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A new Northwestern research study found that boys are are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. It seems that disruptions in their lives have a far greater impact, whether it's a move, a divorce or reduced financial circumstances. This study cites a number of ways in which boys are falling behind more so than girls: fewer boys are graduating from high school, fewer boys attend college, and more of them are likely to have disciplinary problems and learning disabilities.
It's hard to understand why boys react in a more negative manner to disadvantage. There are, of course, multiple variables that could account for this. This study is consistent with earlier studies documenting boys' greater sensitivity to their environment. One of these studies in particular revealed that from birth, boys are more emotionally expressive. They use their bodies to make more gestures and communicate through sounds aimed at engaging others.
So why wouldn't these sensitivities be a plus for boys? These are skills we encourage in children. We want our kids to be attentive, engaged and interactive. Unfortunately, this level of emotional sensitivity runs counter to cultural stereotypes for masculinity. While it is fine for girls to be sensitively in touch with what's happening around them, it's not for boys. A recent interview with Psychologist Ronald Levant revealed that both moms and dads start limiting boys' expression of emotions early on. In fact, for boys, it's more emotional suppression than expression. Social stereotyping for boys means learning to be stoic, self reliant and aggressive. Softer emotions and vulnerability are discouraged. Boys are left to manage their emotions without support and comfort, and when they express vulnerability, they are subject to shame and ridicule. Boys don't cry, boys don't act like sissies, and they definitely don't act like girls. Their range of emotional expression is seriously curtailed. Boys can be competitive and seek leadership roles. They can be angry and even aggressive. We tolerate this and say "Well, boys will be boys." Boys can be boastful and cocky, but not vulnerable, ashamed or sad. Boys can to be protective, but not tender. In other words, according to the cultural stereotype of masculinity, boys only get half of what's available.
While parents can't do much about the prevailing stereotypes, they can counter much of this in their own home. One consistent result of the Northwestern research study is that families who invest more in children are protective for boys. This suggests that perhaps parental guidance can help boys expand what they believe about being male. Here are some ideas for encouraging boys to get comfortable with a full range of emotions:
- Help both boys and girls understand that all their feelings are okay. Help them identify their primary emotions. Make a chart of the primary emotions they can refer to and ask each day which feelings they felt.
- Counter the attitude that boys need to be strong and unemotional. It takes energy to suppress emotions, and that compressed energy can turn to aggression. Being able to express emotions helps release that energy and produce more positive behavior.
- Help boys feel at ease with being vulnerable. Life is full of disappointments, lost opportunities, and misunderstandings. It's important to acknowledge when something upsetting has happened, rather than deny that reality. Being in touch with our hurt, sadness or shame is human. Dealing with these feelings makes us sturdier and able to handle life's ups and downs with greater ease.
- Encourage emotional connection rather than isolation. Boys especially need to know it's okay to seek comfort, support and conversation when things are hard. It is through this kind of sharing that we begin to understand intimacy and trust. And we want boys to establish and build solid relationships with others.