Earlier this year, I took my boys, ages 4 and 1, to the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, near our home. I was glad to have an activity for them during a long break from school. In the parking lot, we gathered with our weekly playgroup, an eclectic mix of dads and kids. I was eager to reunite Henry, my rambunctious 4-year-old, with friends he had not seen in several months.
When Henry saw the towering science center, he rushed toward the entrance, ignoring the other kids. For the sake of politeness, I gently grabbed his shoulder and turned his blond head toward the group. “Say hello,” I said. Before he could mutter a word, he spotted his buddy Rowan. Henry’s eyes widened as he ran to Rowan and wrapped his arms around his friend’s shoulders, pulling him tight against his chest, pressing his cheek against his cheek. Everyone paused to observe the embrace.
Henry kept hugging Rowan as we waited for latecomers; joy radiated from his face. When it was time to walk to the museum, the boys ran up the steps together, shooting spider webs from their wrists. Inside, they darted to a penguin statue and posed for a picture, squeezing each other again. I was struck by my son’s uninhibited affection. I had not seen it flow this freely for a friend. For the rest of time, they romped around the science center splashing at water tables and studying model trains until it was time to say goodbye. They finished the morning with another hug.
I spent the rest of the day thinking about my son’s emotional display. At home, I gave my wife a play-by-play reenactment. Later, while making dinner, a dad sent me a picture of the boys and I studied them, clinging to each other. Why did this brief moment in a hectic day stick with me? Perhaps I was moved by my son’s capacity to express his feelings. I consider myself a sensitive soul, but I struggle to express emotions because I am conditioned — as are most men in our society — to hide feelings.
I realized that I could not stop thinking about the embrace because somewhere in the back of my mind I know my son’s feelings will not flow so freely for long. I know they will soon be stifled by the dominant masculinity in our culture, a masculinity that pressures boys to suppress their inner lives. This left me saddened and disturbed.
In the classic book “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson describe this pressure-filled process as “the emotional miseducation of boys.“ Beginning at a young age, boys are trained to hide emotion and embrace a hardened image that rewards toughness and stoicism. This training comes from parents, teachers, coaches and other authority figures who signal what is acceptable. Another layer of pressure is added by popular culture that celebrates macho men who repress feelings.
Kindlon and Thompson write about the numerous boys they have counseled who are unable to access feelings, boys estranged from the deepest parts of themselves. With no emotional vocabulary to name what they are feeling and no outlet to express their pain, the boys are forced to navigate whatever is stirring inside them alone. The only emotion our culture tells them it is okay to express is anger.
I am 38 now and I’m sad to say that it wasn’t until I saw a therapist and made crucial friendships in graduate school that I felt safe to explore my feelings and learn how to express them. It felt daunting to challenge 20 years of conditioning by our hypermasculine society. The boy I found inside myself did not get to express his feelings. He was angry. He was upset that he had been misled for years about his true nature. He was sad about how long he had suffered, keeping nearly everything pinned up inside. And he felt joy in finding an emotional connection with others. He learned that vulnerability leads to wholeness.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about what to do with boys. When the media cycles through news about a school shooting or a sexual assault, pundits and columnists offer opinions on what went wrong. Pictures of emotionally troubled boys are plastered on our screens. There is always an outcry, yet, by the time the news cycle moves on, there is little talk about where to start helping boys.
I suggest a small step offered by Kindlon and Thompson, a step that could go a long way in helping boys find emotional health. Perhaps it will sound like an obvious thing to do but it is much easier said than done: See boys for what they are — emotional beings.
We can no longer afford to support the false idea that boys are less emotional than girls. This wrongheaded belief, as Kindlon and Thompson note, creates a culture in which girls are encouraged to express emotion, while boys are left behind with no access to the resources and relationships they need to grow. As boys face relentless pressure to shut down their emotions, it is our job as parents, teachers, coaches, and clergy members to make space for boys’ innermost feelings. We must let them know that being a man means valuing their inner lives.
After accepting the reality of what my son will face in coming years, I find hope in knowing I can do my part to support him, but I also feel anxious about parenting against a dominant masculinity that is hostile toward male feelings. I am certain this will be a messy endeavor and I am under no delusion about major change happening soon. But it seems that our society is experiencing a shift, slight as it may be, and needs to be nudged in the right direction. I believe one father and one boy at a time can awaken the emotional depths of men.
On the way home from a recent visit with grandparents, I attempted to ask Henry about his time away. I asked basic questions but got no response from the back seat, only a stare out the window. I tried another approach.
“How did you feel about being at Grandma and Grandpa’s house?” I asked?
His eyes shifted and met mine in the rear-view mirror.
I could tell he was thinking about how to answer. I could tell he felt surprised to be asked about his feelings, rather than specific facts.
“It felt good,” he said.
Then he told me about playing with his cousin.
This moment in the car was a lesson for me. I spent the drive home considering what boys need to express their feelings. I can’t help but wonder what these needs are because I want to live in a world transformed by emotional honesty. I want to live in a world where men feel no hesitation to embrace their feelings. I’m tired of living in a world where boys get to be only half alive.
Billy Doidge Kilgore is a native Southerner, ordained minister and stay-at-home father. He lives with his family in Nashville. Read more of his writing at Wrap Daddy.