Photo courtesy of Jamie Street
How to Raise Boys to Be
It’s a myth that boys are born less emotionally complex than girls. What is true, says LA-based psychotherapist Shira Myrow, is this is learned over time. We raise boys in a culture that continues to perpetuate that myth—and the result is that boys often learn to shut down their feelings earlier. “A gap in the capacity to express and articulate feelings—but also listen—profoundly affects intimate relationships,” Myrow says. “I see it every day with couples: Men come in with a huge deficit. They don’t have language for their emotions, and so they can’t decipher what their partners are trying to communicate underneath their emotional reactivity.”
Myrow works to help the men in her practice slow everything down and start at the beginning, which requires learning how to become emotionally attuned, engaged, and responsive to their partners. She believes, too, that this is a meaningful step we can take as parents to sensitize our sons to be become more compassionate, more emotionally intelligent. In other words, these are the steps it takes to be mindful.
Raising Emotionally Intelligent Boys
Having emotional intelligence is equivalent to possessing a social superpower. Learning to pay attention and attune to what’s happening for you internally can help you communicate much more effectively and authentically—in all of your relationships. We may come to understand this only as adults, but we can help our children gradually build these tools for themselves.
It’s also time to dispel the myths our culture gives to boys. They are often taught that expressing their emotions makes them appear weak and vulnerable and that sexual conquest is more important than respecting a sexual partner’s boundaries. Those two myths are linked. There’s a lot in the culture—especially porn—that contributes to internalized distortions around sex and women. When we objectify others, we cut ourselves off from our own humanity, from our own moral compass. It obscures what real sex and intimacy look like. We move into a dissociative place that prevents us from seeing one another as vulnerable, complex human beings.
As parents, we have to accept that we have way less influence than previous generations did when it comes to educating our children about sex. Social media and the internet present exponentially more competition. That’s in addition to their social peer group, which naturally takes on more importance as they seek belonging and connection with kids their age. But we can educate ourselves first about the influences our children are exposed to, and we can provide alternative information while being mindful of our own anxiety. That said, it’s no easy task.
Tackling that challenge starts with an intention to overcome our own squeamishness about sex and dating in today’s world and normalize conversation about them. Casually ask your kids questions about what they’re seeing online or at school and how it makes them feel to get them thinking and talking to you. Conversation is absolutely critical. (Dr. Gail Dines is doing incredible work in this field, and she offers free scripts and questions for parents to broach the discussion, walking anxious parents through the entire process.)
Mindfulness practice is really useful in creating emotional intelligence, especially for boys. It can give them a simple process to identify the difference between emotions, thoughts, and sensations so they can become more responsive and self-aware. Mindfulness also helps us regulate our difficult feelings and impulses. Instead of shaming kids, we can teach them to gently sit with their feelings and hold the discomfort until it passes.
You can invite your teens to observe their thoughts, emotions, and sensations—instead of emotionally reacting like a pinball machine to every emotion that comes. To view emotions as if they were looking at a snow globe, noticing how the snow particles can initially swirl and then slowly settle. That’s the first step. Reassure them that all feelings come and go—and often with great intensity in the moment. But we don’t have to overidentify with any emotion as a permanent state.
The next step is to become curious about our emotions and try to name the feelings that arise instead of suppressing them. Once you can name your feeling and get clarity, you can make a much more conscious decision about how you want to respond in any kind of situation. Mindfulness fosters compassion, self-compassion, empathy, and acceptance—relational values that are critical for building healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships with others. You’re learning to listen to the value present in the emotion. What’s the emotion that initially arises? What’s your knee-jerk reaction? What’s behind the fear? And then: What would a thoughtful, compassionate response be?
Here’s an example: If your teen is doing something with their friends that they know is wrong or not respectful of another person but they feel pressured into by their friends, you might point out that the anxiety or even anger they feel is a sign that they’re not in alignment with their integrity and this could be a moment to assert a boundary. That means having the courage to say no despite being afraid of social rejection. I often suggest hypothetical moral dilemmas with my sons while driving in the car to get them thinking about these kinds of situations in a no-pressure environment. Once they get into a basic understanding of how to use mindful awareness with their emotions, they can use it to tolerate the discomfort and confusion they can feel around sex and sexuality, which can be incredibly vulnerable and hard to talk about.
TOOLS FOR PARENTS
Ongoing communication: Engage in open-ended questions about healthy masculinity, mutual consent, the complex feelings that can come up around sex, and respectful and direct communication in relationships. Accept that you may feel as awkward, anxious, and ambivalent as your teens do. They probably won’t initially want to talk with you. But try anyway.
Don’t shame or blame them: That’s the quickest way to shut your children down. I love the sex educator Emily Nagoksi. She provides a wealth of wonderful information for late-teen and college-age kids, especially about female sexuality.
Be sex-positive: Frame sexual experience as a natural, necessary part of human development. It’s natural to be curious, to have strong urges and strong feelings. It’s part of our common humanity. Sex doesn’t have to be split off from all the other conversations around maturity. Sex-positivity necessarily includes an understanding around explicit consent, integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.
Understand the difference between influence and control: You want to help your children critically assess what they’re watching in the culture—be it a TV show or porn or the news. Unpack the conversations they’re having with friends and be aware of how much peer pressure shapes and influences their expectations. Trying to issue blanket moral edicts or control their behavior through shame and guilt is going to backfire. As difficult as this sounds, allow them to learn from their experience and make their own mistakes. They need to discover and experiment and fail—especially in relationships. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to spare your kids from suffering, but it’s through the suffering that a new awareness or understanding can emerge.
Model emotional intimacy: Authenticity, respect, vulnerability, compassion, and curiosity about the other. There’s a lot of fear around committed relationships, but healthy ones can offer so much support, love, security, and connection.
It’s critical we stop perpetuating the unnatural split between feeling and expression in boys—it’ll be better for them, and for all of us.
Shira Myrow is a mindfulness-based marriage and family therapist and meditation teacher. Myrow is the founder of the LA-based Yale Street Therapy Group and the curriculum director for Evenflow, a meditation platform and app.