Real men repress their emotions. Real men are self-reliant. Real men are aggressive and apathetic.
These are the messages we get about masculinity in our society. We get these messages from a variety of sources, including TV, film and computer and video games. And they come from a variety of people in our lives, including peers, parents and coaches, according to Ted Zeff, Ph.D, a psychologist and author of Raise An Emotionally Healthy Boy: Save Your Son From The Violent Boy Culture and The Strong Sensitive Boy: Help Your Son Become a Happy, Confident Man.
But these are false messages. And they can be detrimental, he said. Men are less likely to seek medical help. Repressing emotions can lead to health problems such as ulcers, high blood pressure and heart attacks, Zeff said.
It also sabotages relationships. As he said, “How can you have a good relationship if you’re emotionally repressed? How can you have a good relationship with your children if you can’t be open, compassionate, loving and express yourself?”
Zeff encourages parents, caregivers, coaches, relatives and mentors to stop perpetuating myths about manhood and start raising emotionally healthy, compassionate boys.
An emotionally healthy person is “someone who’s in touch with their inner self and expresses their full range of emotions, including sadness, fear and love,” he said. They have empathy toward others.
Emotionally healthy isn’t synonymous with powerless or pushover. It means being assertive, instead of aggressive, and setting limits.
Zeff provided 10 pointers for raising an emotionally healthy, compassionate and confident boy.
1. Explore your own beliefs and upbringing. Many men were raised on the old-fashioned belief that strength lies in stoicism. Consider if you’re perpetuating this myth, and what you can do to change it, Zeff said. To learn more, he suggested reading books such as William Pollack’s Real Boys : Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.
2. Make your home a safe space to express emotions. Give your son unconditional love and support, and never shame him for expressing his feelings, Zeff said. “When you blow it, tell him.” When you’ve made a parenting mistake, be honest with your child.
Because school can pressure boys into repressing their emotions, knowing they can safely express their feelings at home is even more important, he said.
3. Monitor your son’s exposure to violence. It’s hard raising a compassionate boy amid a cruel and violent culture. Monitor the media your child is consuming, including TV and the Internet. Let him play positive, nonviolent games, such as Guitar Hero, Zeff said.
4. Maintain a dialogue. “As boys get older, it’s harder to monitor their exposure [to the media], but we can always talk about it,” Zeff said. Talk to them about the images they see and the lyrics they hear. For instance, he said, you might ask, “What do these lyrics mean?” and “How will that affect you?”
5. Expose your son to positive things and real heroes. Expose him to other cultures and faiths, which fosters connection and avoids the us versus them mentality, Zeff said. “Watch movies and read books that show great spiritual male heroes, everyone from Christ to Moses to the Buddha.” Help them cultivate an appreciation for classical and other positive types of music.
If your son loves sports, tell him about real heroes. In Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy, Zeff features examples like tennis pro Arthur Ashe, who worked against apartheid in South Africa; football player Pat Tillman, who left his sports career to enlist in the U.S. Army; and baseball player Lyman Bostock, who donated his one-month salary to charity after only hitting .150.
6. Involve your son in compassionate acts. Take your son to volunteer, Zeff said. Work on helpful projects together. For instance, fathers and sons can work on a carpentry project to fix up a neighbor’s house, he said.
7. Avoid interrogating your son. “It takes boys a little longer sometimes to respond to questions,” Zeff said. So avoid putting your son on the spot. Instead, “be open and available. When they do want to come to you, listen to them, rather than lecture.”
8. Encourage your son’s input. “If you’re making rules, encourage your son to come up with input about family rules,” Zeff said. For instance, you can have family meetings. This shows your kids that you’re listening to them and taking their thoughts into consideration, he said. It also makes them “more willing to come to you when something difficult is happening in their life.”
9. Avoid criticizing your spouse in front of your son. If you’re divorced, it’s crucial for mom to avoid belittling dad in front of their son, Zeff said. Instead, “point out his good qualities.” Sons typically view their fathers as role models. Your son might develop a negative self-image and start emulating the part of dad you’re criticizing, he said.
10. Teach your son to set limits. Again, being emotionally healthy doesn’t mean letting others walk all over you. Teach your son to be assertive, stand up for righteous behavior, and not tolerate disrespectful behavior from others, Zeff said.
He includes this example in Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy: “That guy in your class has no right to laugh at you for being short. He just said that because he’s insecure and tried to put you down to make himself feel important. Let’s figure out some ways to deal with that type of behavior.” Parents can role-play with their kids and have them take a self-defense course.
It’s tough raising an emotionally healthy, respectful and compassionate son in a cruel culture that glorifies violence. But by listening to your son, showing him unconditional love and support and giving him permission to express all his feelings, you can help him transcend the distorted and damaging view of manhood.