Conversations about toxic masculinity often gloss over the fact that, from a young age, men are taught to communicate differently than women. Where girls are encouraged to talk about their emotions and given the tools to do so, boys are often encouraged to shut their emotions down. And this simple fact, which manifests much earlier than parents might think, affects a boy’s entire life. Not being able to address emotions feeds into boys’ and men’s anxiety, stress, and ability to make long-lasting friendships. All of this affects men’s well-being.
At the heart of the matter is the lack of a healthy emotional vocabulary, according to Dr. Gaile Dines, the president and CEO of Culture Reframed, and Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies Wheelock College, Boston. “Studies actually show that girls and boys have very different ways of communicating with parents,” she says. Dines has been fighting against hypersexualized media and pornography. Part of that fight is understanding boys’ emotional life, or lack thereof, which might make them susceptible to messaging about who they are or should be. In her work, she has become adept at helping parents have sensitive emotional conversations with their children.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Fatherly spoke with Dines about the emotional lives of boys and why it might be a good idea if parents have big conversations in the car.
What is the main difference in talking to boys compared to talking with girls?
You have to go back a bit. First of all, mothers tend to do most of the parenting still. And mothers tend to talk to girls more than they talk to boys, even when they’re babies. As they get older and more verbal, mothers tend to talk more about emotions with girls, laying the groundwork for a vocabulary of how to talk about emotions. Fathers don’t tend to do that as much as mothers.
So dads communicate differently too. It’s not just boys?
When fathers talk to boys it tends to be more about sports or activities. And less about developing an emotional vocabulary. It’s really a socialization that starts with babies, in terms of how boys and girls interact with their parents.
Boys aren’t getting the emotional dialogue from either their mother or father?
That’s what the studies are showing. Of course, we’re not talking about every boy or every girl or every parent. But what the studies are showing is that there is a lack of vocabulary and instruction in emotion. And it’s not just parents. The culture tells boys that in order to be a real man you don’t show your emotions … except for anger.
So how do you facilitate emotional conversations with boys? Is there a special technique?
Anything where there is no eye contact. Biking. Being in the car. Any activity where you’re not looking eye to eye. A car is always useful because you’re often shuttling boys around to different activities. But it’s really that boys do better talking when there is no eye-to-eye contact.
So it’s not the car, just the structure of the car, that ensures that you’re not looking at each other?
Exactly. Now, this is not true for all boys, but it is true for a majority of boys.
Are there other techniques for parents to coax emotional conversations out of boys?
There are also the kinds of questions you ask. Ask open-ended questions that don’t require a yes or a no. You don’t fire questions at them. Just ask gentle questions that require verbal engagement. So not, “Did you have a good day at school?” but “What did you do at school?”
But how do they know how to talk about their feelings and emotions?
You have to start building a vocabulary. Girls build that vocabulary together. Boys don’t. Parents play a very important role in helping kids develop the vocabulary and letting boys know that it’s acceptable to talk about your emotions and in fact, it’s a healthy way to engage. You have to do a lot more work with boys than with girls around this issue.
So how do dads model this stuff when to do so would be to go against the way that we were raised?
It’s not just you modeling with your son. It’s him watching you having conversations with your partner and friends and engaging in an emotional way.
This is hard, though. I can say as a dad with a couple of emotional boys, I struggle to talk about emotions. Just this morning my second-grader was melting down and my response was “Pull it together, dude.”
That’s exactly what you don’t want to do. You want him to be able to express his emotional life.
So how do we carve out the time for that in a busy schedule?
Sometimes you can’t do this, but maybe you just say, “Look, let’s stop, have a mental health day and go out to breakfast.” Get some fun in there. No use pestering your child as a parent. And then gently ask.
Why is this important, though?
There are studies that suggest that if a couple has been married for many years and she dies before him, his life expectancy decreases. That makes sense because when she goes, his whole emotional life has collapsed. Men don’t build friendships and support groups like women do. That’s not a biological reality, that’s a social reality.
But what about this idea of emotional grit? That you have to power through the shitty times? We don’t live in a society that encourages people to take care of themselves.
You can acknowledge the emotions and then talk about it at a later time. None of us when we’re sad should “pull ourselves together.” Yes, we need to do what we need to do, but we need to validate our emotional lives as well. And that’s what boys aren’t taught. They aren’t taught to validate their emotional lives. But you have to think about your emotional life too. How were you feeling when your son was melting down?
I was feeling stressed. Mostly because I didn’t know what was wrong and I couldn’t fix it.
It’s a very gendered thing that men have to “fix it.” And so they start firing questions and trying to figure it out. Don’t. You just have to hold your son’s emotions in your hand and show him that you, as a trusted adult, can hold them when his emotions are too big for him to hold himself.