During my first pregnancy over ten years ago, I devoured books on the topic of raising boys. As with every new terrain, it made sense to cross-reference the maps made by those who came before me.
The most important conclusion from all my reading and research resulted in the taking of a vow. I vowed never to make the Eldest feel that he was only allowed to be half a human- that half currently recognized as the prototypical American male.
Having best friends that were guys taught me how much men suffered for the way we raise them to be caricatures of angry, sarcastic, beer-chugging brutes with “natural drive” for rape, destruction, and violence. Honestly, I’ve never met a man who fits the bill- though I’ve met way too many who lived like zombies for trying.
We treat men like they are naturally too insensitive, ego-driven, violent, and lusty to leave with out daughters. Then we wonder why the number of nuclear missiles in our arsenal continues to rise. The truth is that men and women are born with similar emotional needs and emotional expression.
According to various studies, around the age of four, the average American boys realizes that daddy (and his preschool buddies and favorite cartoon characters) doesn’t like it when he talks about feeling sad. “Take one for the team,” laughs the dad. Or, “crying is for girls- boys don’t cry”. Some variation on sarcastic disregard for what a boy is feeling and some form of withdrawal that teaches him to detach himself from any feelings lest he lose the affection and regard of his daddy and male peers.
The word “sad” is quickly removed from a developing boy’s emotional vocabulary. But the sad feeling persists. Eventually, he learns that boys are allowed to get angry. He understands that winning makes fear and bad feelings go away. He agrees not to name all the complex congnitive emotional states he can no longer acknowledge. Instead, he does what “big boys do”, namely, keep his eye on the prize and aim to win. Whether he is winning a soccer game, a promotion, a card game, a bet, a dare, or one of those emotional objects known as females, his develops only one response to losing- the response of fear and anger. Under these two words, entire worlds are submerged.
Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Both co-exist as human beings on the planet known as Earth. Books which promise to reveal why men and women can’t understand one another usually fall back on the self-fulfilling prophecy of claiming that women are super-emotional and have emotional needs, while men are rational and lack complex emotional needs. Seriously, sitting in the stands of a college football game will quickly reveal the extent to which men and women are equally irrational and equally emotional.
Rarely do such pop psychology books acknowledge the cause for these differences is not God or “nature” or interplanetary travel. Rarely do they mention all the scientific studies that show these differences are largely due to the way in which males are socialized to ignore, project, or suppress their emotions. At no point does John Gray admit that male emotional illiteracy is normative but far from natural or even “normal”. He’s built a galaxy of cash on maintaining the stereotypes that keep men and their partners from being able to live life in its full variety of cognitive colors.
Reading one of my favorite magazines today returned me to the trenches of the old “unemotional male” sophistries. Describing five habits of “highly compassionate men”, Kozo Hattori begins with the truth of the past- the early socialization against compassion in a culture that tells men “emotions” are something the other sex does.
Hattori remembers “being a very compassionate child”- the kind that “cried his eyes out” during the film version of “The Little House on the Prairie”. By the time he became a young adult, however, Hattori’s identity stayed firmly within what he calls the “act-like-a-man box”. Fitting popular conceptions of masculinity failed to equip him with the sort of self-knowledge that enables us to navigate the tight corners of fear and frustration:
At this point, Hattori questioned the self he had become and whether it served the spirit and soul of his body. Like many wise men before him, Hattori started seeking. He began with empathy. After workshops and seminars and hours of meditation, he grew into compassion. Or maybe compassion grew, naturally, from him. Either way, he discovered that the more compassion he felt, the “happier” he became.
Like anyone who discovers an ineffable and life-affirming truth, Hattori felt driven by the need to share what he had learned and, of course, continue his own journey of learning. So he interviewed a number of individual experts in an effort to determine what, exactly, makes a compassionate man. Or, how a compassionate man is made.
Interviewees included Dr. Dacher Keltner, co-founder of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center; Dr. James Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University; Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness; Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
The conclusions were as simple as the feeling of compassion to an unbridled, open heart:
- Learn to see compassion as strength.
- Cultivate compassionate role models.
- Strive to transcend gender stereotypes.
- Cultivate emotional intelligence.
- Practice silence.
Hattori’s happiness is contagious. I look forward to his research and encourage him to keep probing the depths, tackling difficult and onerous topics that assist fellow humans in resisting cultural influences against compassion.
The opportunities to make the world a better place for boys and men abound. So, the next time your son honors you by trying to explore and express his complicated heart, dive into the depths with him, rather than forcing him to tread water on the surface. Being born a boy should not relegate you to being less of a human being.
MY FAVORITE RESOURCES ON CULTIVATING COMPASSION
“Can mindfulness help kids learn self-control” by Sarah Wheeler (Greater Good)
“The way we socialize boys man harm them as men”, a documentary must-see (All Voices)
“No more Steubenvilles: How to raise boys to be kind men” by Kim Simon (Yes!)
“Boys have become emotionally illiterate” by John Amaechi (BigThink)
“Male and female ability differences down to socialization, not genetics” by Robin McKie (Observer)
“I’m not socializing my kids- I’m humanizing them” by Kimberly Yvette Price (Home Education)
“Nervous Nellies” by Taylor Clark (Slate)
“How to deal with mean people” by Christine Carter (Greater Good)
“His hidden needs” by Nara Schoenberg (Chicago Tribune)
Barbie vs. Batman: The socialization of children’s toys (Paula vs. Patriarchy)
“Creating a new generation of compassionate and sensitive men” by Dr. Ted Zeff
“We must look at how we teach our boys what it means to be a man” by Neil Irvin (Time)
“Strong men don’t hide their emotions, they show them” by Jack Fischl (PolicyMic)
“The man who couldn’t feel” by Contessa Schexnayder (Brain World)
“Helping men to help themselves” by Lea Winderman (APA Monitor on Psychology)
Understanding and Raising Boys (PBS Parents)
Peace In Relationships, Kozo Hattori’s blog and counseling
RELATED STORIES FROM THE CASTLE VAULT
The Eldest’s first soccer game.
Why I homeschool.
Cross-stitching with boys.
Home-schooling and socialization: The heart of the matter.
Is technology narrowing our perception of life?
A date with Adrienne Rich.
Mining a fallow field for stories.
Radical home-makers of all stripes.