Raising Emotionally Intelligent Sons
By Mark Brandenburg
"Mommy, I fell down," said the 5-year-old to his mother during a recent soccer practice. "Were you tough?" asked his mom. "Yeah," he said and walked away with his head down.
I was at this soccer practice with my daughter, and feeling just a bit out of place as the only dad there. When I heard this exchange, it reminded me of the ways we can blindly follow the "old school" concerning how we raise boys. The old school says that boys should be tough, independent and reject feelings of being weak or fearful. When I heard this mother ask her son if he was tough, I wanted to say, " All he wants is for you to ask if he's ok!"
Rough and tough
What does raising "tough and independent" boys create?
Men generally haven't received the training in "emotional intelligence" that women have. They have a harder time identifying their own feelings as well as the feelings of others. They have been trained from an early age to learn that being tough is more important than showing feelings.
When you employ the old school of raising tough and independent boys, you damage boys' ability to feel closely connected to others and their ability to have awareness of their own feelings. Boys learn to swallow feelings of inadequacy or weakness.
The problem with swallowing these feelings is that it impacts their ability to access other feelings as well. Emotionally intelligent people have access to all of their feelings, not just the ones that are pleasant for them. The result of swallowing these feelings may be fathers and men who are "successful" (who make a lot of money) but who are not in touch with their own feelings and have difficulty in nurturing themselves or their children. They may tend to have tremendous difficulty in developing successful relationships with their loved ones.
Most of the men walking around today report they either don't remember being hugged by their fathers or have never heard their father say "I love you" to them. It's easy to see why men often struggle in this area. Falling into the trap of the old school for boys is easy because it's been the standard for fathers for a very long time.
A question of balance
It is entirely normal and natural for fathers to have conflicting thoughts about this subject. There will probably be a part of you that wants your son to be tough enough to handle a tough, competitive world. There may be another part of you that doesn't want your son to divorce three wives -- each of whom he blames for the failed marriage -- and buy a red sports car and hang out at singles bars at age 50.
Remember that the world is not only moving towards more technological sophistication but emotional sophistication as well. Those who fully succeed in their lives in this generation will be the people who are able to identify their own feelings as well as the feelings of others.
Here are some ideas on how you can help your own son with this task.
Examine your own ideas and practices concerning how you raise your son. Do you allow him to express his full range of feelings, or do you push him away emotionally if he's showing sadness, weakness, vulnerability, etc?
Practice, practice, practice. Catch yourself when you're in the old patterns. Try saying more things like, "That must have been hard for you" or "Boy, I understand how foolish you must have felt." (These work on wives, too).
Occasionally share feelings with your son in an age-appropriate way. This will encourage him to feel safe enough to share his feelings with you. Don't be afraid to tell your son that you were afraid at times as a child and that you still get scared today.
Be involved in your son's life enough to know who else might be enforcing the "old school." That could include teachers, coaches, day-care providers, other family members, and so on. Since the old school is all around us, have the courage to step in and make change happen even though you'll be judged by others ("You're gonna end up with a wimpy mama's boy!").
Show physical affection to your son. Hugs, kisses, wrestling -- whatever you can muster. There is a great deal of research which shows that boys who receive this from their fathers are happier, healthier, smarter, etc. Show your son that you can hug or put your arm around other men as well to demonstrate your affection. Are you squirming? You're a good candidate for this one.
Help him to identify and name his own emotions as well as the emotions of others. You can do this by asking him questions like," Were you feeling angry when you struck out?”
Try to judge people less and empathize more. He'll learn these skills from you.
Let's help to create a world in which boys are able to be both sensitive and strong. Let's teach them to be both fierce and gentle and to be aware of their own feelings as well as the feelings of others. This is only possible if we give up the notion of the tough and independent boy, which has done so much damage to the development of strong, sensitive and nurturing men.
We owe this one to our sons and to the world.
Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC, is the author of 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers and is a personal coach to fathers and business owners. Read more about our NFO contributor Mark Brandenburg.