Our children have a birthright. It is their naturally occurring capacity to form authentic, emotionally vibrant relationships. This means we have a responsiblity. We must insure children are allowed to grow their powerful relational capacities. In helping them grow their relational intelligence, we can insure all children will become what they are born to be, emotionally connected, joyful and thriving human beings.
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Our Isolating Culture of Male Emotional Toughness
We live in a culture of masculinity that teaches our sons to suppress their emotional expression. Parents coach their sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and their daughters to admire that facade in men. Even in infancy, our little sons are encouraged to model emotional stoicism, confidence, physical toughness and independence. The strong and silent type remains a central American symbol of “real manhood.”
If we chose to encourage traditional masculine values like strength and self-reliance alongside of equally crucial capacities like emotional literacy and relational intelligence, all these capacities dovetail to create powerful and resilient human beings. Teaching a full range of human capacities means men and women are better resourced to deal with life’s challenges. They are able to create vibrant authentic friendships and communities they can fall back on during challenging times.
Instead, we teach boys and men that in order to be “real men” they are expected to be emotionally silent, somehow immune to any of a myriad of insecurities, fears or doubts. The result is generations of emotionally and socially isolated boys and men who hide their authentic selves behind what documentary director Jennifer Seibel Newsom calls The Mask You Live In. The enforcement of this culture of male emotional toughness can be brutal and unforgiving.
Social Isolation is Killing Us
The American Association of Retired Persons did a study on 2010 which revealed that one in three American adults, aged 45 plus, are chronically lonely. This means they have no one in their lives to talk to about the serious issues of life and living. It also means they are facing catastrophic health challenges.
The New Republic published an article on the health impacts of this titled “The Lethality of Loneliness.” Here is a quote from that article:
“Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”
Male suicides outnumber female by a factor of three to one and are climbing. Men are dying of a wide range of stress related diseases far too early in their lives. They are dying because they lack a robust network of authentic friendships.
Meanwhile, corporations around the globe are awakening to the dynamic and productive power of relationally intelligent employees. Collaboration, hosting different points of view, holding uncertainty, and being inclusive are now seen as key to innovation, talent retention and profitability.
Growing relational intelligence in our children is becoming a central goal for parents, educators and business leaders, but our culture of masculinity actively suppresses these powerful relational capacities in our sons. What’s more, we have a parallel version of emotional suppression for girls that results in the same outcomes.
Everything we know about human beings tells us that we are widely diverse and varied creatures, but we have one central thing in common. We are all born highly attuned to the nuances of interpersonal signals and non verbal human communication. It is a powerful gift. Yet, as young people, we are often shamed and policed into using those very tools to suppress our own connection in the world.
This is how boys are able to learn, as early as age four, which parts of themselves to hide away. And if we do nothing, effectively leaving the teaching of emotional expression to our culture, our sons and daughters will be taught to hide their authentic emotional selves so completely that eventually, they will no longer know they exist.
It is in this space that some of us become isolated, angry and reactive. Relying ever more heavily on the narrow definition of manhood we are performing, and growing every more angry when it fails to satisfy our basic human need for connection.
And the worse part? We angrily police others who fail to make the manhood choices that we make, shaming and attacking men and women who perform versions of manhood or womanhood that don’t follow our narrow rules.
We call this living in the Man Box.
The Good News
The secret to teaching emotional capacities to our sons and daughters is suprisingly simple. Regardless of what damaging narratives the world would teach our children, we can encourage them to grow their relational capacities in the safety of our family relationships. They need only a few primary relationships in which they are free to explore emotional expression.
If we do this joyful relationship building work, our children will reach a tipping point of relational connection and never look back.
Humans are born with incredible skills for tracking and responding to the most nuanced interpersonal cues and signals. But the culture of male emotional toughness takes hold early. By age four, boys start self policing. So, we too, must begin early.
The good news is, we can. All we have to do is start the conversation.
At What Age Are Our Sons First Taught to Man Up?
Judy Chu, author of When Boys Become Boys talks about the suprisingly early age at which boys begin to suppress their need for emotional expression and friendship.