When we help our kids grow their relational capacities; namely how they create and care for relationships, it insures a better life for them.
Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) is commonly understood to mean emotional self-awareness, the ability to name, understand and manage our emotions. You may also be aquainted with the term Social Emotional Learning, commonly used in educational settings. These are all good terms.
But we want to make the following distinction: it is in relationships that we discover, learn about and grow our emotional capacities. For better or worse, relationships represent the central mechanism by which human beings operate in the world. From the moment we are born, engaging the emotional universe is not an internal experience. It takes place in relationship with others.
We are born out of a relationship into relationships. We are never without a relationship; in fact, hundreds of them.
As it is with us, so it also is with our children. They, too, are social animals. In isolation they wither, in connection they thrive. This is the core truth of being human. Yet, in many ways, our culture actively suppresses our children’s relationship building capacities.
Often children are shamed and punished for emotional expression; especially our sons, leaving them little choice but to hide their emotions in order to fit in. This suppression of their natural ability to connect emotionally, puts at risk their personal and professional futures. It can limit their social success and hurt their educational performance. It can lead to behavioral challenges. It can severely impact their emotional and physical health over the course of their lives.
So whatever terminology you prefer, we, as parents, can help our children grow their emotional capacities. We can guide our sons and daughters toward richer more joyful, more fulfilling emotional lives. All we need to do is protect and grow their natural relational capacities. But we must begin now.
“Don’t be a crybaby” is the single most consistent message American boys get. Whether you grew up in the relative security of the suburbs or on the streets of the inner city, ask any American man and they’ll tell you the same thing.
“Boys and men don’t cry.” If you do, you’re a wimp, or a sissy… or a target.
And make no mistake, “Don’t be a crybaby” is code for a larger, more overarching cultural message; a message which is reinforced over and over again in every professional, social and interpersonal context men encounter. Don’t show your emotions. This is our culture of male emotional toughness. This is the Man Box.
This rule of American manhood begins to make itself known the day our little sons enter the larger world, gently at first, but with ever increasing degrees of severity.
Whether we are fathers or sons, brothers or husbands, we can learn to explore and express our emotions. The question is, will we teach the next generation of men to pursue lives of emotional literacy and connection or will our sons be left with little choice but to suppress their emotions, as dictated by a range of traditional cultural influences?
Living emotionally guarded lives is robbing men and women of their hope, their aspirations and for many, their very lives.
Think I’m overstating the problem? Read on.
Our sons, like our daughters, are hardwired with vast capacities for relational connection, but to activate these capacities, boys must overcome almost every message our culture gives them about how to be a man. And these damaging messages are coming fast and furious by the time our sons are in kindergarten.
For boys and girls alike, the capacity to access and engage the complex landscape of relationships all around us is the result of learning via:
trial and error —> over time —> with people they trust.
Learning to do this well can take years, even decades. Like learning a language, it is a skill set most easily acquired when we are young, by exploring emotional expression in safe relational spaces intentionally created within our families.
Think of it this way. As we learn a language, the broadest and most obvious rules, the simplest and most useful words quickly become second nature. Then, we spend years drilling down to the nuances and subtleties of language. We learn what to accentuate in order to be better understood. We learn how to hear the nuances of meaning based on a speaker’s age or circumstances. We learn what to take to heart and what to question. As part of the journey to literacy, we are encouraged to ask people, “what does that word mean?” Without shame or fear. All of this learning of language serves one major purpose, to help us connect with others.
What would happen if our toddlers were bullied, shamed or laughed at every time they mispronounced their first words?
— How quickly would they stop trying to talk? Our young children, especially our sons, are at risk for this very outcome when they attempt to connect emotionally.
In America’s culture of emotional toughness, we block our sons from learning complex emotional skills. We shame and bully them into hiding their emotions. But if we live life never expressing our emotions, we’ll never learn to fully engage in relationships. Its that simple.
Our culture teaches us a set of false assumptions about men and toughness. Toughness does not come from being stoic, manning up or suppressing our emotions. Resiliency, the ability to confront and overcome challenges, and yes, the ability to fight on if needed, depends on how well we are resourced by the relationships in our lives.
Furthermore, unlike a person who can be goaded into a fight against his or her better judgement, we can help our children learn to keep from collapsing into the emotions of others. Relational intelligence brings us a vast range of choices and options. It is the conduit by which our greatest human capacities are found and accessed in relationship to others.
Girls Have it No Easier
One of the primary myths in our culture is that girls are allowed to express emotions more openly, or even more illogically, that they are just naturally better at it. But here’s a little secret about girls. Their emotional expression is also curtailed. While boys are policed and bullied to not express emotions at all, girls are relegated to the “Hallmark Card” school of emotional expression.
Women are allowed to publicly express a somewhat wider range of emotions, typically, love or condolences with a nice filigree, but a vast range of other emotions are not approved of. Nothing threatening. Nothing dark. You won’t find a Hallmark card for despair or rage. You won’t find a Hallmark card for panic or grief.
If women express darker emotions like rage or despair, they are told to calm down, that their emotions are likely the result of “their time of the month”, or that the emotional frustration they feel is not based in a rational (i.e.: masculine) world view.
While men’s emotional expression is marginalized as feminine, women’s emotional expression is infantilized.
It is in this repressed emotional space that the alarming sense of being gaslighted can emerge for women.
The end result? Girl’s and women’s path to learning relational intelligence is also closed off. In part, because they are also blocked from doing this work when young, and in part, because eventually those who are in heterosexual relationships, will be with men who have been trained by our culture of male emotional toughness to not connect emotionally.
Sadly, not only do we teach our sons to display emotional toughness, we train our daughters to admire emotional toughness in men.
The High Costs of Emotional Withdrawal
As a young boy, I remember distinctly the sensation of “feeling like I should be having a feeling.” I was seven when my parents divorced. My father went to work overseas. When he left, I spent years grieving his loss. Then, at some point, those emotions fell silent, creating an emotional blank space. And below that? Something very bad was hiding. I called that place the basement.
Whatever emotions I was feeling, I was left to process in isolation. The end result was, I simply could not identify any of them; with the possible exception of a consistent baseline of self-loathing.
We subject our sons to a kind of emotional solitary confinement when we don’t acknowledge their emotions.
Without relational engagement, our sons can cease to trust their instincts. Their inner voice, their spiritual true north, given no external confirmation or support, falls silent, blocking them off from the innate resiliency that can help them navigate life’s challenges. We subject them to decades of lost connections.
Our capacity to express emotions in nuanced and empowered ways is born and developed in relationships. It is this capacity to express that sustains vibrant relationships in both our personal and professional lives. If instead, we teach our sons to “man up” and tough it out, we’re setting them up for an ugly fall somewhere down the road. Especially when tragedy strikes.
In The Expanded Family Life Cycle, McGoldrick, Carter and Preto write:
“Men who are raised to deny their emotional interdependence face a terrible awakening during divorce, illness, job loss, or other adversities of life. Indeed the traditional norms of male development have emphasized many of the characteristics including keeping emotional distance, striving for hierarchical dominance in family relationships; toughness; competition; avoidance of dependence on others; aggression as a means of conflict resolution; avoidance of closeness and affection with other males; suppression of feelings except anger; and avoidance of “feminine” behaviors such as nurturing, tenderness and expressions of vulnerability. Such norms make it almost impossible for boys to achieve the sense of interdependence required for mature relationships through life.” [p22-23].
Without what McGoldrick, Carter and Preto call mature relationships, men are subject to ever increasing degrees of emotional isolation and the catastrophic risks this presents. In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older are chronically lonely. That’s over 44 million Americans.
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
“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.”
We are confronting an epidemic of loneliness in America. We lock ourselves inside gated communities, fearful of our neighbors and our society. We drink ourselves to sleep or fling ourselves compulsively into sex, work or consumption, as if the next sexual conquest or technical gadget will make up for the lack of connection we feel in our lives.
Our collective emotional isolation is at the heart of our society’s inability to correct injustices around race, class, and economics. We are not caring for each other. We are lashing out. For millions of us, our collective lack of authentic emotional community has stripped our lives of meaning. Is it any wonder when we look at our bright eyed loving little children, we feel the prickling of fear?
And Now for the Good News
Dr. Saliha Bava and I believe there is a powerful solution, for us as individuals, and for our children. The solution is to grow our childrens’ relational intelligence. We can do this by listening with curiosity to what our children have to say while talking and playing with them. Through this simple mindful practice, we can help them grow their emotional literacy and change the world for the better.
Our upcoming book titled “The Forever Book” is about this process. It does not seek to present a one size fits all steps or techniques. The Forever Book is instead designed to spark a lifelong conversation between parent and child. Each family’s conversation will be distinct and like no other. And the best part? This process of being in conversation with our children will give us the rich and rewarding relationships that we long for as parents, because our children will feel seen and heard and held, and so will we.
Growing our children’s relational intelligence is a gift that will last them a lifetime.
What’s more, it will echo down generations to come. When we help our children grow their relational intelligence, they are better able to manage conflict, grow self-confidence, and engage others’ points of view. And as they grow up, they will have the skills needed to build lasting and satisfying relationships and communities both in their professional and personal lives.
Most of us are already doing this work on different levels with our children, creating change and growth in little and big ways every day. But, if you feel you would like to be more mindful about how you encourage the growth of relational intelligence; if you’re feeling stuck and would like new ideas about how to go forward with your kids, join us for our online workshop! To stay in touch, join our mailing list below.
Our children need simple consistant play and encouragement to develop their powerful relational capacities. We have a range of theoretical frameworks, strategies and games from which parents can design and grow the practices that fit best for their families.
Its up to us to walk with our children through the world’s emotional landscapes, a place which exists in the powerful relational spaces between them and others. Like any complex skill set, our kids can acquire relational intelligence in layered and nuanced ways over time. There is no single end goal here. It is a lifelong process but it is one that will provide vast rewards.