I am a woman and I have a boy child. This has proved to be a learning edge for me. It has been a joyful, worrisome, and enlightening endeavor. In my home we have worked hard to create an emotionally safe environment—a place where shame is close to nil, emotions are validated, and effective, kind boundaries are calmly held. It is not perfect. It is not easy. But it is possible, and it is an ongoing process. Behold a few do’s and don’ts, some of which could apply to all small people, but are mentioned here specifically with regard to boys:
- Let your boys emote. Make safe, supportive space for them to feel their feelings. The healthiest thing for humans to do when they have a feeling is to simply have it. I like to say, “The only way out is through.”
- Be aware of social conditioning (it is everywhere!). Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, phrases it like this: Girls need extra opportunities to feel powerful and in charge, and boys need extra opportunities to feel connected and vulnerable.
- Provide toys that bridge the gender gap. Two of my closest friends had babies the same year I did. One had a boy, and the other a girl. For their first birthdays, I intentionally sent the boy a doll and the girl a truck.
- Tell them to “shake it off” when they get hurt—emotionally or physically. Repressing emotional release is stressful to the point of being a health risk. An emotionally unsafe environment is perceived as a threat just as much as a physically unsafe one, setting off the flight/fight/freeze survival state of the brain.
- Call your baby, toddler, or child a “little man.” This seems harmless, but it’s really laying the groundwork for later messages and biases that perpetuate or justify violence such as, “Boys don’t cry,” “Be a man,” or “Man-up.”
- Perpetuate sexist beliefs about boys. Eliminate the statement, “Boys will be boys,” as an excuse for bad behavior.
I was inspired to write about masculinity after watching a theater performance produced by Maine Inside Out, a local organization that collaborates with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to create and share original theater, inside and outside of correctional facilities. Their work is nothing short of amazing. The young men in the show were introspective and insightful. A common theme they spoke about was realizing that it is OK to feel. This caught my attention.
After working with children and families for over 20 years, there is one thing I know for sure—emotions drive behavior. Emotional states diminish access to what is called the “executive state” of the brain (technically known as the prefrontal cortex). This is the part of the brain responsible for weighing the consequences of your actions and planning ahead. When emotions are not allowed to run their course, optimal wiring of the brain—executive function in particular—is compromised. When we don’t allow boys to feel a full range of human emotions—fear, anger, grief, delight—we stunt them and weaken their emotional literacy.
A masculine culture that shames boys for connection, vulnerability, fear, or sadness compounds their social isolation; likely increasing depression rates and the instance of violent behaviors. Every online source I checked placed the rate of violent crimes committed by men at around 90%. I subscribe to the commonly held theory that this is due to their early conditioning, namely, being conditioned to not feel.
It’s fairly straightforward—if you are denied access to how you feel, your ability to be connected to, and have empathy for others, is automatically weakened. Let’s each do our part to evolve the culture of masculinity.
Originally printed in Parent & Family