I was at an indoor playground with my toddler when it happened. Another kid picked up a ball, my 1-year-old snatched it away, and the other boy began to cry. The child's dad swooped in and said, "What's wrong with you? It's just a ball. Boys don't cry. Get over it." I took a breathe to center myself and to avoid commenting, then redirected my kiddo away from the encounter. In my mind, that moment perfectly demonstrated the ways our sons are being cut off from their emotions.
In our culture, we start putting our kids into rigid gender roles before they are even born. We have super-charged sex reveal parties based on the physical anatomy of a fetus, often accompanied with ballerinas and baby dolls for "girls" and footballs and guns for "boys." Then, once our babies are born, we reinforce those roles by picking out gendered toys for them to play with, hobbies we encourage them to pursue, and clothes we think they should wear. And, as parents, how we allow or encourage our children to feel and express the full spectrum of human emotion, or how we comfort (or fail to comfort) them when they cry, plays into a gender binary that's, honestly, for the birds.
As a result, our sons start to believe that remaining stoic when in pain, keeping themselves from crying, and failing to enjoy things that are stereotypically associated with being feminine or weak is what it means to "be a boy." Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that these hurtful lessons could negatively impact their social, emotional, and physical development. So with that in mind, and because knowing how to be better is how we do better, here's how we're cutting our sons off from their emotions before they're 5:
When We Tell Them Not To Cry
Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine and Ohio State University found that, when it comes to emotions, baby boys are more expressive than baby girls. They are more easily startled and excited, less capable of handling stress or frustration, and more likely to cry. Starting at about age 2, however, this changes. Our sons stop expressing emotions, and this change certainly impacts their social development. By the time they start school the roles are completely reversed.
Now, I’m not suggesting that boys (or girls) should be encouraged to tantrum their way through the day, but we absolutely need to start validating our children's emotions and teach them to express them in a better ways, rather than telling them to stuff their feelings away or ignore them.
Michael Thompson, PhD, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, agrees. As he told PBS, to raise emotionally healthy boys you should try to help your son accept what’s happening inside his head — what he calls their “internal life” — and more importantly to learn to communicate those thoughts and emotions with you. Thompson writes, "The simple idea here is that you consciously speak to a boy's internal life all the time, whether he is aware of it or not.” He adds, “If you act as if your son has an internal life — if you assume that he does, along with every other human being — then soon he will take it into account."
When We Teach Them That Being Emotional Is "For Girls"
When the dad at the playground said "boys don't cry" to his 2 year-old son, it got me thinking about all of the gendered language we use on a daily basis that teaches boys to not feel or express the full spectrum of human emotion.
Our near-constant use of gendered language around masculinity being strong and femininity being weak has also resulted in a misconception that boys must always be strong and never sad, gentle, or overwhelmed. As a result, our young sons and daughters learn that being "like a girl" is a bad thing — a "sissy," "a cry baby," "a wuss." This marginalizes anyone who is not a cisgender heterosexual man (which may include our sons, by the way), but it also reinforces messages about how our sons are supposed to behave and feel.
When We Ignore Their Preferences
We also reinforce gender roles with appearances, hairstyles, hobbies, and even the types of toys our children play with. A BBC experiment showed that adults stereotype toddlers, based on their presumed genders, and treat them differently as a result.
When we make our sons cut their hair, refuse to let them paint their nails, or tell them that pink is a "girl color," we inadvertently reinforce gender roles while simultaneously telling them that their preferences, likes, and dislikes don’t matter as much as what society expects of them.
This might not seem like a big deal if your son is “all boy,” but what if he’s not? What if by telling him he can’t have the sparkly purple shoes you are shaming the hell out of your son’s true self, and teaching him that he needs to disconnect from and hide that part of himself away?
When We Tell Them To Be Tough
I have to admit that I often find myself telling my kids to toughen up and shake off their pain when they fall down. I never stopped to consider that I do this way more often with my sons than my daughters, though, and I totally do. The thing is, this subtle invalidation might actually not teach them to be tougher but, instead, send the message that I don't care about their pain.
Research published in the Indian Journal of Pallative Care found that pain in young children is often ignored. Kids don’t have the words to express what they are feeling, and are told in more ways than one to simply "get over it." If left untreated that pain can increase anxiety and fear, which can in turn make the pain even worse. When parents and health care providers don’t teach kids to communicate about pain, it goes untreated, which can lead to life-long issues. A better response to an injury, according to researchers, is to watch your child for signs of pain or discomfort and ask them to tell you about it.
When We Don't Show Them Affection
We also tend to reinforce gender roles around showing affection. According to Allan Schore, PhD, we are generally less responsive to our sons as infants and toddlers, letting them cry longer than our daughters when they are in distress. This response doesn’t toughen them up, though, and can actually result in their brains maturing more slowly and not developing appropriate neurochemical responses to stress. Whoa. In other words, hug your sons, people.