March 30, 2012, Friday

Boys and emotions

As the parent of a young boy, I find myself watching the behavior of other boys at the playground.

My son likes to play the usual rough and tumble games alongside the other boys, but he also has a quiet, softer side that he is still not afraid to let out. Some boys are full of bravado, striving to be the best at a game or the leader of a group. Others are followers, waiting to see what the group will do before taking part. It is interesting to see how they all interact with each other.

I also listen in to parents as they talk with their sons. For instance, I have seen boys get slightly injured -- nothing serious, just bumps or scrapes -- or even have their feelings hurt by stinging comments from playmates. Some parents will reassure their young sons and comfort them, while others respond with a shrug and tell them that boys should not cry, especially in public. It is interesting that in so many cultures around the world, there is an attitude that displaying feelings is a sign of weakness. I grew up in a Hispanic culture that tended to promote machismo, an exaggerated sense of what are considered to be masculine traits -- physically and emotionally. Boys were told to be stoic and not show fear, weakness or other emotions that signaled a lack of machismo. Unfortunately, the result was often boys and men who had a skewed familiarity with their own emotions, often experiencing a shutting down of emotions instead.

Dr. William Pollack, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book “Real Boys’ Voices,” examined this phenomenon. He suggests that instead of promoting an unhealthy culture of repressing emotions, it is much better for boys to learn to express their feelings instead of keeping them bottled up inside. According to Dr. Pollack, the key to getting boys to open up and discuss their feelings is to give them the time and space to do so while engaged in another activity. Boys are more easily able to talk about what is bothering them when they are engaged in what he refers to as “action talk” -- an activity that keeps their hands busy, such as drawing.

Some of the suggestions he offers include giving your son your undivided attention and letting him know you are listening to him. Do not pressure a boy to talk about feelings, but, instead, let them know they have a safe place and space to do so when they are ready. Reinforce the fact that men and boys do have feelings and should be able to express them. Most importantly, do not be judgmental, and express your love for your son as openly as you would for a daughter. There is no shame in a parent reminding a child, no matter what sex, that they are loved and cherished.

A few more tips for getting your son to talk about his feelings are to always avoid teasing or causing him to feel a sense of shame. Be open and share any personal experiences that are relevant. Try to keep your own comments brief and encourage a dialogue. Sometimes it takes boys a few minutes to formulate their thoughts, so do not press for quick answers. Let your son know you are there and listening to him.

I think that Dr. Pollack makes many good points that are relevant to many of us who are the parents of boys. In many cultures, boys are taught from a very early age that in order to gain respect, males should be aggressive, show no emotion, act tough and never display any type of vulnerability. Unfortunately, the outcome of such a culture is often men who are unequipped to deal honestly in relationships with friends, spouses and their own children. Their own fear of appearing weak or even feminine by showing their emotions can make them seem distant and cold.

On the other side of the spectrum, studies have shown that boys who are raised with a more balanced view of displays of emotions tend to be more affectionate, loving and respectful. They grow up knowing they are worthy of respect and love and they seem to have a more secure view of themselves and a better sense of their own self worth.

Some readers may disagree, feeling that by teaching sons to be open about their emotions I am encouraging a feminine attitude. But, unfortunately, in many cultures the qualities that are considered to be strictly in the feminine realm include empathy, nurturing and openness. Male attributes are considered to include a more aggressive behavior, aloofness and independence. I think that a more balanced approach is needed to raise boys and girls who are secure, know their own worth, value and care about others, who are able to openly deal with their emotions and who are ready to take responsibility for their own actions.

All children want to know that they are valued, loved and respected. This is fundamental to all humans. As parents, it is our job to find a way to make sure our children know that they have a safe, secure and supportive place to live and that they are very important in our lives. Children learn from watching their parents, and if a parent is unwilling to display emotions, the children will tend to repeat that same behavior, cutting themselves off from enriching experiences and new friendships in the process.

Send comments to k.hamilton@todayszaman.com

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