A sad thing happened at my son’s baseball game a few weeks ago. Picture this: A 13-year-old boy strikes out at bat. As he walks off the field you can tell by his drooping posture that he is upset. From my metal seat in the bleachers, my heart aches as I watch tears start to spillover.
As he trudges towards the dugout a short, shrill sounding, “No!” comes from the crowd. His mother gives him a stern glare and what I assume is a silent warning. He catches her eye and responds to her clear direction. His shoulders straighten up. The emotion welling up behind his lashes are blinked away, and he stands alone in the dugout.
There would be no tears during this game.
I was shaken. This child was learning that he’d better hide his emotions because big boys don’t cry. This is not a judgment against a well-meaning mom who has obviously absorbed this strong cultural message. Rather, it is a plea to parents to wonder if it is right to assume teenage boys should stop expressing their strong feelings.
A 2010 study followed 426 boys through middle school to investigate the extent to which boys favor stereotypically male qualities, such as emotional stoicism and physical toughness, over stereotypically feminine qualities, such as emotional openness and communication, and whether they have any influence on their mental well-being.
Results showed that as boys progressed through adolescence they tended to further embrace hyper-masculine stereotypes. But boys who remained close to their mothers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available. The research, conducted by Arizona State University professor Carlos Santos, showed that closeness to fathers did not seem to have the same effect.
This detail is important data to have because male suicide rates reportedly start to rise by age 16. In addition to combating depression it seems evident that boys who stay connected to their feelings will be able to express their anger in healthier, more productive ways.
As parents, we often view our sons’ and daughters’ emotions differently. The fear of creating a “mama’s boy” is one that is deeply engrained in our culture. Many parents have told me that they start to get uncomfortable when their son starts crying when they are as young as 4 or 5.
In the book “Why Boy’s Don’t Talk — and Why It Matters” (McGraw-Hill, 2004), authors Susan Morris Shaffer and Linda Perlman Gordon say we need to find ways to connect with our sons because, “when boys don’t talk, we assume that they don’t feel…We don’t get to fully know them; we end up validating only one part of them. It matters because when boys don’t talk, it inhibits intimacy....we shortchange their emotional growth; as a result, parts of boys remain hidden.”
Niobe Way, author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis Connection” (Harvard University Press, 2011), says that despite the message that our culture sends — that “boys are activity oriented, emotionally illiterate and interested only in independence” — her research reveals that most boys yearn for connection and want to have deep friendships with others.
My concern starts with the boys themselves and extends to the men they will become and the families they will create. Oftentimes, when I am working with a couple in therapy, men will tell me they, “aren’t good with feelings” or, “they don’t have a lot of feelings.” Here are a few ways to prevent our sons from telling this same story one day:
1. Teach and talk about feelings at home. From a very young age, read stories about feelings with your son.
2. Have a deck of feelings flash cards for kids to help them develop their feelings vocabulary.
3. Be ready and available to listen to your son without asking questions or offering a lot of advice.Kids will often open up when parents say less and listen more.
4. Develop family rituals such as a regular time to check in with each other about the day. This can be anytime that works for both of you — after school, over dinner or at bedtime. These can be adapted as your son grows.
Guest blogger Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest D.C. who works with parents.