A Manifesto: Relational Intelligence For Our Children

A manifesto:

We must commit to granting our children their birthright, which is their inherent capacity to form authentic, emotionally vibrant relationships. All we need do is stop training them out of these capacities, either by action or inaction. Through helping them grow their relational intelligence, we can insure they become what they are born to be, emotionally connected, joyful and thriving human beings.

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We Need to Redefine What Strength Is

For many American men, being a “real man” is defined as being tough and strong and confident and sexually dominant and a wage earner and heterosexual. But above all, these “real men” do not share their emotions. These ideas of manhood are generational. They are ingrained in our media, our stories our families and ourselves.

They are part of a wider narrative that not only defines men but also women in relationships to men. Central to this narrative is a kind of overarching complementarianism, which posits that whatever women are, men are not, and vice versa.  As part of this binary view of gender, men have been trained to believe that relational capacities like emotional expression, empathy, nurturing or caretaking, often dismissively called “soft skills” are feminine capacities and as such, are a sign of weakness for men. This belief is the source of America’s epidemic of loneliness, right here.

In the moment we gender emotional expressional and relational capacities as feminine and shame our sons for expressing their emotions, we cut our young sons off from the trial and error process of learning how to express and connect in relationship to others. We cut them off from expressing what is distinctive about themselves in relationship to others. When our young sons’ core relational capacities are suppressed, these capacities whither away.

And so, we banish our sons (and daughters) to an emotional wasteland of angry isolation. We strip them of the vibrancy and resiliency of relational communities.

When we encourage capacities like strength and self-reliance in addition to emotional expression and relational intelligence, 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.

Let me be clear: traits such as toughness and self reliance are not in and of themselves negative. But boys and men are taught that toughness requires they hide their emotions. In order to be “real men” they are expected to be emotionally stoic, competitive, sexually aggressive, confident and immune to insecurities, fears or doubts. The result is they hide their authentic selves behind what documentary director Jennifer Seibel Newsom calls The Mask You Live In. This the cultural of male emotional toughness. And often, the enforcement of this culture of toughness can be brutal and unforgiving.

In privileging only the toughness aspects of masculinity to the exclusion of powerful emotional and relational capacities, we have effectively suppressed empathy, emotional self regulation, the capacity to hold difference, community building and collaboration in generations of boys and men. The result is a deadly epidemic of isolation for American adults.

A 2010 AARP study revealed that 1 in 3 American adults age 45+ are chronically lonely up from 1 in 5 just tens years before. Thats 44 million Americans who have no one  to talk with about the serious issues of life and living. It also means they are facing catastrophic health risks.

In an article published by the New Republic titled, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” we find these chilling facts:

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.

While male suicides outnumber female by a factor of three to one and are climbing, a whole additional population of men and women are dying too early in their lives. And they’re dying of loneliness.

Meanwhile, corporate cultures globally are awakening to the dynamic and productive power of relationally intelligent employees. Working in collaborative groups, hosting different points of view, allowing for improvisation, and being inclusive are now being seen as the key to productivity, job satisfaction, talent retention and customer satisfaction.

Clearly, if our children are to lead healthy successful lives, they need to grow their relational capacities.

All of this should raise alarms for parents, business leaders, and educators, because the dominant discourse which governs how we raise boys, the “strong and silent” model of American manhood, results in the suppression of relational capacities. And rest assured, we have a parallel version of emotional suppression for girls that results in similar outcomes. Collectively, we owe each of our children the gift of a lifetime of vibrant authentic relationships.

How Emotional Suppression Happens
Judy Chu’s When Boys Become Boys as well as Niobe Way’s Deep Secrets, detail studies that clearly show how we train our sons away from emotionally vibrant friendships, beginning at age four and on throughout their adolescence. The result? Many men rely on their spouses social networks and their workplaces to provide friendships; friendships that are shallow by products of proximity instead of more meaningful authentic connections. When these men’s jobs change or their marriages fail, these friendships of proximity evaporate. This is why the death of a spouse can be a killing blow for men, leaving them to confront unrelenting social isolation.

Everything we know about human beings tells us that we are widely diverse and varied creatures. But we have one 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 internal selves so completely that eventually, they will no longer be able to locate them.

Over the years, the rigid performance of masculine emotional toughness has caused many men to loose this sense of connection to our internal voice, our moral and emotional true north. It is in this space that we 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 bargain that we made. Shaming and attacking men and women who perform versions of manhood or womanhood that don’t follow the narrow rules of our culture of male emotional toughness.

The Good News
Our sons and daughters need only a few primary relationships in their lives in which they are free to explore emotional expression through a trial and error process over the long term. 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. 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.

To learn more about relational intelligence, come see us at Remaking Manhood.

Photo by: geir tønnessen

 

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