Boys have the reputation of being unemotional and not caring about others. In fact, the opposite is probably true – boys care a great deal about everything in their lives especially those around them. The problem is that they may not be able to express those emotions in part because they acquire words a bit more slowly than their female age-mates. Little girls seem more responsive to those around them and by the time they’re teenagers, research shows that girls are better able to read facial expression and body language. Boys, on the other hand, appear diffident and unimpressed much of the time, only lighting up when they are in the presence of one of their heroes.
The part of the brain that is involved with emotions is the amygdala and some research indicates that this section of the brain develops more rapidly in boys than in girls. Unfortunately, the parts of the brain involved in acquisition of vocabulary and in structuring sentences develop a bit more slowly in boys. The result is boys have emotions, but the best way they have of expressing those emotions will be physical. That is part of the reason that they bump into you (ever noticed your son doing that?); they need the physical contact to let you know how much you mean to them. Combine the slower acquisition of language fluency with societal expectations that men don’t show emotions, and your son may not be comfortable sharing his feelings – especially once he goes off to school and the other boys give him grief for being too emotional.
So what does matter to your boy? He wants you to be proud of him, so praise him for who he is now, now for what he may become. The future is too uncertain so just focus on what he is doing at the moment. Be specific in your praise – “I’m so proud that you are working hard on doing that,” not “you are such a good boy.” He can manage the specific behavior, but it is hard to keep being a good boy. After all, what happens to your good boy status if you do something wrong? He can manage being able to do one thing at a time. If he makes errors, be specific as well. “That behavior is unacceptable in this house.” Don’t tell him he is “bad” as that label may stick.
Another thing that matters to your son is his peer group. As he grows up, you may be astounded by how much his male friends mean to him. Competition and risk motivate him, and the boys in his circle of buddies. You may find that approach to life a bit scary, but if you keep him too safe, he will stop working and let you do it all. He works well when he has a tangible result at the end – “I made that…” “I did that…” “I was a part of the group that produced that…” He needs you to help him acquire an emotional vocabulary – words other than just mad, sad, or glad. Have a word of the week for your family and award points for the person who can use the word appropriately the most often.
You may want to tell your son’s teacher about a new book by Michael Reichart and Richard Hawley, I Can Learn From You: Boys As Relational Learners, (2014, Harvard Educational Press). This book is an excellent source for teachers to help them understand how they can affect boys in the classroom. An earlier book by these authors, Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys, pointed out that boys learn best when they are actively engaged in the classroom exercise either through a hands-on approach or through an emotional connection.
Look at your son when he is totally engaged in something – he is focused, alert, and his eyes are locked onto the others involved with the activity. This is traditionally not what teachers see in the classroom where boys are distracted, sleepy, and looking all around the classroom. When boys’ emotions are engaged, they are focused and they remember. Ask your son the details about his favorite video game or his sport and you will be astounded at how much he can tell you. Ask about his least favorite course, and you may doubt if he actually attended class.
Your job is to help him become articulate, to learn to share his feelings with you (first) and others later. He needs words to do that and an environment that does not give him grief for being openly emotional. If the adult males in his life are not able to express their feelings, he is not going to feel comfortable doing that. That means you need to find a structured group that will help him be at ease in his own skin. Most importantly, remember that males are very emotional even if they find it difficult to say so.
On CNN, Chris Brown was quoted as saying about the Ray Rice incident: “It’s all about the choices you do make,” Brown told Calloway. “I deal with a lot of anger issues from my past, not knowing how to express myself verbally and at the same time not knowing how to cope with my emotions and deal with them and understand what they were.” Congratulations to Brown for his honesty. Make sure your son learns how to express himself.