In a culture that idealizes men as strong, competitive, violent and unfeeling, how do mothers raise their boys to be emotionally open, loving men?
"Moms need to continually counter negative media images with their own set of values," explains St. Louis Children's Hospital psychologist Catherine Hutter, Ph.D. "Without someone labeling, identifying and giving meaning and context to what they see and hear, little boys can lose their way and cut themselves off emotionally."
Dr. Hutter says she must practice what she advises at home with her own son. "It is really interesting what boys and girls can get out of the same Disney movie. My daughter will talk about the beautiful princess, and my son will talk about the sword fight. I find that boys need more reminders about different ways to handle anger and conflict," she says.
But delivering those reminders can be tricky. "Most boys don't respond to heart-to-heart talks the way girls do," Dr. Hutter says. Instead, Dr. Hutter encourages mothers to look for ways to connect through side-by-side activity. "Because boys tend to be action-oriented, they are more likely to open up after you've kicked the soccer ball around awhile or repaired a bike together. They will feel safer knowing you can speak their emotional language."
One mistake some mothers make is pulling back at the first sign that a young boy wants to pull away emotionally. "If you allow him to pull away and mask his feelings as a preschooler, it will be much more difficult to get him to open up as a teenager," Dr. Hutter says. "Like anything else, we need to practice sharing our feelings to be good at it." And, she says, boys need their mothers to lend guidance and serve as an emotional anchor.
Dr. Hutter agrees with experts who advise mothers to help boys develop an emotional vocabulary by reading and discussing events of the day. With her own son, she looks for opportunities to help him gain empathy. If he pushes a friend on the playground, she asks him how he feels when the same thing happens to him. When they see a fight on television, she reminds him that fighting can really hurt someone.
Raising boys to be emotionally open men might take a little extra effort, but Dr. Hutter says that watching sons grow into happy, emotionally secure men will be its own reward. She adds that your son's future partners will thank you, as well.