And Now for the Good News
The reasons for teaching your son emotional engagement are admittedly pretty complex, but here’s the good news. The path to growing our sons’ capacity for emotional engagement is actually quite simple. It involves lots of play, games, love and fun. And through the use of play with our sons, we find out that none of this is really all that hard to do.
What your son needs to grow his emotional literacy is a safe relational space in which to explore his emotions through play and games that encourage the conversation about emotions. And these conversations can range from serious to silly. The moment we say to our sons, “talk to me about anger” or “I have felt sadness,” we grant them permission to be emotional explorers, mapping out and becoming familiar with their internal emotional landscape.
And as brief and potentially awkward as these first conversations may be for us dads, we must keep our courage up. These don’t have to be sit-down-and-look-me-in-the-eyes conversations. Use humor. Relax. Let these conversations weave in and out of your daily interactions. Talk about one of the emotional learning games below you might have played the night before. When another child expresses their emotions at the park, ask your son what he thinks he saw and how it made him feel.
When your son gets upset because some other child got a toy and he didn’t, find the right moment to imagine you and he are putting on your jungle explorer hats. “Look, what’s that? It’s a jealousy guerilla. Let’s go take a closer look!” Draw the jealousy gorilla. Write words about how he feels. Give him big hair.
See what I mean?
Moments will come when there is an opportunity to take the subject of emotions a bit further. Opportunities will appear when our sons are ready to say something more about these matters. Capitalize on those. Invite your son to talk. Ask a question while you’re washing the car. Pick up a conversational thread when you’re driving to soccer practice. Sometimes, toss a question out without making eye contact. Then be quiet and listen. You will find the ways to talk with your son that work best, as it’s going to be different for every child. And in this process you and your son will create a language and a way of being in the emotional space that is all your own. And that is a rare and wonderful thing.
This process can and should be about playfulness and fun. Because games and play are the places where people, young and old, can take risks and explore without the fear of being corrected or shut down. We have included some games here. You will create others. Powerful opportunities for developing emotional engagement in our sons happen in moments of hilarity and play, they are not limited to moments of sadness, anger or fear. The window for access to these spaces is always open.
There are many ways to label these emotional capacities. Emotional literacy, emotional engagement, emotional interdependence, emotional fluency, emotional capacity. Whatever language you apply, it all boils down to being able to connect emotionally with others in the world. The emotional landscape can be a confusing place for our sons. Its up to us to walk with them through this part of their world, a place which exists not only inside them, but in the powerful relational spaces between them and others. Like any complex skill set, your son will acquire these capabilities in layered and nuanced ways over time. There is no end goal here. It is a lifelong process. But it is one that will provide vast rewards.
The following is a list of ways we encourage and explore emotional literacy at our house, along with our seven-year-old son. Some of these ideas are about creating continuity of intimacy, some are about remaining emotionally open, and some are games to help us playfully explore the many layers of emotional nuance with our son. Try out any ideas here that resonate for you. And please note: any of us, fathers, brothers or sons can begin growing our emotional intelligence at any age, from 1 to 100. All we have to do is make the choice to begin.
12 Joyful Ways to Power Up Our Sons’ Emotional Intelligence
#1) Remain Emotionally Open
As a new father, I was surprised at how easily my emotions flowed with my infant son. For many fathers, it can be the first time in our lives that we experience such an emotional connection. It is a transformative experience for many men. But unlike our daughters, as our sons grow older, we can feel the pressure to switch to the more emotionally closed-off relationship that may have been the norm between the boys and men in our family of origin. This is the cultural narrative of male emotional withdrawal raising its ugly head.
Don’t fall for it.
The only emotion that we men seem free to share too much of is anger. There is a vast range of other emotions we experience. Display that range to your son. Keep your emotional conduit open to him. In our culture, men are called upon to model a limited mix of confidence and authority. This is a crippling frame when it comes to teaching our sons how to be fully engaged in their emotional world.
If you’re feeling uncertain about how to begin sharing more emotions, try goofiness and playfulness as a starting point. These are good starting places, but uncertainty, grief, fear, frustration and even loneliness are all emotions your son will confront in his life. Share the presence of these emotions in your life in a responsible way that acknowledges your child’s level of maturity, but let your son know you experience these things too. Show him your strategies for engaging with emotional challenges. Let him see that our families are safe places to share how we feel and to seek comfort when times are tough. And teach your son that these emotions are part of the rich tapestry of being human. Show him that emotions like sadness and grief are important parts of our emotional landscapes; landscapes that if fully experienced, makes life more rich and rewarding.
#2) Maintain Physical Intimacy
We dads hold our babies close and teach them to associate security with our warmth, our voices and our scent.
Don’t shy away from this kind of contact with your son just because he’s a gangly seven-year-old playing baseball now. Don’t be afraid to read your son a book and hold him close as he falls off to sleep.
There are limitless ways to teach our sons independence. But interdependence, and all the power that flows from it, is about having a solid baseline of love from which our sons can launch themselves into the world. Find a daily moment to hold your son close and share the unspoken security of your embrace. It will reinforce for him the baseline confidence that he is loved, beyond all the words that you will ever speak.
#3) Teach Your Son to Present His Point of View Effectively (and sometimes win the day).
I know, I know… our sons seem to be debating with us all the time. For instance, that old standby, “Why can’t I have some candy?” But teaching our sons how to make their case involves asking them to tie their arguments to the bigger picture. What is our family’s understanding about sweets? Are we close to dinner time? Did we have something already today? When you engage in big-picture rationales with your child and sometimes say yes, they come to understand their requests in the bigger picture of past and future conversations.
As they engage in convincing you through prior agreements and current conditions, they grow their ability to convert blunt demands into well-reasoned requests. In order to succeed in this, they have to hear and understand your side of the conversation as well. As a result, you will find them accepting a “no” or “later” more gracefully when it comes. Patiently and consistently teaching your son how to make his case to you will translate into nuanced and confident communication skills with the world at large.
#4) Get Down in the Sandbox with Your Son and Make Little Dinosaur Caves, or Roadways, or Happy Princess Castles, or Whatever.
You gotta PLAY, man! When the question, “Daddy, will you play with me?” arises, you are being invited to visit the place where you will gain powerful insights about your son. I’m not talking organized sports here. I’m talking free, unstructured play. I’m talking building a fort out of two chairs and a blanket. I’m talking about finger painting on the biggest roll of paper you can find. I’m talking mud pies and snowballs. I’m talking making a dam on the creek out of rocks. I’m talking creative play time; the place where you both reinforce your connections with each other through the power of play. And, by the way, when you are playing, resist the urge to make anything a learning moment. Let go of your parent and tap into your playful self. Have some fun that isn’t meant to lead to anything other than the joy of play.
This organic play will help you see into the creative process of your son. Is there an engineer in the making there? An artist? A dancer? An author? A fashion designer? A scientist? During creative play time, more than any other, you will get tantalizing glimpses into the man he will become. In the free flow of creative play you will see where his natural strengths and passions lie. What you see there, you can later encourage and grow. But, more importantly, sharing the joy of play will create a reservoir of emotional trust that you can call on when life’s challenges arise.
#5) Model Emotional Courage Through the Power of Simply Listening
We men have been conditioned to be fixers. When our sons have a problem, we can move very quickly into the “fix things” mode. We pepper them with questions. We grab the box of bandages and move in with the answers. But there is a moment when we can instead pause and simply listen. Sometimes, listening to our sons talk about a problem, a conflict, or a small loss is all that is needed to “make it all better.” In fact, sometimes it is the only way to make it better.
In doing so, you will model emotional courage for your son. And here’s how. As men, we sometimes turn away from witnessing the challenging emotions of others. This can happen with our wives or partners, our friends, or our children. We turn away, saying, “okay, I see the problem”, and by seeking to immediately fix things, say in effect, “it’s fixed, now don’t show me that emotion any more.”
The fact is, the people who love us, including our sons, sometimes need us to witness and hold difficult emotions for them. As fathers, we can learn to do this without letting it trigger a parallel emotional free fall in us. But it’s scary business. It’s the fear of emotional entanglement that causes us to switch to “fix it” mode. And in doing so, we miss out on the potent healing power of simply listening; of what Dr. Harlene Anderson calls “withness”; a process by which we bear witness to the strong emotions of others without jumping in to fix things.
What can arise out of that simple action of listening is remarkable. If we remain quiet and open, if we resist the tempting urge to offer our particular answers, our loved ones will tell us what they need us to hear and what they need us to do (if anything). If you model this for your son, you will grant him a safe space to share his emotions and, longer term, you’ll model a powerful method for being fully engaged emotionally in all his future relationships.
#6) Play the Conflict Game
Young children see every disagreement as a “fight.” Help your son understand that there is a range of ways to express opposing points of view; everything from a conversation, to a disagreement, to a debate, to an argument, to a full blown fight. Help your son see that disagreements or differences are part of everyday life in our families and in the world.
Here is a simple theater game. With an adult partner, play out a disagreement about what to have for dinner. Act a little annoyed but don’t raise your voice. Your partner wants hamburgers. You want spaghetti. Then turn to your son and ask, “was that a discussion, a disagreement, a debate, an argument or a fight?” (The answer, of course, is discussion with a bit of annoyance on the side.) Then replay the same discussion with slightly raised voices. Ask again, “was that a discussion, a disagreement, a debate, an argument or a fight?” In this case, it was a disagreement.
Now, ask your son to take your place and play out the game again. Ask him to secretly select in partnership with the other player, what level of disagreement he wants to portray. Your job will be to identify correctly which level he is portraying. Your son may want to improvise. Let him. Next replace his partner, and you and your son can portray a different disagreement, maybe about what to do at the park.
In this game, your son will be trying out a range of responses to conflict. And he will be modeling conflict with his own father. Two events that will help him develop a wider range of choices about how to express and interpret levels of disagreement inside and outside the home.
Talk to your son about the differences between these levels of disagreement. Talk to him about which approaches are most likely to lead to a resolution and which are not. Teach him to identify the level of a disagreement, and how to match or lower the level of his response. Powerful stuff.
#7 Play the Button Game – Pick A New Emotion Every Two Minutes!
When my son was just four years old, we took a piece of posterboard the drew buttons, switches and dials all over it. (See photo below.) Both my son and I decided what the buttons should be called. He did some. I did others. The labels we created were:
Mad/Happy (Both of us)
Help People Who are Hurt
Dada, I love you
I’m Hungry, Will you make some food?
Stop Being Grumpy (for making Dada stop being grumpy)
Stop Being Mean (for making my son stop being mean)
Some buttons address very specific interactions required of one specific player (such as Daddy stop being grumpy) while others are purely playful and silly (very important to be silly in this game). There are no buttons that say “clean your room” or “do the dishes”. These buttons are not about doing. They are about being; invitations to change your way or someone else’s way of being in the moment.
The power of this game is its capacity to create a subtle but powerful shift in how adults and children view emotions. Everyone runs up and hits various buttons, then they fall down and go to sleep, or suddenly frown and get dramatically sad. As we play the game we are literally choosing what emotions we want to take on and display. But thats just the first part of what this game can do.
What will really blow your mind is when days later, you are feeling grumpy and your son walks over and hits a button on the game that says “stop being grumpy (for daddy)”. In that moment, two things happen. One, your son is empowered by the nature of games to make a request for you to shift emotionally, and two, you have a moment to model our very real power to choose how we express our emotional state.
What’s more, if you shift in that moment—and believe me, your young son with his hand on the button will shift you—you will discover that we really can decide to change how we are feeling. Just like that. Like hitting a button, in fact. The knowledge that we have the power to shift our own emotional state, instead of feeling we are at the mercy of our moods, and by extension, how the world “makes” us feel, is the single biggest lesson we can teach ourselves and our sons.
#8 Teach the Power of the Stories We Tell About Ourselves
Think about how many times you have heard a parent say something like this within earshot of their child. “Jimmy is an artistic kid, he’s not all that interested in math.”
These are the stories we create about our children. And the stories we tell about our children are the stories they tell themselves. The stories we construct become the truth of our lives. If you say that you are not very good at talking, that will become your truth. If you say, I’m learning to talk more, that will be your story. Every time you tell your story you have an opportunity to change it and to change your future self. Teach your son to craft the stories he makes for himself and others with care.
#9 Have a Yes Day
Soon after our babies are born, we parents install baby gates. This is the immutable fact of parenting. Baby = baby gates. And baby gates mean “no”. Don’t go here. Danger. From that moment forward, we have to tell our babies no in a million different ways. No, don’t touch the hot stove. No, don’t fall down the stairs. At the park, no, don’t grab the strange Rottweiler’s ears and pull as hard as you can. “No” can be life and death for our babies.
Then, one day, our toddler furrows his little brow and what pops out? “No.” The word we have used more than any other word ends up back on our conceptual doorstep. “No” becomes a two-way street.
Years ago, a friend of mine was going toe to toe with his three-year-old. Things had become very conflicted. The nos were flying. Then he told me about an idea he had implemented. He simply started saying yes. A lot. He told himself to save “no” for life and death moments. For when his child was about to step off the curb into traffic. The rest of it, he shifted to some version of yes, whenever humanly possible. And oddly enough, here’s what happened. All the nos in the household decreased dramatically.
Welcome to seeing the world from a “yes” standpoint. It’s a strange foreign land, I know. Perhaps peopled with hippies and weird yoga positions that can rip your pants. But oddly enough, having a yes day actually results in a remarkable outcome: things get easier.
As a somewhat frazzled parent of a toddler, I found myself always defaulting to “no,” until I could get my bearings. Maybe I was tired or had a pile of laundry I needed to get done, but it got to the point that with any request, something as simple as “Dada, can we play with the water hose?” I automatically held up my mental stop sign with a big NO on it, and then thought about my answer. It’s a space in which every suggestion, request, idea your child makes has to get past the omnipresent “no.” Its us as parents choosing to be in a blocking or control stance. I understand how we get there. Sometimes it seems like a lot to be a parent, but blocking is not the answer because of what it creates down the road.
And by the way, here’s the big secret about “no.” “No” is hard friggin’ work. It’s a disappointing, blocking, draining thing. Its about as far from playfulness that you can get. After a while, “no” becomes what your child comes to expect from you, and once that’s what they expect, they start giving it back to you. In triplicate.
When I muster a big fat dose of positive energy and commit to having a yes day where I start to make some real headway, the first thing I realize is my son becomes more cooperative. Our sons (or daughters) will mirror our ways of being the world. If we are looking for ways to say “yes”, our children will mirror that back.
#10 Play the Horrible, Stupid, Idiot Game
Idiot. Horrible. Stupid. Ah, the joys of language. All of these words are tumbling out of our son’s mouths. And it can be difficult to hear. When our sons call someone stupid we quickly tell them that its not right to use those words. “Apologize,” we say. “We don’t use those words in our house,” we say.
But what gets me the most is when my son doesn’t do something well and says, “I’m horrible at this” or “I’m stupid”. I think on one level he’s being pretty dramatic, but there is a real part of him that is frustrated. And I’ve seen the same frustrated echos in myself. More than once, I’ve told someone I love that I’m stupid or a failure. It’s not a pretty moment. So telling my son he’s not horrible isn’t enough. It never feels satisfying for either of us.
So instead we took these loaded words and wrote them on a piece of paper and we made them into abbreviations for very long compliments.
Honestly Out of this world Remarkably Right In Being Lovely and Enjoyable
And this becomes a powerful moment of play. The fact is, we parents take ourselves too seriously. We gotta lighten up. Going in opposition to things never works all that well. So, when my son says he or someone else is horrible, I start up on the Honestly Out of the world Remarkable Right in Being Lovely and Enjoyable and, I’m tripping over the words and getting them out of order and doing it wrong and so on, and nine times out of ten, things shift to laughter. My son starts picking other terrible words and trying to create sentences from their letters. See what your son can do with POOPYHEAD. You’d be surprised. The point here is that words are what we make of them. The power of words and how we choose to repurpose and reinterpret them is a huge lesson.
More than once since we started playing this game, our son will, days later, use a word like “idiot” with a very serious expression. And then he gets that glint in his eye, goes to the fridge where we’ve pasted up the reconstructed meaning of the word and read it out, laughing. “Remember? Remember, we did this?” he’ll say.
#11 Teach the power of nuance.
Use moments that occur in life to point out the power of nuance. When my son took a fencing class there was a specific moment when he was taught that a very small circular motion with his wrist would turn aside his opponent’s épée and give him the opening to lunge and score a touch. There are other examples of this in life. Don’t let them pass by unmarked. Point them out to your son when you see them.
This concept of small movements creating powerful results is important to highlight for your son. It’s an idea that may take years for your son to put into practice, but in a world where bluster and the use of force are in evidence all around, nuance represents a broadening of your son’s options, and more options is the key to creating satisfying successful relationships in the world
#12 Protect and Grow the Relational Space that Exists Between You and Your Child
It is often said that we can not be a friend to our children; that we need to be parents to them. And I believe this is true. Our children need to understand that we, as parents, speak from a position of caring authority. They need the structure of that authority to hold them while they construct their identities.
That being said, there is a relational space that exists between us and our child. It is a space that shrinks or grows depending on how much we value it. It is a space that comes from acknowledging our child’s individuality, autonomy, and perspective. Much of what we have shared in this list represents ways to enter and grow that space.
This is the sweet spot of connection between the world of a parent and the world of a child. We seek it when we drop to one knee to speak to our sons and daughters. We seek it when we ask our sons and daughters what they think. We seek it when we are open to what our sons and daughters can teach us about the world. And we find it in the playful moments we intentionally create with them. The trust and connection that this space creates will inform all of the joys and challenges we will face with our children. It is the bridge to their willingness and their cooperation. You can literally visualize that relational space in your mind. Imagine a sunny field or a world you can hold in your hands. Whatever you choose, consider that world a place you want to visit with your child. Protect it and grow it. Because it’s a little slice of heaven.
Some Additional Thoughts
Teaching our sons (or daughters) emotional literacy is not about rejecting the value of independence but instead emphasizing with equal importance a second set of core values; the core values of interdependence. Put simply, independence is possible only within the larger frame of interdependence.
We are all interconnected. In the purest sense, we all rise or fall together. A rigid and unyielding emphasis on themes of independence is a recipe for isolation and alienation; it is a threat to the sustainability of our families, our cultures and our species.
What also needs to be acknowledged here is that in order to teach our sons anything, we must explore it ourselves as well. I’d like to suggest that this process of learning is one we and our sons are already taking together. We can choose to consciously steer the journey or let it choose its own course. The choice is ours.
In engaging the ideas in this article and many others in the world, we must always adjust for the context in which this process will take place. Not only is each child different in terms of how they express emotions, but also each household, parent, and sibling represents a different and distinct emotional context in which interactions take place. The Conflict Game will play out differently depending on how conflict is already being portrayed in your home. Be sensitive to context.
If we are to save our sons from a lifetime of emotional withdrawal, we need to start early, providing them a much wider range of capacities and skills that allow them to live more emotionally nuanced and connected lives. If our sons understand the vast range of ways they can view the world, respond to conflict, express their needs and share the emotional experiences of others, their journeys through life will be empowered and satisfying experiences—because they will be able to strike a balance between what they need and what they can offer others.
I understand just how daunting it can be to even consider the subject of emotional engagement with our sons. It can seem like we are opening a Pandora’s box of our child’s emotions. It can seem like we are encouraging them to set loose a storm of complaints, fears, tears and tantrums.
It is tempting to think that by keeping the lid on, we can somehow navigate the path to calm maturity and avoid the messy and unpredictable world of emotions altogether. But this is a false hope. We can not avoid the emotional lives we live. It is far better to plunge in and swim than to stand aside in fear of what lies below the surface. It requires courage and trust and hope. But in the end, you will be an active participant instead of a powerless observer in your son’s emotional growth. You will stand beside him as he learns. You will form connections with your son that will carry you both forward through times of challenge and celebration alike, and you will know your son in ways that create a more full, complete and rewarding experience of life.
I have written this article from the position of a dad speaking to dads, but I heartily acknowledge that mothers and daughters have a crucial and central role to play in providing their sons, fathers and brothers’ space to become emotionally empowered human beings. I believe boys confront different cultural challenges than girls do. But I do not in any way wish to give the impression that either group has an easier time of it.
Both boys and girls have the ability to think rationally and from an emotional standpoint. Each of these ways of being brings advantages. The combination of both creates a range of capacity far greater than the sum of its parts. It is time to stop thinking of emotional capacities as “soft skills” gendered towards girls and women. Emotional literacy is the capacity to relate across every form of human connection that does not fall into the narrow range of the rational. Whether they take place in a home or in a corporate boardroom, human relationships happen on multiple levels. All decision making has an emotional component, even though decisions are often framed a rational. And our sons will be making decisions throughout their lives.
And so our goal is to get us all thinking and talking about how we can raise more emotionally empowered children. For girls this may mean granting them permission to be emotionally direct; that is, not having to couch their emotional responses in what might be viewed as a traditionally feminine tone or style. Whatever that is, is a whole ‘nother conversation. But for boys, we must insure that our sons have the emotional capacities/skills/fluency to be fully engaged in their own lives and the lives of those they love. This will benefit not only them, but the women and men they work with, form friendships with and love throughout their lives.
In closing I want to acknowledge the powerful role my co-author and wife Dr. Saliha Bava has played in writing this article. She has graciously encouraged me to speak from the first person here, but her passionate intellect, ideas and language represent an equal part of this work. We would also like to thank the gifted editors at the Good Men Project, including Joanna Schroeder, who shared their input on this article.
Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava will be releasing an eBook providing more in-depth games, play and other practices for exploring and growing our sons’ emotional engagement. Click here to join our email list for news about our upcoming e-book.
Click here for a complete list of Good Men Project articles by Mark Greene.
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