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Soften Up

Monica Berg
April 26, 2018
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When my oldest son was 14 he went to sleepaway camp. He had been the year before and it was a success; he made new friends, had the opportunity to try new sports and activities, and had an all around blast. So, when summer returned, he was very excited to go. He barely hugged me goodbye before running off to join a group of old friends. 

"We have been brought up in a society that suppresses male emotionality."

Like the summer before, he wrote us letters every few days to share his experience. Can I just stop for a second to praise the ancient art of letter writing? Handwritten letters from your children are pure gold. Anyway, I was anxious to get each letter. But I noticed a very subtle shift in his words. They started off fine – enthusiastic and cheerful – but as they went on something felt amiss. I checked in with him over the phone, and while he insisted everything was just fine, my mama intuition told me otherwise.

The story finally came out when we came to pick him up. Without divulging too many details, I can say there was an embarrassing incident that involved tears and teasing. The tears being on my son’s part. You won’t be shocked to learn that by the teen years, young people have already internalized the great fallacy that boys should not cry or show emotion.

A series of recent studies have concluded that our belief women are more emotional than men is absolutely backwards. One study, conducted by MindLab, took equal groups of men and women, sat them down, and had them watch a series of emotional videos while being monitored via skin temperature, heart rate, even sweat. It was found that men, overall, had stronger emotional responses to the video content than the female participants. Specifically, to content categorized as “heartwarming.”

Another study from Mensline, a male helpline based in Australia, points to men hiding their emotions because it’s what they see growing up. For example, if a man grows up with an unemotional father, this will unconsciously become the template on which he builds his life. Research behind the subject of men’s tears can be found through sources such as NPR, which found that the most cried-over actor for men is Tom Hanks.

All of the evidence suggests that men very much have feelings, they have just been conditioned away from expressing them. As a result, when they do show emotion they are seen as weak, inadequate, and emasculated. Of course, as the mother of two boys, this research doesn’t shock me. I am keenly aware that men have feelings. However, it did get me thinking about how we respond to men in terms of their emotions and vulnerability. 

"We can send a more positive message."

Carol Gilligan, the American psychologist who founded the ethics of care, is famous for her research on the psyche of young girls, but she happens to have 3 boys of her own and has done a great deal of research on the psyche of the adolescent male. What she found is that girls tend to lose their voice at around the age of 12 or 13. Who they portray themselves to be on the outside begins to shift and become quite different from who they are and what they feel on the inside.

With boys, it happens at 5.

It happens when they first leave the comfort of their homes to enter public school. It happens the very first time they receive the message, be it directly or indirectly, to “be a man.” Don’t be emotional. Don’t be a mama’s boy. Don’t be a cry baby. The biforcation between public persona and inner private life begins at 5 years old for boys. It happens so early that it’s just considered a natural part of life.

We have been brought up in a society that suppresses male emotionality and encourages feminine sensitivity, creating an obvious imbalance. Women are seen as the more nurturing and emotional of the two genders while men are expected to be the warriors, invulnerable to, well, everything. With the exception of anger, men are taught to suppress every other emotion and as a result, hide their true selves. The truth is we all have equal emotional lives, so how can we equalize our relationships?

Kabbalistically, there is no distinction between the supernal male and female; each one has the ability to create Light and each has the same opportunity to reach their true potential. To clarify further, men have all the same emotional responses that women have. For those of you that raise boys, you inherently know this. But, for the rest of us who are absent of an openly emotional male in our life, it can be incredibly easy to adopt the belief that when it comes to emotional sensitivity, men are simply impervious. Not only is this belief untrue, it is also extremely detrimental, because it systematically teaches young men to behave in a way that is “expected,” therefore, denying their true selves, and ultimately, their own inherent Light.

As parents we can help change this for our boys and young men. Indeed, the onus is on us to counteract the negative messages they receive from their peers, teachers, and society at large. But this isn’t a task for the parents of boys alone. If we can teach our daughters that showing emotion in a healthy, non-threatening way is a strength in boys and men, they will be more likely to embrace this quality as they begin to have adult relationships. 

Think about the things people say to kids when they cry:

  • Toughen up.
  • That’s nothing to cry about.
  • Don’t be such a baby.

We can send a more positive message if we respond differently. Try offering support with words like:

  • You can cry if you want to.
  • It feels good to cry.
  • Sometimes I cry, too.

These phrases can send a powerful message that not only is it okay to cry, it’s good to cry. Our tears show we really care about something, have empathy, or are compassionate individuals, and that’s a good thing. Our children deserve the freedom to be vulnerable so they can create true connection in their relationships now, and later as adults. This begins with empathy we model for them when they experience strong emotions. I try to avoid labeling an emotion as good or bad when talking to my kids. Instead, I simply acknowledge it. Michael and I have also made a conscious effort not to hide our own tears. Kids need to see it’s okay to feel deeply about something.

When my son returned from sleepaway camp we talked a lot about what had happened to induce tears. I listened and did my best to validate everything he felt. He really didn’t need reminding that crying is okay. He’s known this for years. But it’s easy to forget when surrounded by adolescents who are struggling with their own emotions. It’s our job to guide them through these difficult experiences and help them return to their true selves – their honest, vulnerable, empathetic, emotional and real selves.