learn how to hear the nuances of meaning based on a speaker’s age or circumstances. We learn what to take to heart and what to question. As part of the journey to literacy, we are encouraged to ask people, “what does that word mean?” Without shame or fear. All of this learning of language serves one major purpose, to help us connect with others.
But what would happen if our toddlers were bullied, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words? — How quickly would they stop trying to talk? Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to express emotionally.
The fact is, we have been taught a set of false assumptions about men and toughness. Toughness does not come from being stoic, from manning up or from suppressing our emotions. Toughness, resiliency, the ability to confront and overcome challenges, and the ability to fight on, depends on how we are resourced by the relationships in our lives. It is these human connections we can rely on during challenging times.
Furthermore, a man who can be goaded into a fight by having his temper triggered is not “a tough man”. A man may choose to confront an adversary, but to do so from a place of emotional calmness and choice is a much more powerful position. Emotional literacy includes the ability not to be manipulated into emotional responses. But ultimately it is our vibrant connections and relationships that make us tough. It is rich real relationships that create resiliency, confidence and capacity. Emotional toughness arises from emotional literacy.
In America’s culture of emotional toughness, we block our sons from learning complex emotional skills, because we shame and bully them into hiding their emotions. If we never express our emotions, we’ll never learn how to do it well. Its that simple.
Girls Have it No Easier
One of the primary myths in our culture is that girls are allowed to express emotions more openly, or even worse, that they are just naturally better at it. But here’s a little secret about girls. Their emotional expression is also curtailed. While boys are policed and bullied to not express emotions at all, girls are relegated to the “Hallmark Card” school of emotional expression.
Women are allowed to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions, typically, love or condolences with a nice filigree. But a vast range of other emotions are not approved of. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or insecurity.
If women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are likely the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view. While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized. It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.
The end result? Girl’s and women’s path to learning emotional literacy is also closed off. In part, because they are also blocked from doing this work when young, and in part, because eventually those who are in heterosexual relationships will be with men who have been trained by our culture of male emotional toughness to not connect emotionally.
What’s worse? Not only do we teach our sons to display emotional toughness, we train our daughters to admire that in men.
The High Costs of Emotional Withdrawal
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my parents divorced. My father went to work overseas. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating an emotional blank space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I call that place the basement.
Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of them; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self-loathing.
We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t acknowledge their emotions. Our sons cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.
Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is what creates and sustains vibrant and nourishing relationships in both our personal and professional lives. If instead, we 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 tragedy strikes.
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].
Without what McGoldrick, Carter, and Preto call mature relationships, men are subject to ever increasing degrees of emotional isolation and the catastrophic risks this presents. In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older are chronically lonely. That’s over 44 million Americans.
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
We are confronting an epidemic of loneliness in America. We lock ourselves inside gated communities, fearful of our neighbors and our society. We drink ourselves to sleep or fling ourselves compulsively into sex, work or consumption, as if the next sexual conquest or technical gadget will make up for the lack of connection we feel in our lives.
Our collective emotional isolation is at the heart of our society’s inability to correct injustices around race, class, and economics. We are not caring for each other. We are lashing out. For millions of us, our collective lack of authentic emotional community has stripped our lives of meaning. Is it any wonder we when look at our bright-eyed loving little children, we feel the prickling of fear?
And Now for the Good News
Dr. Saliha Bava and I believe there is a powerful solution, for us individually, and for the world. The solution is to grow our children’s emotional literacy. We can do this by talking and playing with our children and listening carefully to what they have to say. Through this simple, mindful practice, we can help them grow their emotional literacy and change the world for the better.
Our program called “The Forever Book” does not seek to present a one size fits all set of steps or techniques. The Forever Book is instead designed to spark a lifelong conversation between parent and child. Each family’s conversation will be distinct and like no other. And the best part? This process of being in conversation with our children will give us the rich and rewarding relationships that we long for as parents, because our children will feel seen and heard and held, and so will we.
Growing our children’s emotional literacy is a gift that will last a lifetime. What’s more, it will echo down generations to come. When we help our children grow their emotional literacy, they are better able to manage conflict, grow self-confidence, and engage others’ points of view. And as they grow up, they will have the skills needed to build lasting and satisfying relationships and communities both in their professional and personal lives.
Many of us are already doing this work on different levels with our children, creating change and growth in little and big ways every day. But, if you feel you would like to be more mindful about how you encourage the growth of emotional literacy; if you’re feeling stuck and would like new ideas about how to go forward with your kids, join us for our online workshop! You can also join our mailing list at the Remaking Manhood page on Facebook. In exchange, we’ll send you a free white paper with ideas to help you grow your children’s emotional literacy.
Our children need simple consistent play and encouragement to discover for themselves their powerful emotional capacities. We have a range of theoretical frameworks, strategies, and games from which parents can design and grow the practices that fit best for their families.
It’s up to us to walk with our children through their emotional landscapes, a place which exists not only inside them but in the powerful relational spaces between them and others. Like any complex skill set, our kids can acquire these capabilities in layered and nuanced ways over time. There is no single end goal here. It is a lifelong process but it is one that will provide vast rewards.
If you would like to know more about our upcoming workshops on emotional literacy for our sons and daughters, please come to RemakingManhood and leave your email address. And thanks!
You can join our August 30th workshop here. You’ll need to become a Good Men Project Premium Member in order to attend. ($20 a year) After which, you’ll get a whole year of unlimited workshops and benefits. Click here to register the Growing Our Kid’s Emotional Literacy workshop on August 30, at 8PM EST. We look forward to the conversation!
Join us on Monday, August 29 for a Twitter Chat on this topic!
Instructions for how to participate in an organized Twitter Chat:
For those of you who have never participated in a Twitter chat before, they’re often lots of fun and quite informative. I have made friends on Twitter who have become professional colleagues and friends in real life. You do need to sign up for a Twitter.com account.
LAPTOPS: Go to Twitter.com, log in to your Twitter account, and in the “search Twitter” box, type the hashtag that the organizer is using. Make sure you change the default to “live” (and you may have to refresh it every now and then)
August 29, 2016, we will be using #GMPParenting.
MOBILE DEVICES: Open the Twitter app, log in to your Twitter account, and click on the magnifying glass icon, then type the hashtag phrase (#GMPParenting).
You can either choose the Top Tweets or All Tweets that mention the hashtag. Scroll, read, respond, connect. Refresh your feed periodically.
Some protocol — if you like what someone says but have nothing to add, it’s okay to just click the heart icon. If you want to respond to someone who is on the chat, be sure to include their Twitter handle in your tweet. Also, to make sure your tweet is read by our conversation, include #GMPParenting in every Tweet or else we won’t see you.
— Mark Greene (@RemakingManhood) April 5, 2016
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Remaking Manhood is a collection of Mark Greene’s most widely shared articles on American culture, relationships, family and parenting. It is a timely and balanced look at the issues at the heart of the modern masculinity movement. Mark’s articles on masculinity and manhood have received over 100,000 FB shares and 10 million page views. Get Remaking Manhood IN PRINT or on the free Kindle Reader app for any Mac, Windows or Android device here.
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