Dr. Les Kertay finds a way to teach emotional intelligence to his son.
If boys are to become men—real men, not the caricature of manhood that dominated the advertising world of my childhood, or the new more subtle caricatures found in modern advertising and music—they need to learn to be articulate about their emotional lives. Daniel Goleman calls it “emotional intelligence.” I’m tempted to call it simply “maturity.” Whatever we call it, that many men lack this ability to articulate their inner states is made apparent by the rampant rancor in public discourse, and the uncivilized way that many men tend treat each other and the women in their lives.
This isn’t actually all that hard. The skill is this: when you have an emotion, be able to name it, own it, and when appropriate say it out loud—then choose a course of action that makes the most sense. Instead of trying hard to suppress or control emotions—only to have them leak all over everyone as we act out – own the feeling and then act with integrity. Sounds simple, and obvious, but I don’t see a lot of it going on, especially (I am embarrassed to say) with men.
I’ve known for some time that I wanted my boys to know this skill, but I’ve struggled to know how to teach it. As we were getting ready for our Maine Men 2011 trip, I stumbled across an event that seemed tailor made, and on the last day of our trip I saw it in action.
A few days before the trip Sam said he wanted to go to a State Park that turned out to be on the other end of Maine, so it just wasn’t practical. He knew it wasn’t practical, but he was disappointed – and he did what he usually does when he’s disappointed, which is to pout and then get really ugly with everyone around him. When I asked him what was up, he said “Nothing” in that way that only kids can say – you know, the one where you think someone is poking you in the eye while tickling you? This, I admit with some chagrin, makes me homicidal, and I am generally really bad at stopping myself from saying really stupid things like, “If you won’t let me help you, get out of my sight” – or something equally horrid and sure to lose me the father-of-the-year award.
Somehow, I stopped myself that day, and said instead that we ought to try and work something out before the trip, because this wasn’t going to work for me. I said, in a moment of insight, that I react really badly when someone says one thing but is acting as though they feel another. I told Sam that when he says he’s “fine,” but clearly isn’t, I start to feel responsible for fixing it, and since I can’t I tend to get mad. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but the problem is that I keep trying to fix it, and you don’t want to be fixed, and we end up mad at each other.” I pointed out that the same thing happens with Greg, and then they try to make me happy because I feel like a terrible parent, and pretty soon we’re all mad at each other and we can’t remember why.
“Is that because you’re a psychologist?” Sam asked, which I thought was pretty smart. “Partly,” I admitted, “but mostly I’m just sensitive to how people feel, just like both of you are.” They got that, but didn’t know what to do instead. So I suggested that they say whatever is going on – “If you’re disappointed but trying to work through it, say so. If you’re disappointed but you’re worried that it will upset me to say so, tell me that. Put words on all the parts you feel, and I think it will make it easier.”
So far, so good. We had a name for it, and we had a plan, even if it was a little “high-falutin’”.
We all got on remarkably well during the trip, but on the last day Greg was really disappointed that his suggestion to take the Duck Tour wasn’t going to work out in terms of timing and money. He was upset, but trying really hard not to be, and I was trying really hard to fix it and make everything ok. Uh oh.
Then a miracle occurred. Greg said, “Ok, I really am disappointed, but I’m trying to work it out on my own and I want you to let me do that if you can.”
And you know what? It was hard but I backed off and we went on with our alternate plan. I did feel bad and as though I had disappointed him, and I really wanted to fix it. But I didn’t – and I didn’t get angry either because everything was on the table. Within 20 minutes Greg was fine, I stopped feeling guilty and instead paid attention to being with the boys, and Sam was the one who commented on how well it seemed to work when we all said what we felt and what we wanted.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
For us, despite terrible weather 3 of our 6 days in Maine, and despite not being able to do everything exactly when and how we said, the boys dealt with their disappointments and irritations really well. They said what they felt, and moved on – and in the end all agreed it was the best trip yet. I was, and am, very proud of them for how they handled themselves, and how unselfish they were.
Maybe more importantly, I believe it is possible to teach boys how to be emotionally articulate, and to respect their right to work through something on their own. I can’t swear they’ll be better men for this experience, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
What do you do to help your boys grow up to be better men?
Originally published with a different title at www.leskertay.com
Image credits: (main) what_i_see / flickr, (insets) courtesy of author