Our children are born with amazing capacities for tracking and responding to emotional engagement. This ability to connect via expression is what many parents see as the sweet emotional openness of their little ones.
The challenge isn’t that we fail to teach our children how to form relationships. They are born knowing how. The challenge is we live in a culture which intentionally suppresses these capacities in our children as they grow older and move out into the world.
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If you’d like to read more deeply about these issues, please note the books in our sidebar by myself and others including Niobe Way, Judy Chu, Michael Kimmel and Esther Perel. They have all generously given of their time to appear in our current and upcoming videos. Please consider supporting their work.
Our Isolating Culture of Male Emotional Toughness
We live in a culture that teaches our sons to suppress their emotional expression. We live in a culture that teaches our daughters that only certain emotions are appropriate to share. Our sons are taught to present a facade of emotional toughness. Our daughters are taught to admire that facade in men. (Gay couples are not immune to their own versions of this dynamic.) Starting in infancy, our little boys are pressured to model emotional stoicism, confidence, physical toughness and independence. The strong and silent type remains a central American symbol of “real manhood.”
Traditional values like strength and self-reliance have their own intrinsic value for men and women. But without crucial capacities like emotional literacy and relational intelligence, our children face the serious risks associated with lifelong disconnection and isolation. With one in three American adults age 45+ known to be chronically lonely, these risks are very real, up to and including early mortality.
It is the combination of independence and interdependence that creates powerful, resilient, relational human beings. Teaching the full range of human capacities for connection 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 rely on during challenging times.
The tide is turning. We are coming to understand the importance of relational intelligence and emotional literacy for our sons and daughters. But far too many boys and men are still taught that “real men” are emotionally silent. They are taught that a mask of emotional toughness is somehow proof they are immune to the myriad of human insecurities, fears and doubts we all confront.
The result? Millions 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 and the result is an epidemic of male isolation, stress related illnesses, broken families, abuse, addiction and violence.
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.
Parenting with the goal of growing our children’s relational capacities is all about staying in conversation with them over the years. We connect as part of our daily lives, helping them see how powerful their capacities for communication and expression are. It’s about getting our sons and daughters to that tipping point whereby they commit to their own voice over the scripted silences of traditional manhood.
If we do this joyful relationship building work, our children will reach a tipping point of relational connection and never look back.
The good news is, we can do this for our children. All we have to do is begin 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.