How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy.
Repressing their emotions. Self-reliant. Aggressive. Apathetic. Strong.
Does this description remind you of anything?
Social psychologists have pointed out that these are the messages that we receive from society about masculinity. And although false, they are held in high esteem for many people. Dr Ted Zeff (author of Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy” and The Strong Sensitive Boy) writes that men are less likely to seek medical help, and that repressing emotions has often led to physical health problems. This shows the negative effect that our view of masculinity is having on the men in our society.
Zeff also believes that this will go on to influence relationships; it is very difficult to maintain a good relationship when you are emotionally repressed. This also includes the father-son relationship.
With this in mind, Zeff has made a list of 10 pointers for parents to raise an emotionally healthy son:
1.) Explore your own beliefs and upbringing.
Be careful not to embody the old fashioned views that strength is borne from stoicism. A suggested book to take a look at is William Pollock‘s Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood for some ideas on how to do this.
2.) Make your home a safe space to express emotions.
Your son needs love and support, it’s important to be there for him unconditionally, and admit when you make a parenting mistake. Be honest. This will increase his understanding.
Further than this, as the typical school tends to encourage boys not to express their emotions, it is important that they feel they can express themselves at home. They need to feel safe, and encouraged.
3.) Monitor your son’s exposure to violence.
While this one is probably tricky – there is a vast amount of violent media out there even for a child – it is quite important. Zeff suggests monitoring the media your child uses (Tv, Internet, Games etc) and allow him to play more positive game, that are not violent, such as guitar hero.
4.) Maintain a dialogue.
While monitoring your child’s violent media intake can be difficult – especially as he becomes older – when it fails, you can always talk to him about it. According to Zeff, talking about images and lyrics they are exposed to helps your child to understand complex concepts, and gives you a chance to discuss the implications these may have on his life.
5.) Expose your son to positive things and real heroes.
Be sure to introduce your son to different cultures and faiths in ways which encourage him to avoid the use of us versus them mentality. This can be easily done through watching TV shows and movies, and reading books that involve spiritual male heroes (such as Moses, or the Buddha).
You can also further this by telling your son about real heroes that are linked to what he is interested in (music, science etc). For example, if he is interested in sport, talk to him about people like Arthur Ashe, the pro tennis player who worked against apartheid in South Africa. (Zeff features more examples in his book Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy).
6.) Involve your son in compassionate acts.
Try to encourage your son to be compassionate, by involving him in situations that require compassion. Volunteer work, or working on helpful projects together can help him develop a sense of compassion, as well as to help him develop as a person.
An example of this, put forward by Zeff, is helping his father to work on a carpentry project to fix up a neighbours house.
7.) Avoid interrogating your son.
Boys can actually take a bit longer to respond to questions, so try to be open to this, and available for them when they need you. Listen to your son, try not to lecture him.
8.) Encourage your son’s input.
This can be a part of every day life for your family; you can encourage input in the making of rules, family meetings, family outing, the list is endless. This will make them feel like they are being listened to and their opinions are being considered. This will help to increase a sense of self worth, as well as help them to come to you when they need to (also improving point number 7).
9.) Avoid criticizing your spouse in front of your son.
This deals with divorced parents especially, but even with a couple it is important that you do not put down your son’s father in front of him. It is likely that your son see’s him as a role model, and so criticizing him can contribute to negative self image on your son’s part, and he may even go on to emulate these qualities that you are criticizing. This may be hard, but it is important to try and point out the positive qualities – remember, you liked him enough to have a child with him, there must be something good about him.
10.) Teach your son to set limits.
With all the other steps in mind, it is important that your son does not let people walk all over him. He does still need to be taught to be assertive, to stand up for what is right, and not to tolerate disrespectful behaviour, says Zeff. An example of this (included in Zeff’s book Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy) is to explain the behaviours of others: “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 behaviour.”
Role playing and self-defense classes are also a way to encourage this.
Zeff believes that it is important for parents and caregivers to stop contributing to the stereotypes of manhood, and to encourage their sons to be emotionally healthy and compassionate.
Personally, I believe that Zeff has some very influential ideas, that I have witnessed in my own family. My Aunt, Stacey*, has managed to raise the most emotionally healthy and compassionate 9 year old boy, *Leo, that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Although I am not explicitly aware of the parenting techniques she used, I do know that she has followed many of Zeff’s pointers. Leo is encouraged to be open with his emotions, and the bond between him and Stacey is visible to people who don’t even know them. Stacey is very honest with him, in fact she raised him as a vegetarian, and honestly answered any questions he had about meat and animals. However, when Leo grew up he wanted to try eating meat himself, and he was allowed to.
This, I believe, has resulted in Leo growing to be an exceptional young boy. He is excelling in school, and is taking classes in the things that he struggles with. And he is a delight to be in the company of. As all children, he can be testy at times, but that’s is just a part of growing up – and lets face it, life.
*these names are changed for privacy.
Written by: Philippa Berry
Published: 26th February 2013