As we approach Valentine’s Day, I want to encourage intentionality with respect to how we teach and model masculinity to the younger generation of men. Masculinity continues to be associated with traits like toughness, independence, stoicism, and control. Unfortunately, these traits are also defined in a way that leads to disconnection from others, coercive power, and even anger. Boys see toughness as denying emotions, rather than feeling and expressing them, and using the resulting vulnerability to strengthen themselves and others.
Previous studies have looked at the self-silencing that takes place for boys and girls. As girls enter puberty they begin to question whether they can have a strong assertive voice and if it is acceptable to their peer group. Our culture has often supported the dampening of their voice and led them to focus more on how a boy would like them to act. This self-silencing also occurs for boys, except it happens at a much younger age. Boys as young as 5 years old begin to recognize the message that certain emotions, types of emotion expression, or forms of relational connection are not the way to “be a man.” But, this doesn’t have to be the message they receive. Instead, we can help boys develop their emotional intelligence by connecting their actions to their emotions and teaching them ways to describe those emotions to themselves and others.
Building Emotional Intelligence
- Validate boys’ experience of their emotions. Try to catch yourself and avoid encouraging boys to “stop crying” when they feel upset. Instead, reply with a reflection of how they might be feeling, for example, “Oh, buddy, that’s so frustrating.”
- Teach your boys to recognize and label their emotions. This starts early. As you’re reading or watching shows with your young boys, point out the feelings that characters are experiencing. Talk about and label your own feelings. Often, we focus on teaching our preschoolers colors, numbers, and letters. You can take a similar approach with teaching feelings.
- Model for them. Show them through your own emotions and actions that feelings are not to be hidden or ignored. If you’re feeling particularly moved by a sad event in your community, share that with your child in a way they understand and show them how you’re handling your feelings. For example, you might explain, “I feel really sad for Mr. Jones because his dog died and I know how much he cared about her. I think I’m going to make him some cookies to show him I’m thinking about him. Do you want to help me?”
Taking these few steps can make a difference in helping our boys grow up to be emotionally intelligent men who are not afraid to connect with others or be honest with themselves about their feelings.