We owe our children their birthright. Namely, their natural capacity to form authentic, emotionally vibrant relationships.

***

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.”

When we encourage strength and self-reliance in addition to other equally powerful capacities like emotional literacy and relational intelligence, all these capacities dovetail to create powerful and resilient human beings. The result is men and women who are better resourced to deal with life’s challenges, both individually and collectively, because 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, immune to insecurities, fears or doubts. The result is generations of 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.

Niobe Way explains that our culture is literally “in conflict with nature.”

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 men 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 connection 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.

♦◊♦

Please note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the individuals in my past. My recollections and my interpretations are my own.

This article was originally published on the Good Men Project

Explore more of Mark Greene’s work at RemakingManhood.com or
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