Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's Time to End the "Boy's Don't Cry" Model of Raising Our Kids

When I was small, maybe three or four, a man came around our neighborhood with a camera and a horse. For X dollars you could have your child's picture taken sitting on the back of the horse, dressed in western outfits (for the boys it was requisite hat, gun belt, chaps, and boots w/ spurs).

So my mother comes into the house and, of course, she wants me on the horse (my dad had the same picture taken of him around 40 years earlier). I look out the screen door at this enormous creature in our front yard (having NEVER seen a horse in person) and I want nothing to do with this adventure. Mother insists, I resist, more insistence, more resistance, and then I am crying. Someplace there is a picture of me in all the cowboy gear, crying - and I distinctly remember my mother telling me: "Boy's don't cry."

Looking back, I'm thinking, "Like hell, those were real tears. And that was real fear."

One might have thought that when the "Greatest Generation" stopped raising kids (my peers were children of Boomers, but not me), that those old masculine myths would die out. You would be wrong.

But they need to end, with this generation or the next. When we learn to block, stuff, or ignore our feelings, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of interpersonal failure, mood disorders, anger disorders, addictions, and a whole host of other issues, including heart disease and other stress-related disorders.

As boys age into their teen years, they will generally embrace the cultural hypermasculinity of being a teen male filled with testosterone, and any "soft" feelings will get stuffed so that they can fit with their peers. But if they received a foundation in which they could cry, allow the feeling to move through them and dissipate, which is what it will do, they will have this awareness in their bodies that emotions are not dangerous, they can be felt and tolerated.

Those boys who grow up with mothers like mine never learn that lesson until they are (sooner or later) seeing a therapist to help them keep relationships, control their temper, fight the depression, or kick an addiction. This need never happen.

More and more experts are weighing on this and saying, "Let the boy cry, it's good for him."

This article comes from Good Men Project.

Expert Says It’s Good to Let Boys Cry

There’s a tearing inside me when I see my older son well up with tears in front of his peers, or as a result of a loss or mistake. The internal war is between what I know and believe is best for him, which is to let him cry and comfort him and help guide him through the sadness to resolution, or to tell him to be strong and stop crying.

Now, I know it’s bad to tell him to stop crying, but as his mom, I want to make his life somewhat easier and I can’t help but worry about him being teased or even indulging his emotions too much. I would worry about the exact same thing if he were a girl—in fact I suspect I’d worry about it even more. Also, to me, it’s easier to become a person who is able to get over obstacles quickly. Funny thing is, as far as everything I understand, kids whose feelings are validated do tend to recover faster than those whose feelings are denied.

I think that my first instinct, that of allowing his feelings to be validated and consoled, wins out almost all the time, but there are times when it’s tough for me. In wanting to protect him from life’s pains and struggles, sometimes I run up against what society has taught me will be best for him. And I grew up in a very “tough it out” time and community, it can be hard to shake that voice in my head.
Today The Washington Post offers an excellent advice piece from clinical social worker Jennifer Kogan, who works with parents regarding their children. The piece, Why it’s Good to Let Boys Cry, explains recent studies indicating that  boys who are emotionally more in touch with their feelings are better able to handle feelings of depression later on.

Kogan explains the research like this:
A 2010 study followed 426 boys through middle school to investigate the extent to which boys favor stereotypically male qualities, such as emotional stoicism and physical toughness, over stereotypically feminine qualities, such as emotional openness and communication, and whether they have any influence on their mental well-being.
Results showed that as boys progressed through adolescence they tended to further embrace hyper-masculine stereotypes. But boys who remained close to their mothers did not act as tough and were more emotionally available. The research, conducted by Arizona State University professor Carlos Santos, showed that closeness to fathers did not seem to have the same effect.
This detail is important data to have because male suicide rates reportedly start to rise by age 16. In addition to combating depression it seems evident that boys who stay connected to their feelings will be able to express their anger in healthier, more productive ways.
Did the same thing catch your eye as did mine? That sons who were close to mothers were more emotionally available? Our first reaction to the statement that closeness with fathers didn’t seem to have the same results is to say that this discounts the role of fathers.

However, I think we have to remember that Kogan is talking specifically about emotional availability, not other important skills and traits that boys get from closeness with fathers. Also, the role of fathers is rapidly changing, and this generation may not be caught up with those changes. These kids were born 20 years ago, most likely, and while there were are always many different types of fathers, the “man up” model of fatherhood has reigned supreme for a long time. It’s really only recently that parents have started to understand the importance of letting boys cry, or express other “non-manly” emotions.

In our family, my husband is much more likely to be the one to rush to my kids’ side when they’re sad or hurt. Not that I’m cold, but as I said at the beginning, I do feel this need to make them feel strong and independent. I try to learn from my husband about how to let them be sad, and then guide them to a swift recovery—because that swift recovery is important, too. We try to ask, “are you okay?” or say, “it’s going to be okay,” as opposed to saying, “you’re okay” or “you’re fine.”
I believe the results of a study like this will be different in the future when the changing role of men and fathers catches up to the research.

Kogan offers 4 great pieces of advice in the Washington Post article, but this one stands out most to me as something I can learn from, and perhaps many other parents will relate to:
3. Be ready and available to listen to your son without asking questions or offering a lot of advice. Kids will often open up when parents say less and listen more.
What do you think of this research? How about Kogan’s advice? Does one strike you as particularly resonant in raising boys?

No comments: