The other day my five-year-old son dropped his prized possession—a ceramic skull he’d painstakingly hand-painted—on our polished concrete kitchen floor.
Instead, a miraculous thing happened: He started to cry.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said, collapsing in my arms and sobbing. “But I’m just so sad.”
I felt like punching the air with joy. Strange as it sounds, seeing my little boy burst into tears was one of the biggest parenting triumphs of my life.
Why? Because ever since he could speak, I’d noticed him exhibiting a strange behaviour, which I’ve eventually come to realize is not so strange at all. When something bad happened in which he was disappointed or hurt he would erupt into displays of anger and blame. For instance, even at the age of three, if he flipped over on his scooter and scraped his knee he would jump right up, choke back his tears and point at me enraged, shouting, “You made me fall down!”
Kids be crazy, right?
At first, I couldn’t understand it. But then I read a few books (most helpfully the modern classic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish) and I became more aware of the different ways we, as parents, encourage or discourage emotion in children—particularly boys—in ways we may not even be aware of.
The next time you hang out with your kids, take a moment to notice the amount of time you spend, implicitly or explicitly, telling them not to feel the way they are feeling. It’s startling once you notice it. So much of our culturally-inherited language of parenting is rooted in an effort to minimize the (often very overwhelming and inconvenient) emotions of children.
For instance, when a small child is crying or distressed we say, “Shhh, there, there. Calm down, it’s not so bad.”
And if a child is physically hurt and weeping we say, “Don’t cry, dry your tears, there’s a brave boy.”
We mean well, of course. We’re just trying to provide comfort in the language that was handed down to us. But what we are also saying is this: “Don’t be sad or vulnerable. And if you are, learn to hide it.”
And that can be a very confusing message for a child.
Recent research has shown the importance of “emodiversity” (i.e. the ability to experience a wide range of human emotions) is an important factor for mental health and well-being. In two cross-sectional studies across more than 37,000 respondents conducted by researchers from several different universities including Yale and Cambridge, emodiversity was determined to be “an independent predictor of mental and physical health—such as decreased depression and doctor’s visits—over and above mean levels of positive and negative emotion.”
Emotional suppression (particularly in men) has been linked to cardiovascular disease and a wide range of stress-related health problems.
Other studies show that the emotional landscapes of boys and girls differs widely from very early on—and is largely believed to be the result of socialization—and unconscious projection. An early study reported that when watching an infant under one year respond to a startling event, adults were far more likely to perceive that infant as displaying anger when told it was a boy. Another study which examined the ways in which mothers and their 30–35-month-old children discussed the emotional aspects of past experiences, found that mothers and daughters employ use a vocabulary of far greater complexity and nuance whereas conversations between mothers and sons tended to concentrate on a single emotion: Anger.
What this seems to indicate is not just that we are deeply biased toward noticing anger in boys, but that we subconsciously encourage it by denying the presence of other feelings. (“There, there. Don’t cry, it’s not so bad.”)
But of course, limited emodiversity is not just an issue that effects boys. As a society (and yes, as parents) we have a long history of encouraging girls to sublimate their feelings of anger and desire by being pliant, good-natured and nurturing. But most parents of girls, in my social network at least, seem well aware of this double standard and are now extremely vigilant about correcting it. Today, we know it’s unacceptable to call a little girl “bossy” for trying to assert herself and that fussing too much over a girl’s appearance sends the wrong message about her value. Yet we still tell boys not to cry.
There’s no doubt men still hold the bulk of power in our society—but what about the ways in which we subconsciously prepare boys to take up this imbalanced mantle of power? We are more tolerant of displays of anger and aggression in men and boys. But what are these displays really about? And what are we denying out boys when we subconsciously discourage their emodiversity from the outset?
The answer can be found in the work of Texas researcher and Professor of Social Work, Brene Brown. She’s written several bestselling books, and you may be one of the nearly 8 million people who’ve watched her popular Ted Talk, On Vulnerability. Shame is Brown’s primary focus, most notably, the way shame and fear of disconnection leads us to mask our vulnerability with all kinds of other compensating behaviours—most notably, anger and blame. “Here’s what we know from the research,” she writes. “Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability by definition is a vulnerable process. Blaming is simply a way we discharge anger.”
In the ongoing fight for gender equality, the deep-rooted cultural taboos around masculinity and vulnerability are the final frontier. This was evidenced recently in the UK, where the British army recently released a military recruitment ad that featured a male soldier shedding a tear. “What if I get emotional in the army?” the ad asked. The message being: That’s okay.
The blow back was startling and immediate, with negative commentary everywhere from the Daily Mail to the BBC, which wondered if the British army had “gone soft.”
As parents, we often encourage our boys to “toughen up” without even knowing we are doing so. Their tears unsettle us. Their sadness, on a subconscious level, seems a threat to our very national security. We encourage them, knowingly or not, toward the anger of blame instead of the vulnerable process of accountability.
But until we can teach our boys to be sad instead of mad there will be no meaningful rebalancing of power between genders. Once we make the world safe for boys to be vulnerable, I predict a new world order will follow: One in which men no longer need to systematically dominate women, and toddlers no longer fall off their scooters and blame their mothers, because somehow, they got the message that it’s not okay for boys to cry.