Time and time again, I find the same advice helpful in getting me through the challenging questions of parenting. Don’t censor your child’s interests, use them as an opportunity to talk about what else might be going on in their lives, ask open-ended questions to elicit their own feelings, and trust your child – the boy you love.
And while the research and debate over whether boys’ unique behaviours are determined by nature or nurture continue, we can still do something now about the way we raise our sons.
In their book, Raising Cain, Protecting the emotional life of boys, psychologists Michael
Thompson and Dan Kindlon say that we expect too much from our boys – and too
Too much because we expect them to take on responsibilities earlier than they are
capable of. And too little because we lower expectations of them for self-control, empathy, and moral responsibility.
To correct this, the authors call on parents to develop the emotional literacy of boys.
By this they mean teaching boys about how people feel and giving them a tangible vocabulary to understand others’ motivations and actions and to help them identify and
feel comfortable with their own emotions.
Boys tend to show fewer emotions, but do they feel less? The authors say that boys are sometimes overwhelmed by their rage and are afraid of it because they haven’t been taught
to understand or deal with the range of human emotions that girls are.
We tend to explain functional things like trucks and other mechanical devices to boys instead of talking about emotions and feelings so they don’t learn what most girls do about human behaviour.
To fill in the gap, boys pick up society’s ample messages about manhood – namely to be tough and unemotional. And none of these messages tell them it’s ok to be vulnerable or sensitive to fear, sadness, and beauty – whether in themselves or others.
Thompson and Kindlon say that when boys don’t recognize and accept these feelings in themselves, they become angry, sad, and disconnected – paralyzed by their small range of
permitted feelings. This in turn limits their emotional literacy even further and makes them unable to respond to the needs of others or themselves.
And though seemingly counter-intuitive, Thompson and Kindlon also raise the question of whether restricting boys’ play fighting somehow limits their ability to
work through a basic primal urge and make them resistant to developing
I think about my brother Jack, running down the back alley of our childhood home
with a gang of boys, wielding sticks and garbage-can lid shields, playing some
kind of war game.
Yet Jack went on to work for Project Ploughshares, a peace organization and became the most diplomatic and sensitive member of my large family.
I know you can’t make a case out of one example, but I have heard the same story from others and it makes me wonder why he turned out the way he did.
Here is what Naomi Aldort, a family therapist and author of Raising Our Children Raising
Ourselves says about playing with guns,
“play is always right and at the same time, we can learn from the child’s play about any emotional stress in his life. The boys get emotional release when they play. Our society is a
violent one and children need an opportunity to release their emotions through play.”
Unlike today, my brother’s play went largely unnoticed by adults and virtually unregulated. I’m not saying that is necessarily the way to go, but perhaps a fear that play fighting will lead to violent adults is overshadowing the freedom we give our sons to play and play out what they wish or need.
And is it too far of a stretch to wonder if they need it in order to move on to emotional literacy?