When we talk about raising boys, we often speak of teaching them how to become men. And we view “manhood”, (which tends to involve some combination of strength, squashing down feelings and being stoic) as the target at which we are aiming our boys; it is the goal of their adolescence.
But a new book suggests that encouraging our boys from an early age to “man up”, i.e., not to cry and to squash/bury their feelings, can lead them to lose touch with all emotions except anger. And suppressing these other feelings can bring on a great many negative outcomes, from academic underperformance to fighting, recklessness, and substance abuse.
In How to Raise A Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, Dr. Michael Reichert, founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, draws on his decades of research to challenge age-old conventions about how boys become men. He believes that the key to changing the culture in which boys are pressured to “man up” is in teaching parents, educators and mentors how to help boys become more socially and emotionally stronger. In a recent Parents magazine article about his research, Dr. Reichert suggests the following guidelines to follow:
1: Advocate for your Son: Parents need to understand the social pressures that boys face, e.g., that they should not cry or show emotion, that they should love competition and be able to play through pain. Parents can talk with their sons about how to handle the pressures to conform, and can offer a safe and non judgmental haven for them as they help them think through how to handle tough situations.
2: Cultivate a Strong Connection with Your Son: Boys need a strong sense of self to enable them to withstand the negative pressures of boyhood. Parents need to remember that their ability to cultivate and maintain a strong connection with their sons is very important to the development of this strong sense of self. We have to find common interests, be patient and accessible, make ourselves available to our sons and maintain a strong interest in what they are doing and in their lives in general.
3. Encourage Emotional Expression: Boys have to learn how to stay connected even when their feelings want to push everyone away. Parents can help with this by developing the skill of listening to their sons’ feelings, even when those feelings are rooted in anger or are just raw and unpleasant. It will help if parents can silence their inner monologues and radiate attention, warmth and interest. Ask questions to show your genuine curiosity and interest in some part of life that your son enjoys.
4. Exercise Authority: Parents need to set limits and guide their sons away from the negative values of the boys’ peer culture, which can include (among others) subtle pressures to exclude and mistreat others (especially girls) and pressures not to “snitch” on their friends. Parents have to be straighforward with these limits and let their sons know that setting limits doesn’t compromise or weaken their connection with their sons. Parents’ exercise of authority must be more strategic than reactive.
5. Promote Autonomy: Boys need to develop a sense of autonomy that is achieved through initiative, judgment and confidence. Parents can help with this development by staying connected to their sons while supporting their desire to spread their wings.
Can’t wait to read How to Raise A Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men; looking forward to reporting more about it. The book has gotten rave reviews by many experts that GCP has relied upon on for their valuable advice on raising boys, including noted psychologist and boy expert Dr. Michael Thompson, Eagle Academy School for Boys founder David Banks, and UCLA professor Pedro Noguera. Stay tuned for a more detailed GCP review.