Breaking stereotypes: boys and emotions

Emotions and boys – pairing these two words conjures up many old-fashioned stereotypes young men today are still grappling with as they try to understand how to deal with and show their emotions effectively.

Decades past, boys were told to “man up” and “take it on the chin”, to “stop crying, you wuss” and “take it like a man”. Despite society having advanced into the modern day with vast research into boys and their emotions, these harsh stereotypes still linger – making it difficult for boys to trust they can show their emotions openly without negative consequences.

Sitting on the sidelines of an U14s cricket match, a prime example of the different ways boys deal with and communicate their emotions was visible. The first player to react emotionally (when made to leave the pitch after getting out for a duck) came back to the players’ area fuming, yelling expletives and throwing his gloves and bat onto his bag in anger – this boy outwardly showed his teammates and spectators he was upset.

Take two – a second player was also taken for a duck. He put his head down and walked slowly off the pitch to the players’ area and slumped into a chair, not uttering a word – clearly upset but unable or unwilling to voice anything about it. Two contrasting accounts of boys dealing with their emotions; which one is a healthier option? Which one is more common? Which one do parents find easier to deal with?

Leading US child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson’s book Raising Cain (2000) unravels some of the mysteries behind boys dealing with emotions and how to voice them to parents and the wider world. Thompson and Kindlon seek to answer the question; what do boys need they are not getting? They tackle the stereotypes making boys feel conflicted with their feelings and offer parents helpful insight into dealing with their sons’ emotional side.

Some major points offered in Raising Cain include;

Give boys permission to have an internal life – “…approval for the full range of emotions and help in developing an emotional vocabulary so they may better understand themselves and communicate more effectively with others.”

Recognise and accept the high activity level of boys and give them safe boy places to express it – “Boys are tremendously sensitive to adults who do not have a reasonable tolerance level for boy energy, and when they do sense that a person has a low threshold of boy tolerance, they usually respond to it as a challenge…Boys need to learn how to manage their physicality to do no harm, but they need not be shamed for exuberance.”

Talk to boys in their language – “Because boys are miseducated to fear excessive feeling and vulnerability, it is important to communicate with them in a way that honors their wish for strength and does not shame them… Is communicating with boys sometimes difficult? Yes, it often is. Is it impossible? Almost never. Only with the most angry, contemptuous, and suspicious boys is conversation impossible. If you are willing to ask consultative questions, put your emotional cards on the table, and not be disappointed by brief answers, you can communicate with boys. ”

Teach boys emotional courage is courage – “We need to recognise and identify for them emotional courage in the lives of women and men, in our families and in the lives of children and others around us. In life and art, we need to provide boys models of male heroism that go beyond the muscular, the self-absorbed, and the simplistically heroic. Many adults display emotional courage in their work or personal lives, but rarely do we allow our children to witness our private moments of conscience or bravery.”

Model a manhood of emotional attachment“Boys imitate what they see. If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness between men, they grow up to emulate that behavior…Boys need to be encouraged to initiate friendships, maintain them, and experience the conflicts that arise in male friendships…”

Teach boys that there are many ways to be a man – “Very few boys or men are tall, handsome, athletic, successful with women, endlessly virile, and physically fearless…Boys suffer from a too-narrow definition of masculinity, and it is time to reexamine that message…We have to teach boys that there are many ways to become a man; that there are many ways to be brave, to be a good father, to be loving and strong and successful. We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk taking of boys, their energy, their boldness.”