On the March 20th NPR show “1A” the entire hour was devoted to the topic of how to raise boys. The now infamous Gillette commercial and the controversies it precipitated was the impetus for the show’s topic. A common theme from the invited guests was how boys are taught to suppress their feelings and how destructive this is to the boy. The conclusion reached was that if a boy cries in the presence of other boys he will be bullied and ridiculed. A young man who was a guest on the show told of falling in gym class scraping his knee and holding back tears because he didn’t want to embarrass himself. The thrust of his story was that boys are taught not to cry. My problem with the example is that if a girl fell in gym class I believe she would have also felt the pressure not to cry. At least for handling physical discomfort not crying is a shared norm by both genders. The notion that boys get the message that “boys/men don’t cry” is a culturally imposed norm that leads men to emotional denial and stuffed feelings that get expressed through self harm and violence is far from accurate. Whining and crying is far from the best strategy in dealing with a strong emotional feeling. Yes, it is probably true for some men but the reality is that not overtly expressing a strong emotion is not equivalent to not experiencing that emotion and not dealing with it in a healthy manner. Being self aware of one’s emotional state and using rational thought to understand the emotion and taking action, when indicated, to figure out the best way to respond to that feeling is manly. Instead of telling boys to just let it out and not be afraid to cry we should be teaching emotional intelligence and utilizing our thoughtfulness to understand what our emotions are telling us.
The show guests also talked about empathy and how men are allegedly taught that being manly means that when men perceive vulnerability in another man they will automatically dominate and shame the weaker or overtly suffering man. Again, I believe this to be a misinterpretation of how men express empathy. Men are highly empathetic but handle it differently than women. For example, men who have experienced combat often state that their motivation to fight and to protect their fellow soldiers is not about loyalty to country or a higher cause but the attachment and fellowship with their comrades. Male empathy is often expressed in acts of protection. One protects when they sense the need in others to be protected. Isn’t that empathy?
One of the guests stated that, “gender norms are getting in the way of boys being good human beings.” This speaks to the question I raised in my last blog. Is there a difference between what constitutes a good man or good woman as compared to being a good human? To begin to answer this difficult question I offered my take on how a man acts responsibly that is different from how a women acts responsibly. Another trait of being a good human being is being supportive. Men are often supportive as mentors and fixers. Teaching and modeling to other men, particularly to younger men, is an example of men supporting other men. Women tend to support by listening and expressing sympathy with less of an emphasis on problem solving and fixing. As we strive to be good human beings understanding that achieving this personal goal will look differently for men and women.