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.

Think of it this way: Children begin speaking in earnest when they are toddlers. But what would happen if our toddlers were hit, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words? — How quickly would they stop trying to talk at all?

Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to express emotionally.

As part of the research for her book When Boys Become Boys (2014), Dr. Judy Chu of Standford University followed a group of four and five year old boys for two years. She documented how our sons are trained away from their early capacity for being emotionally perceptive, articulate and responsive.

She found that starting in kindergarten, our sons are trained towards the emotionally disconnected stereotype our culture projects onto them; given little choice but to conform in the name of being considered “real boys.”

As they grow older, our sons are taught to “man up” in increasingly aggressive and belligerent ways. They are taught by their peers, their coaches, their teachers and even their families that real men don’t show their emotions. And so, they cease exploring the nuaces of emotional communication, they hide who they are, they live more isolated lives, all the result of being shut off from the authentic interpersonal connections that emotional expression can create.

Our daughters face similar restrictions of their emotional expression. We limit them to what might be called the greeting card school of emotional expression. We allow the expression of sympathy or celebration but more complex, volitile or dark emotions are forbidden. There are no greeting cards for rage or despair, feelings far too many of our daughters are trained to hide away and suppress.

It is through the expression of emotion that we connect in relationship to others. In fact, emotions are born in the relational spaces between people. So, what we are doing when we teach our chidlren to hide their emotions is we are limiting their capacity to form relationships.

What is remarkable is that newborn babies are already tracking the subtle and nuanced verbal and non verbal cues by which human beings communicate. The question is, do we want our children to use those amazing skills to grow their connection in the world or to suppress their connection?

There are many ways we, as parents, might unintentionally block our children’s emotional exploration. We might block our children by telling them the “right” ways to feel in situations instead of helping them work through the more complex emotions that can arise for them.

We might correct them for getting upset or expressing anger instead of helping them process these reactions and learn for themselves how to self regulate their emotional responses. These are just two examples of the many ways we might limit how our children can learn to respond in the world. If our children are consistently kept from doing the trial and error work of expressing and experiencing emotions, they will ultimately struggle to form authentic relationships, because it is from nuanced confident expression that authentic relationships are born. These authentic relationships, in turn, are the source of long term personal, professional, and community resiliency, especially during times of personal crisis or economic upheaval.

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Our culture is giving our sons a message to shut up; to not talk about what they are feeling. It is telling our daughters to only express a limited set of “approved” emotions; the greeting card school of emotional expression.  Without a loving and consistant counter message, the vibrant, healthy, emotionally connecting parts of our children will slowly be hidden away and silenced. 

Its up to us, as parents, to give our children a different message about expressing emotions. We can instead encourage our children to explore and grow their relational intellgience early on, ensuring they are better able to connect in relationship to others.

The good news is our children are ready to engage in this lifelong process. We’re talking about growing the interpersonal super powers that every human being is born with. To repeat, we all born with these capacities.  We simply need relationships in which we are encouraged to grow them instead of relationships which teach us to shut them down. What’s more, our children don’t need this encouragement to be happening everywhere, they simply need to be getting this encouragement in some central part of their lives.

And there is no better place than within our own families.