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The Importance of Emotionally Healthy Sons
When my son was five, I took him on one of many trips to visit his grandparents. As we sat around in the post–evening meal glow, I watched him work the room in his unique and extraordinary style. He had a capacity to insert himself effortlessly right into your heart, alternately playing, talking, touching, cuddling, laughing, and hugging. As he made his rounds before being shuttled off to bed, my mother, who sat beside me watching this unfold, turned to me and said, "He reminds me so much of you at that age."
She meant it as a compliment, both for him and for me, but it left me speechless—I could not ever remember myself so uninhibitedly connected to my heart. Somehow, in the process of growing up male in this culture, in the space of a decade between my childhood and my confused teenage years, I had grown into a young man who lived completely within his head and was, without even knowing it, completely cut off from his feelings.
The long journey back to reconnecting with my emotional self has been the most difficult and painful thing I have ever undertaken, and the years I existed as an emotional cripple are lost forever. Watching my son, still intact, not yet weighted down by the enormous pressure to be tough, to be rational, to hold back tears, and, implicitly, to stop feeling, I vowed that I would do whatever was necessary to help him survive his youth with his beautiful heart intact. It was a solemn promise I made that day, but not one that was easy to achieve. Much of whatever wisdom might appear in this book arose from mistakes I made with him.
As a society, we have made great strides on behalf of women, and that is an extraordinary thing. We have realized that in denigrating the feminine, we have impoverished the whole. By systematically hindering women from assuming their power in the world, we have lost generations of insight. And in the process, we have forced our sons to grow into adulthood without access to the very resources they need to become decent, caring, full human beings.
We look out today in horror at a society scarred by senseless violence and hatred. From mindless massacres in our schools to the numbing randomness of street violence, our society seems to have taken leave of its senses. And the truth, the truth that we scarcely want to admit, is that the violence is virtually all committed by men, men who were once young boys who laughed and hugged and loved.
Our focus on the plight of women has produced a significant body of research on the how, when, and why of collapsing self-esteem in girls. Though we have only begun to turn our attention toward the development of boys, some significant information has emerged. Studies show that young girls tend to be strong and self-confident until the onset of puberty. It is then that the crisis of self-esteem hits and hits hard. Boys, on the other hand, tend to go through two distinct crises: the first at age five or six, and the second at puberty. One more tantalizing piece of information is that among infants and toddlers, boys tend to be more emotionally expressive than girls, only to lose this skill as they grow. At age five or six, the acculturation process first kicks in, and for our sons, it kicks in with a merciless impact.
As I see it, the issue in raising our daughters is providing them with the love, support, internal strength, and self-confidence to grow fully into their lives; the issue for our sons is bringing them to maturity with their emotional centers intact and accessible.
Through interactions at school and on the playground and exposure to cultural stereotypes through television, movies, and video games, our sons quickly learn that boys are supposed to be tough; to be tough means not having any feelings except anger. In a boy's world, everything becomes competitive, and you need to take the blows—literally and figuratively—and pretend they don't hurt if you hope to measure up. At age five, boys are already deep into the process of sealing off their hearts, cutting the ties that connect them to their own emotional worlds.
The second and potentially more dangerous crisis strikes boys at puberty, when issues as emotionally charged as sex, love, and one's identity as a man suddenly emerge with urgency. Yet the very resources our sons need to deal with these issues, a solid grounding in their own emotional worlds, never got developed. As a consequence, they find themselves living in a strange and dangerous world full of pressing and confusing questions, and they don't even have the language to find the answers.
Cut off from their emotions, our sons are truly lost, since they do not even know what is missing. They try to compensate by pressing on to understand, to develop their gift of reason, for therein appears to lie protection from the unknown. Their emotions remain intact, but are repressed into the darkness of their unconscious.
Much research still needs to be done to complete the picture. One question that may not be answered for a very long time is just how much of the behavior differences between boys and girls is rooted in biology and how much is a product of social and cultural expectations. At one extreme are those who believe that boys and girls are from different worlds altogether—for lack of a better term, the "Mars and Venus" theory. I personally think this is a foolhardy position, if for no other reason than it tells us to stop thinking and worrying about how we raise our children; the results are inevitably coded into our genes.
But the status quo is not acceptable. Raising generation after generation of girls with shattered self-esteem and boys with little or no emotional intelligence is neither inevitable nor desirable. There is nothing "alien" about little boys or little girls. We are the same species and we dream the same dreams. We all want to love and be loved and to have lives of meaning and purpose. While we cannot change our biology, we can begin to change the way we raise our children.
In my earlier book, 200 Ways to Raise a Girl's Self-Esteem, I tried to provide practical suggestions for giving our daughters a better chance of growing up with their self-esteem not only intact but vibrantly strong and resilient. In this book I offer equally straightforward suggestions for helping our sons grow into manhood connected to their hearts and resonating with the deep emotional intelligence that they will need to live full and joyful lives. Some are suggestions to develop or support your son's emotional repertoire; others are attitudes that we adults must cultivate in order to nurture our boys into adulthood. No matter who the boy in your life is, no matter his age, it's never too late to start.
Exploring Your Own Assumptions
Living at a time of great transformation is exciting, especially when the changes taking place are long overdue and coming at a dizzying pace. But it is also extremely challenging because, as pioneers of change, we are constantly entering new territory in which we have only a general idea of what direction to take. It takes enormous energy and focus to sort out the paths and to figure out what we need to do to make this journey easier for our sons. But most of us are more than willing to commit this energy and time because we want to provide our sons with full, rich upbringings that will serve as a solid foundation for their growth and development into the extraordinary men we know they can be.
By far the most difficult part of our task is discovering and dismantling the places where our own training hinders our role as pioneers. Someone must go first, and it is both a great honor and a solemn responsibility, but we need to remember that our own training, our own complex array of assumptions, was forged under different times. Much of it is no longer appropriate for or supportive of our immediate task.
Simply replaying past expectations, assumptions, and traditions will not change the landscape one iota. We as a society are in a rut, and that is why we do such a poor job of raising boys. At the same time, there is much value in the traditions of our past, and it would be foolish to jettison the whole without first thinking and feeling deeply about the ways we need to modify our own assumptions.
How many times when talking to your children have you heard words coming out of your mouth and been struck by the thought that these are not really your words at all, but they are a replay of words you heard from your parents, words they probably heard from their parents, and so on down the generations?
In this chapter I highlight some key places where we can fall victim to our own training right when we want to blaze a new trail for our sons. And this too is one of the great gifts of parenting. In the process of teaching, nurturing, and guiding, we grow.
Examine Gender Roles
"Men work hard, dole out punishment, do the yard work, and handle the cash. Women take care of the kids, do the cooking and housework, and take care of the hugs and kisses. Real old-fashioned, but that's what I learned growing up, and even though I don't agree with it anymore it is still pretty well ingrained."
The past forty years have seen a tremendous shift in how we view gender roles, thanks largely to the millions of women who have demanded fuller and more equal participation in life. But don't fool yourself into thinking we have turned the corner. Cultural patterns of thousands of years aren't changed in a few decades; we are in the position of the battleship that has just turned the helm but will take another twenty miles before the ship actually makes its turn. In addition, the advances made by women have not been matched by men. Where women's lives have blossomed with opportunities, men's lives are for the most part still stuck in the old ways.
One way you can begin to have a real impact on your sons is to play down the gender role divisions in your own home. Start with how you divide up the chores and allocate responsibilities, and change the jobs you give your children. Examine the ways you are silently perpetuating old gender stereotypes. You might be comfortable with them, but by consciously breaking them up you send a powerful message to your children that their options have broadened considerably.
Parents: Include boys in dishwashing, cooking, or baby-sitting, and include girls in yard work, balancing the checkbook, and moving furniture around. It may seem like a small gesture, but it sends the message that all activities can be open to all of us.
Teachers: Create a lesson plan that focuses on the way gender and jobs have changed over the years. There is great material here. For example, did you know that in the early days of industrialization all secretaries and phone operators were men? Talk about both the huge influx and then departure from the workforce of women during and immediately after World War II. Collect data from your class about jobs held by mothers and fathers. Compare them to jobs held by grandmothers and grandfathers.
Know that Real Men Know How to Be Fathers
"When my two children were still very small, I became the full-time stay-at-home parent and my wife worked. It was the most incredibly rich and intense experience I have ever had, but it had its downside as well. I'd be sitting in the park with my kids surrounded by all these moms furtively stealing glances at me and wondering what the hell was wrong with this guy."
Encouraging boys to remain connected to their emotions requires the full and active engagement of their fathers. Yet, too many fathers let this, the most valuable contribution they can make to their sons' development, slip away. Sometimes the hesitation is out of awkwardness and inexperience—we weren't raised to be nurturing parents, we weren't given even the basic information about caring for infants and toddlers, so the easy way is simply to back away and leave it to Mom. Sometimes the hesitation comes from outside pressure, social expectations, and, particularly, pressure from the workplace that gives the message: "If you want to get ahead, you must put your job ahead of your children."
But what father would actually endorse that message? Being a father today requires a very different kind of courage, the kind that anchors us to our deeper priorities, gives us the strength and commitment to pioneer for our sons a new and more fully integrated way of living. It means being mindful of the pressures that pull us away from our children. It means stepping firmly into the whirlwind of emotions that growing up is all about. It means adding our voices to the rising swell of women's voices demanding flexible work hours and corporate support rather than resistance to employees with families.
Parents: Fathers need to demonstrate through their words and actions that their children's emotional needs are just as high a priority as providing food and shelter. Reassess your work schedule and make sure it allows you to be with your children when they need you. Reassess the level and quality of your involvement at home and make sure that you are doing your share.
Teachers: Invite parents to bring several babies of different ages into your classroom. Allow the students to observe the babies' behavior. Help kids get comfortable with the care and nurturing of infants.
Men, Reacquaint Yourself with YOUR Feelings
"Being a father has been the single most important thing that has happened in my life. Not only because I love my kids so much, but because by being so actively involved in their lives, I have gotten the opportunity to go back and relearn through them a lot about acknowledging and respecting my own feelings."
For most men, the process of growing up is a process of growing further and further away from their emotions. We might characterize it more positively as "being under control," "being strong," or "being logical," but for many of us, our dispassionate calm has come at great cost. We have lost the ability to experience and to express our deepest feelings.
The good news is that being a father is the single best way to reconnect to our own emotions and relearn the skills necessary to integrate them fully into our lives. The reason is simple—our children are roiling bundles of emotions, and much of what they spend their childhood doing is trying to recognize, understand, and deal with these powerful feelings. If we take the opportunity they offer us by virtue of their unconditional love, if we engage ourselves earnestly in their lives, their concerns, their hopes and dreams, thoughts and feelings, we will not only reinforce for them the value and importance of this roller-coaster journey, but we will learn with them how to balance, integrate, and harness the power of our emotions.
Parents: Many new parents, even those strongly committed to sharing the childrearing, tend to find themselves in a routine where Mom is doing the lion's share of infant care. Don't let it happen! The sooner and more deeply Dad gets involved in the feeding, changing, dressing, cuddling, rocking, bathing, playing, and goo goo ga ga–ing, the better. For Dad, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has the potential to change your life dramatically for the better.
Teachers: Express your own feelings about world events or subjects you are studying, and invite your students to express theirs. Develop service projects, plays, or artwork that help students act on deep feelings and passions in positive ways.
Beware of Parental Imbalance
"After years of estrangement I've finally gotten to know my father, and what surprises me is that he is really a very tenderhearted guy. Growing up, my parents sort of divided up the parenting duties so that she was the carrot and Dad was the stick. It set up a 'just wait till your father gets home' pattern that pushed us further and further apart."
One of the most difficult things about parenting is trying to balance all the responsibilities in a way that won't allow our children to unconsciously put either Mom or Dad into a false and incomplete posture. This is easier said than done. With the pull of traditional roles still very much a factor, plus the practical divisions of labor necessitated by careers and time constraints and personality differences, it may seem easier to have Mom do the holding and reassuring and Dad lay down the law. But if we take the easy way out, we invite our sons to project their own distorted conclusions onto our accommodations—Mom is nice, loving, and supportive and Dad is the tough guy.
From that simple beginning can unfold an ingrained gender bias that robs everyone of what is real and essential—the full amazing complexity of being human. If Dad is the sole instrument of punishment, then it is easy, almost natural, to take a few steps back and seek support when you need it from Mom, and to assume that men just can't be loving. If only Mom is the nurturing one, then maybe nurturing is exclusively women's work and not something that can be expected from men. And finally, in the face of this widening gulf, what am I supposed to be like when I become a man?
Excerpted from 200 Ways to RAISE a Boy's Emotional Intelligence by Will Glennon. Copyright © 2000 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser.
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Foreword by Jeanne and Don Elium
1 The Importance of Emotionally Healthy Sons
2 Exploring Your Own Assumptions
3 Developing New Attitudes and Behaviors
4 Helping Him Navigate the World of Emotions
5 Supporting Him in Resisting Stereotypes
6 Creating a New Model of Manhood
Emotional Intelligence Book List
Posted May 4, 2011
No text was provided for this review.