All too often, boys learn that the ideal man is the strong, silent type. He looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis (Clint Eastwood or John Wayne for an older generation) and mutters phrases like "I'll be back," "Make my day," or "Bring it on." Weak men are "girly men." Many boys have exactly two speeds when it comes to emotion: They are "okay," or they are "angry." Many parents are shocked at how quickly their sons become belligerent, but it should come as no surprise. Anger is culturally acceptable for boys (and men) and creates its own set of problems.
In I Don't Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, psychotherapist Terrence Real, L.I.C.S.W., talks about the emotional numbing that boys experience as they grow up. They begin life as exuberant, lively little people with a full range of feelings, but by the time they have spent some time in school, they have discovered what "real men" are like and have begun to restrict their expressiveness. Research shows that most males struggle not only to express, but to identify their emotions. The formal term for this difficulty is alexithymia and psychologist Ron Levant, Ed.D., M.B.A., estimates that as many as 80 percent of men in our society have a mild to severe form of it. If you ask most men what they are feeling, you are likely to hear what they are thinking instead. Men (and their sons) often find it difficult to tell the difference.
Perhaps the most devastating emotion young boys experience as they grow up is shame. No one enjoys shame, but boys may actually fear it. Shame strikes at a boy's heart; it causes him to close down and to avoid connection with adults at the very time he needs it most. Discipline for your son should never involve humiliation or shame.
Building Emotional Literacy
Boys are healthier and happier when they have solid emotional resources and access to all of the varied and intricate parts of themselves. How can parents teach boys to have a rich emotional life, deep connections to others, and still be full members in the society of men?
To build emotional literacy in your son, you should start by teaching your son an emotional vocabulary. From the time your son is an infant, speak to him with a rich and varied emotional vocabulary. Babies are not born with words for their feelings; they must be taught. You can say, "You look sad" or "You must feel disappointed" without rescuing or coddling your son. You can also talk about your own feelings without making your son responsible for them. When you can say, "I felt scared; did you?" to your boy, you give him permission to feel and to express his own emotions.
Be sure to listen to your son. Then listen some more. One of the best ways to encourage expression is simply to listen without judgment. Show empathy; don't rush to offer solutions. Give your son time to explore his emotions. Remember, you don't have to agree with your son's feelings to listen, nor do you have to accept inappropriate behavior. Listening well is the first step to creating connection and solving problems together.
You must be sure to model connection and empathy for your son. Mothers and fathers can demonstrate by their own actions what real love and connection look like. When your son lives with respect, love, and empathy, he will find it easier to practice those skills himself.
In addition to listening and teaching your son an emotional vocabulary, make room for your son to be himself. Avoid telling your son what he should or should not feel; give him room to explore his strengths and weaknesses in a safe environment. When your son doesn't need to fear shame or rejection, he can express his emotions, needs, and dreams openly.
Remembering Your Role
Importantly, you should recognize that the outside world will "toughen up" your boy; your job is to nurture and encourage him. All boys inevitably learn the hard lessons about being a "real man." You can best help your son by nurturing his heart and spirit and providing compassion when the world hurts him.
Because boys are sometimes prone to anger and aggression, it is wise to model being calm and respectful when dealing with problems. Take a cool-off if you must, but avoid yelling and anger, and remember that emotions are not mysterious forces that threaten to overwhelm us; they are part of what makes us most human. When you can teach your boy to understand and express his feelings respectfully and clearly, you are helping him take a giant step toward true manhood.