“In all our years as therapists, we have never met a boy who didn’t crave his parents’ love and others’ acceptance and who didn’t feel crippled by their absence or redeemed by their abundance. Strong and healthy boys are made strong by acceptance and affirmation of their humanity” – Michael Thompson, PhD and Dan Kindlon, PhD Co-Authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
Part 2 in a Series: See Raising Boys in the Era of Trump, #MeToo, and School Shootings: Part 1 here.
Teaching Empathy and Emotional Language
Few would dispute the fact that these days our sons have very limited options for emotionally healthy male role models in movies, politics, social media, and in popular culture as whole. Those who are lucky to be raised by psychologically sound caregivers and surrounded by emotionally supportive communities have the best chances to evolve into vibrant, flourishing young men. So in this politically tumultuous time, what can we do to ensure that our future generations of young men are equipped with the psychological innards to develop healthy relationships in love, work and family?
“The quickest way to create a boy or man who lacks compassion is to judge and shame his feelings.”- Michael Gurian
Researchers Michael Thompson, Phd and Dan Kindlon, PhD (also co-authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys), suggest that allowing our boys to understand their emotional language and honor their vulnerability are essential components in celebrating and protecting the emotional life of boys (2000). As parents and educators, neighbors and friends, we owe our sons a safe forum to learn and express emotional vocabulary, even down to the basic understanding of happiness, sorrow, anger, fear, worry, excitement, etc.
Furthermore, boys need to learn safe and healthy modes of conveying these very human emotions in such a way that they are not ostracized or emasculated. Learning the language of emotion and then proceeding to express emotions in productive, respectful and constructive ways is spot on. Thompson and Kindlon (2000) state “in life and art, we need to provide boys models of male heroism that go beyond the muscular, the self-absorbed, and the simplistically heroic.” Showing that courage can be evident in emotion as well as brawn is critical. Movies, video games, social skills programs, religious institutions, parents, and community helpers all reflect what we teach our youngest generation. Why not demonstrate through leadership, acting, and story-telling that brave and courageous acts of men and boys demonstrate fierceness as a sought after and respected quality of emotional vulnerability and courage?
Healthy relationships require empathy. No matter the gender, empathy is an essential ingredient for thriving relationships. Empathy can be defined as the quality of understanding and experiencing the thoughts and feelings of another human being and by demonstrating that concern via active listening, comfort, or emotional support. One study demonstrated that individuals with higher empathy showed greater courage and bystander assertion in the face of a challenging social circumstance. Futhermore, other studies showed that having empathy is one of the key components of success in the work environment, also demonstrating deeper and more satisfying relationships both in work and in one’s personal life. Empathic individuals were observed to have higher degrees of collaborative and compassionate problem-solving.
Parents play a key role in teaching empathy, as empathy is something learned, not inherited. From a young age parents can teach empathy through the use of toys, like dolls (yes, even for boys), action figures, pretend play, books and social stories, and in discussing movies which show empathy in characters. When empathy is actively modeled for children from a young age up through the teen years, boys (and girls) learn strong emotional literacy, self-confidence, and compassion for their fellow human beings. For our boys, who are exposed to so much violence and false bravado in video games, social media, Hollywood, sports, and other gender-stereotyped settings, learning empathy and being proud and courageous in the acquisition of emotional literacy is how our young boys become healthy and respectful, confident and contributing members of society.
Gurian, Michael (2017), Saving our sons: a new path for raising healthy and resilient boys, Gurian Institute.
Hoghughi, M. (1998). The importance of parenting in child health: Doctors as well as the government should do more to support parents . BMJ : British Medical Journal, 316(7144), 1545–1550.
Retrieved from March 2, 2018: http://www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys/emotion01.html
Retrieved from March 2, 2018: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/36448/why-its-imperative-to-teach-empathy-to-boys
Retrieved from March 2, 2018: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/josi.12053/abstract
Retrieved from March 2, 2018: http://switchandshift.com/empathy-and-good-managers
Thompson, M. and Kindlon, D. (2000) Raising cain: protecting the emotional life of boys, Ballantine Books.