How Raising Emotionally Literate Boys Challenges Our Perceptions of Masculinity

December 16, 2013 by Heather Gray

Heather Gray challenges us to think about what our sons really need in order to be emotionally literate.

Recently, an important interview with Jane Fonda has been making its way around the web. She’s given two minutes to talk to her captive audience about anything. With candor, authenticity, and poignancy, she expresses concern for our sons. Her plea is that we “do everything we can to keep our sons emotionally literate…and capable of intimacy, compassion, and empathy.”

Hear! Hear! Her voice joins the chorus of voices that can be found right here on The Good Men Project. She’s singing our song, right? The problem with this is that good ideas and important thoughts don’t solve the problem. If we really want to answer the question about what we can do about our sons, we have to move from great thought to inspired action.

We have to admit our prejudices.

It’s all well and good to hit that “like” button when we see a viral video of a boy showing awareness, sensitivity, or empathy. However, if we get down and dirty with this issue, there are times for many of us when observing an emotionally literate boy will challenge our perceptions of masculinity. It might be when they cry. It might be when they seek affection. It might be when they want to express themselves through the arts. At any point in time, our views of masculinity will be challenged. We have to be honest with ourselves about the uncomfortable parts so we can examine them, challenge them, and learn from them. We have to admit that they are there and be willing to change our perceptions.

We have to let go of our fears.

Encouraging boys to be more vulnerable as they move through the world can make us afraid. We worry that boys will be bullied if they are “too sensitive”. We want boys to be capable of intimacy and compassion but worry that the big, bad world will eat them alive. Worry sets in that challenging stereotypes will make lives harder for boys.

Let’s be honest. It’s true. Boys may be questioned, picked on, or bullied if they appear too different from the norm. This isn’t a reason not to make changes to how we talk to boys about their feelings and their relationships. Staying silent forces them into the same old paradigms that we are trying to shift. Change isn’t easy or comfortable. However, while teaching boys to tune into themselves, we can also teach them ways of responding to a society and culture that is still behind the times.

Changes don’t have to put boys in a victim role.

Part of building emotional intelligence is learning to cope when the world doesn’t go our way. We fear these moments but they don’t have to paralyze us. Of course we don’t want our boys to feel this pain but, sometimes, it can only be in feeling pain that we learn to tune in to and experience joy. This is a crucial skill set for boys to have if they truly are going to grow into emotionally literate men.

We need to model healthy relationships for our boys.

Boys need to see relationships where men are comfortable expressing difficult emotions. They need to see affection that is separate from sexual relationships. At some point in pre-teen years, we stop casually touching boys. They lose the hand on the shoulder or arm around their back. We pull back from that. It’s a dangerous game we play because we run the risk of confusing boys. They start to learn that affection is only shared between a man and his partner and as we pull back, they do, too. It’s right around the time that boys lose casual affection that they also stop talking about their feelings. It’s not an unfortunate coincidence. It’s a clear example of cause and effect. We need to feel connected to share feelings. When we interrupt, break, or change connections, it makes it harder to talk about feelings. It’s that break that interrupts emotional intelligence and connectedness.

We have to show vulnerability and respect the vulnerability in others.

No one wants to talk about the tough stuff and many people simply don’t know how because they’ve never seen it done. If we model for boys how to share disappointments, heartaches, and fears, they learn from our example. By putting ourselves out there, boys learn to do the same. By demonstrating compassion and sensitivity when others are vulnerable, boys start to feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their more personal experiences.

We have to focus our education and advocacy on the adults.

The kids are already starting to get it. Boys are not born with an instinctive desire to be private and not talk about their feelings. When they are three years old and fueled by biologic instincts, they cry when they fall or get startled. They seek comfort from their parents when they are scared. They are sensitive to their peers at school who may be impaired in some way. It’s when they start to see the world around them and internalize its messages that they start to pull back, withhold, and become guarded. We have to change what they see by continuing to challenge adults to think differently about masculinity. We have to question and call out gender stereotypes and we have to encourage today’s men to take some risks and connect more to their emotions. We have to provide today’s boys with new examples of what it means to “be a man”.

We have to ask boys how they are feeling and be prepared to accept their answers.

One natural consequence of our gender stereotypes is that girls more easily identify with feeling sad while boys more readily identify with anger. This can be hard for us adults to handle. Sometimes, I think it’s why we stop asking boys how they are feeling. Boys need to be able to talk about and express their anger in order to understand it. They need adults to listen to their darkness without judgment and without assumption. That can be hard for many. Our tolerance for sitting with someone who is depressed is higher. Once we remind ourselves that anger is often depression turned inside out, we can find our compassion and empathy and we can learn to sit with a boy’s anger. Once we do, he often calms and learns to connect with the vulnerability and sadness that his anger is shielding him from.

We have to bust up stereotypes at every opportunity.

We can send crying children to their fathers for comfort. We can give dads the opportunity to model compassion and empathy. We must keep casual touch in our sons’ lives. Praising and appreciating boys for talking about their feelings and connecting will validate their risks and experiences.  We can share our worries, fears, and frustrations. We don’t have to keep our wish for them a secret. Being transparent about the importance of connecting and relating will guide boys in the direction we hope for them. We will be providing them a guidebook for how to live, feel, and love. That’s the power that can be found in changing our behavior. We know what to do about our sons. We just have to do it.

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