When Jake was in high school, his father pushed him hard to excel on the lacrosse field and in academics. “I caught grief if I didn’t score enough goals or bring home A’s,” the 23-year-old told me a year ago. He wound up co-captain on a Division I lacrosse team and graduated from the honors college at his university.
The message we send to boys throughout their development is subtle yet clear: You are not an emotional being. That is not something we will validate.
His twin sisters, two years younger than him, excelled at lacrosse and academics, too. But they had something he secretly envied. Throughout high school, Jake sat at the desk in his bedroom, listening as their father helped his sisters in their nearby bedroom with homework.
One evening, Jake finally screwed up the courage to ask his father why he never helped Jake with his homework. “Because you’re a guy,” his father told him. “You need to learn how to figure out and do things yourself.”
It reminded Jake of the way he sometimes felt when he saw his father hugging his sisters, which he didn’t do with Jake. “They had something I wanted deep down but felt like I wasn’t supposed to have. Or ask for.”
Jake is like many boys and young men. They are growing up in an era in which emotional intelligence, empathy, self-regulation and strong communication skills are highly valued and increasingly required for children in schools, the workplace and their social lives.
Indeed, research is showing it’s crucial that we have conversations with our children. The more that we talk with toddlers, especially boys, the greater their IQ and their academic success for as much as 10 years later. Using more language when children are between 1 and 3 also pays dividends with their emotional self-regulation, which is more necessary for boys. A lack of self-restraint leads to a slew of behavioral, relationship and career problems later in life.
Yet many fathers are still following a dusty handbook for their sons that both limit and hurt them in profound ways. Father’s Day is perhaps the best day of the year for us dads to hold up a mirror to ourselves and re-examine how we can best serve our sons’ psychological and emotional needs, ones we often overlook.
As it stands now, fathers talk differently to sons. A seminal 2017 study found that fathers used language with daughters but not their sons that spoke to bodily and emotional awareness. The fathers in this study were far more likely to respond to their daughters than their sons when they cried at night. What’s more, the pleasure center of these fathers’ brains responded positively when their daughters laughed or smiled — and lit up when their toddler sons betrayed neutral or stoic facial expressions.
Mothers can contribute to this problem as well. Some researchers have found that mothers use more emotional language with daughters, while others discovered that parents react more negatively and punitively to boy toddlerswhen they whine, pout or have meltdowns. Study authors observed that parents seem to “respond to children’s negative emotions differently based on [the child’s] gender.”
Ultimately, though, fathers still push hardest for limiting the emotional wardrobe of boys. A 2018 study found that “despite changing expectations for fathers, hegemonic masculine norms continue to shape fathers’ behavior.”
The message we send to boys throughout their development is subtle yet clear: You are not an emotional being. That is not something we will validate. We would rather have you, and everyone else, deal with the noxious fallout from your inner emotional disconnect than have to update and expand your emotional wardrobe.
One of the most obvious, and potentially lethal, ways we model this for boys is by teaching them to handle all their problems on their own. Many of the high school and college boys I interviewed for my book suffered from chronic anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts as they struggled to live up to this expectation.
They are part of the ascending public health epidemic of emotional isolation, depression and suicide among males ages 15 to 24, who are five times more likely to commit suicide than females in their cohort. Why do we do this to boys — deprive them of greater depth and breadth in their emotional lives and disadvantage them while doing so?
For starters, we still cling to the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Research is finding, however, that the human brains of all genders are mostly a mosaic of genes and neuro-infrastructure in both females and males that make them far more alike than different.
Then there’s the matter of competency. As one father told me during my book research, “If I show too much affection or emotion to my son, I’m afraid that’ll make him too ‘soft.’” We fear that giving boys access to the full range of their deeper emotional lives will make them less successful in a harshly competitive world.
But here’s the thing: Girls are lapping boys when it comes to success in education globally, women are receiving more law and medical degrees than men, and women are outpacing men in employment. We don’t need to raise boys into cruel and unforgiving men for them to flourish; they will succeed just as much, if not more, if they make the world less cruel and unforgiving.
So, how can we better serve our sons? We can start by following their lead. As many 10- to 19-year-old boys told researchers in 2018, society tells them they have to prove their “masculinity” through physical strength, toughness, playing sports and the willingness to punch someone if provoked, as well as by making sexual comments and jokes about girls. What many boys want, though, is the freedom to expand their wardrobe.
A 2020 report found that the “most important” thing boys desire from their parents is a “willingness to listen and understand” them. The boys, ages 8 through 15, said they want to think of themselves as “helpful, kind, smart,” among other qualities. They describe a “good man” as helpful, nice, caring. In the 2018 report, nearly half of the respondents said they wanted permission to have the “right to feel any way you want.”
I caught up with Jake recently. A year later he still feels the sting of his father’s limiting expectations. The Southern California native envies surfer friends whose fathers taught them early to “be their authentic emotional selves.” These guys are more “comfortable in their own skin,” he said.
“That’s my goal, too,” he said. “It just would make a big difference if my father supported this in me.”