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.
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 Education.com 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.”
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.”
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 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