Children are born with amazing capacities for forming relationships. This ability is what many parents see as the sweet emotional openness of their little ones. The challenge isn’t that we fail to teach our children how to form relationships, they are born knowing how. The challenge is we live in a culture that intentionally suppresses these capacities in our children as they grow older and move out into the world.
Think of it this way: Children first begin learning to speak when they are toddlers. But what would happen if our toddlers were hit, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words? How quickly would they stop trying to talk at all?
Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to express emotionally.
As part of the research for her book When Boys Become Boys (2014), Dr. Judy Chu of Stanford University followed a group of four and five year old boys for two years. She documented how our sons are trained away from their early capacity for being emotionally perceptive, articulate and responsive.
She found that starting in kindergarten, our sons are trained towards the emotionally disconnected stereotype our culture projects onto them; given little choice but to conform in the name of being considered “real boys.”
As they grow older, our sons are taught to “man up” in increasingly aggressive and belligerent ways. They are taught by their peers, their coaches, their teachers and even their families that real men don’t show their emotions. As a result, they cease exploring the nuances of relational communication; the ways in which we grow and deepen our relationships through the back and forth of relating in authentic, distinctive ways. Instead, they hide what is authentic about themselves, they live more isolated lives, all the result of being shut off from the authentic interpersonal connections that emotional expression can create.
Our daughters face similar restrictions of their relational capacities.
We limit them to what might be called the greeting card school of emotional expression. We allow the expression of sympathy or celebration but more complex, volatile or dark emotions are forbidden. There are no greeting cards for rage or despair, feelings far too many of our daughters are trained to hide away and suppress.
It is miraculous that newborn babies are already tracking the subtle and nuanced verbal and non verbal cues by which human beings communicate. The question is, do we want our children to use those amazing skills to grow their connection in the world or to track the cultural messages that tell them to suppress their connection?
Additionally, we can unintentionally limit our children’s exploration of their relational capacities. We block their relational growth by telling them the “right” ways to feel instead of helping them work through the more complex feelings that can arise for them. We might tend to correct them for getting upset, expressing emotions that make us uncomfortable; emotions like anger, sadness or fear.
When we suppress our children’s emotional expression, we limit their capacity to form relationships, because it is in relationships that emotions get co-created.
In order to avoid displaying unwelcome forms of expression, many children (and adults) engage in more perfunctory superficial relationships, or simply withdraw from relating altogether. This withdrawal represents a pivotal moment in our development, because how we relate creates who we are becoming.
Our robust networks of personal and professional relationships are the source of resiliency for us during times of personal crisis, natural disasters or economic upheaval. Without a network of meaningful, joyful relationships, we are far more likely to fall into depression, isolation and chronic illness. Growing our children’s relational intelligence will improve their emotional and physical health over the course of their lifetimes.
In fact, it will improve every metric by which we measure quality of life.
Our culture is giving our sons a message to shut up; to not talk about what they are feeling. It is telling our daughters to only express a limited set of “approved” emotions; the greeting card school of emotional expression. Without a loving and consistent counter message, the vibrant, healthy, emotionally connecting parts of our children will slowly be hidden away and silenced.
It’s up to us, as parents, to give our children a different message. We can instead encourage our children to explore and grow their relational intelligence early on, ensuring they are better able to connect in relationship to others.
Relational intelligence is the understanding of how we co-create healthy relationships.
The good news is our children are ready to engage in this lifelong process. We’re talking about growing the interpersonal super powers that every human being is born with. We are all born with these powerful capacities. We simply need relationships in which we are encouraged to grow them. What’s more, our children don’t need this encouragement to be happening everywhere, they simply need to be getting this encouragement in some central part of their lives.
And there is no better place than within our own families. And what is even more promising? When we help our children grow their relational intelligence, we grow our own as well.
This article includes excerpts from The Relational Book for Parenting. See our video below.
Want to raise sons and daughters who can create and sustain lasting joyful relationships? Get The Relational Book for Parenting, by Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava.
The Relational Book for Parenting uses comics, fables, articles, and games to help families’ grow their relationship superpowers in the daily back and forth of parenting. It’s a joyful, accessible, parent-friendly cure for what ails our isolating culture, helping us to raise a generation of young people better able to connect, collaborate and innovate across differences. The book is available here: http://a.co/ej1kAgi
Here’s a two minute video on The Relational Book for Parenting. Have a look! See more of what’s inside our book at ThinkPlayPartners.com.