Girl power! This year especially, we have seen the incredible progress of what happens when women are empowered by finding their voices. At the same time, there is a steady movement to help push young girls to go beyond quiet and obedient and not apologize for whom they are. Thankfully, society is catching up to the fact that girls can be sweet and expressive but also forces to be reckoned with.
But what about the boys? They have always been taught to be powerhouses and dominant. They (especially white males) have always held the upper hand. But how are we teaching our boys to be compassionate and able to cope with stress in healthy ways? In what ways are we showing them that to be open, expressive and (gasp!) vulnerable is perfectly okay too?
We need to stop giving boys mixed messages about how they should be. Just as subtle as female oppression is manifested through innuendos, media messages and workforce dynamics, there are also very dominant, contradictory societal norms that make it difficult for boys to grow up to be the openly compassionate, empathetic and self-loving humans they have the potential to be. It is as important for boys to learn that sensitivity does not equal weakness that it is for girls to know that being strong does not equal unfeminine.
Sadly, according to a new study the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/), suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. Men are four times as likely to die from suicide as women are. This unfortunately makes sense given insight from the National Institute of Mental Health (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/men-and-depression/index.shtml) that states, “Because men who are depressed may appear to be angry or aggressive instead of sad, their families, friends, and even their doctors may not always recognize the anger or aggression as depression symptoms. In addition, men are less likely than women to recognize, talk about, and seek treatment for depression.”
As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and mother of two boys, I am particularly perceptive of how our outward behaviors influence each other. Although adults say that they think boys should be able to talk about their feelings and show empathy, it’s most often not taught, encouraged or reinforced. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Here are just some pervasive ways that I have noticed we pile on pressure for boys to be dominant and emotionally stoic.
- What sports do you play? If you have a boy, most adults, especially other men will ask you or your boy what sports they play. It’s not an offensive question but it does imply that the “norm” is that boys play sports. They don’t ask, what do you like to do or what are your hobbies. It’s an example of the limited lens through which we view boys.
- Using the phrase “Be a man.” Seriously, what does this phrase even mean? All I know it is never said when you are asking a boy to open up, express himself, and make himself vulnerable.
- Physical affection decreases quicker in boys. Parents hug their children less and less as they grow older. Although this is true for both boys and girls, girls continue to receive physical affection through friendships whereas boys do not.
- Assertion through voice volume and aggressive stance instead of word choice. This is a behavior that is often inadvertently reinforced in our culture, as the loudest boy with the most intimidating posturing is the least likely to face resistance on the playground at school. We also see this later in life as professionals. A 2008 study found that (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18315800) men who expressed anger in a professional context were conferred higher status than men who expressed sadness as well as higher status than women who expressed anger. Logically, this does not benefit either gender. It does however, reveal the intangible gender norms we hold without realizing it.
- Anything you say can and will be used against you. One of the biggest fears for boys is that something they say will put a target on their backs. It’s just a risk they can’t take.
As boys grow up, their outward expression of emotions starts to narrow along with their vocabulary to label, identify and express what they are feeling. Although no one outwardly says, “Don’t express yourself” the lack of reinforcement for doing so leads to most boys intrinsically feeling like they should deal with things by themselves.
What would help?
- Positive media representation. For things to be more normalized, we need to see it more. While it seems like some TV shows are featuring more emotionally mature men as likeable, relatable characters, kids don’t watch TV anymore. Their media consumption is typically YouTube, video games, social media and thankfully still books. We need lots of boy protagonists who are cool but also get depressed and openly cry sometimes.
- Keep those hugs coming! Let’s keep the habit of giving physical affection to our kids even if we have to remind ourselves to do so. Touch has been proven to release the chemical oxytocin, which relieves stress, and helps promote feelings of trust.
- Gift things like journals or scrapbooks. While it’s true that most boys are not necessarily anxiously awaiting a new diary to enter all their secrets in. Maybe they are! Let’s make it easy for boys to access these resources. At the very least they can draw in it once and again.
- Encourage activities such as yoga and meditation. These two practices becoming so mainstream now is a welcome positive force. Cosmic Kids Yoga (https://www.youtube.com/user/CosmicKidsYoga) is a wonderfully fun Youtube channel for little ones. Once we get into the tween years, age appropriate yoga channels are harder to come by. Meditation apps like HeadSpace (https://www.headspace.com) on the phone make it at least easy for boys to access the practice.
- Play games. It seems to be easier for boys to talk when there is something tangible between them. This could be a soccer ball or a deck of cards. It allows for easy excuse to avert uncomfortable eye contact as well as an ongoing subject to inspire commentaries, questions or laughs.
- Model and practice!! For as many things as we can do to help our boys, I think the most important way to teach any social emotional skill is to see it modeled, and practice it day in and day out to create habits. Just something simple like having conversations at the dinner table about topics of the day so your son can figure out how to articulate how they feel and gently challenge him to look at things from another perspective. Kids are especially more apt to weigh in on a topic if they feel like their opinion matters. For example, a parent might relay something that happened to them at work and say how it made them feel. Pose the scenario to your child and ask how they would have felt, what they would have done and why. There are no right and wrongs on feelings so just let your son talk and add small comments and thoughtful questions to see where it leads.
Luckily most school systems recognize the need for social growth within their students. Implemented correctly, the emergence of these curriculums in schools undoubtedly will help boys be more comfortable expressing themselves. However, outside of school, we also owe it to our boys to equip them with the right tools to be truly self-secure.