It’s not easy growing up in a world that won’t accept weakness.
We all know men are different from women, yet from my experience raising sons I think many of the differences, particularly relating to expressing negative emotions, are a result of nurture, rather than nature.
I know when my boys were younger they felt comfortable coming to me for reassurance when they got physically or emotionally hurt. However when they got older, approaching me in times of need was only something they’d consider as a last resort when things got unbearable. Clearly somewhere along the way they were taught to back off, and I know for sure it didn’t come from me. Even now as teenagers when they get hurt I feel a lump rising in my throat, my heart skips a beat and I can’t get to them fast enough. Whether it be a sporting injury or a girl who’s broken their heart, as their mother I simply can’t change my overwhelming desire to protect them.
The only difference is, they aren’t little boys anymore. They’ve been taught to suck it up when they get physically or emotionally wounded and most of the time they’d rather not have their mother fussing over them. Behind closed doors is a bit different, but in public, they couldn’t imagine anything more embarrassing.
I have a sneaking suspicion their need to constantly put on this public facade is a result of the men around them; all of them: their father, stepfather, grandfathers and all the other guys who passed through their lives as they grew up. Each and every one urged them to ‘take it like men’ and stop ‘being girls’ about their feelings. It wasn’t just my boys, but all the male children they encountered as they matured, perpetuating the idea that tears were reserved exclusively for the female sex.
Ironically, despite the vast cultural differences between these men, teaching boys to suck it up was a common denominator. If they fell off their bikes, men weren’t there to provide first aid like they would’ve for a young girl. Instead, the boys were told to wipe away the tears, get back on that seat and keep riding. If a girl broke their heart, they were told there were ‘plenty more fish in the sea’, rather than to process the often overwhelming cluster of emotions that come with rejected love.
When my boys were younger and confidently expressing their emotions, they seemed to make these men a little uneasy. Girl tears they could cope with, because after all, girls were allowed to cry, but boy tears were a kind of shameful experience that sent everyone looking away with a kind of cringing disgrace. More often than not, when my boys got upset, hurt or angry they were told by the men around them to take out their frustrations on a punching bag or sports field. Talking about it was an activity specific to girls and frowned upon at every turn.
If raising sons has taught me anything about men, it’s that they’ve had to adapt the best they can in a world consumed with gender stereotypes, and that can’t be easy. As they’ve matured into young men, I’ve seen my boys watch their male role models and begin to question, ‘is this really how men are supposed to behave?’
They want to make their partners happy, but need encouragement and guidance to make that happen. It’s a kind of re-learning for them as the women now becoming a major part of their lives try to unravel decades of keeping tight lipped when it comes to vulnerability in an effort to find their way into their hearts.
As a mother I’ll confess I haven’t got a clue about teaching my sons how to be men in 2015, and I don’t think the men around me could confidently assert they do either. Even though men know expressing emotions is cathartic and necessary, they aren’t sure if they want to inspire the next generation of men to feel comfortable doing it and the potential pandora’s box it may open. One they’re ill-eqipped to deal with.
All I can teach my boys today as they progress into adulthood, is how to be good people and slowly but surely open their hearts to their partners in the future, and like all the generations before them, hope everything else falls into place.
Comment: Do you think the messages about how to parent boys are confusing?