Lately I’ve been intrigued by how we deal with the emotions of our children, and particularly when they are feeling emotions of pain. How do we respond as fathers, and what sort of impact does our response have? Does telling our sons to “man up” develop emotional maturity?
Protect the Girls, Chastise the Boys?
Early on as a father, you’re confronted with your children’s emotions. Not only do we have to manage our emotions and how we respond, but we have to teach them how to manage their own emotions. How do we raise emotionally healthy children who can deal with the ups and downs of life? One area I think a lot of men go wrong is in our response to emotions of pain, and especially when it comes to our sons.
For a lot of men, our default reaction for our sons is different than our daughters. A lot of men feel a desire to protect, be strong, and be dependable. When my daughter is hurt and crying, I want to scoop her up and be that rock of comfort. When or sons get hurt, we often have a different reaction. Shake it off. Stop crying. You’re fine. Or the always popular, Man Up!
I understand where that response comes from. We want to teach our sons to be strong men who people can depend on, but what does that response teach our sons about their feelings? Are we thinking through the implications of that response?
Not All Crying is the Same
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. I’ve always been really good at dealing with baby crying. When a baby cries, they need something, and there aren’t emotions driving that crying. Yet many times, us adults turn it into an emotional thing. When the baby is fed, changed, and lying in the crib crying, maybe it’s because they’re tired and don’t want to lay in the crib? Many new parents run themselves ragged by over-thinking the crying of their newborn. You’re already on emotional overload, and while you should respond when your baby needs you, some perspective is necessary.
Something happens as they get older. Those primal “I need something” cries go away, and get replaced with “I feel hurt” cries. Those cries can be rooted in physical or emotional pain. It might be legitimate or not, but when we respond to their pain, they’re learning how to deal with those emotions.
What’s Best for Him, Not Me
When my oldest was a toddler, I remember having to make a conscious effort to be comfortable with him crying. I’d consider this the stereotypical male reaction, where a crying son makes us uncomfortable. It’s like we have an instinct to get the crying to stop as soon as possible, because as soon as it stops, that pain will be gone. We fixed it! Or there’s an element of boys/men aren’t supposed to cry, and when your son does that, there’s something that doesn’t sit right.
In a parenting class at church, I came to the realization that my wanting to squelch that crying and show of emotions wasn’t for his benefit, but for mine. I think there are a lot of reasons we do this. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to raise a “cry baby.” This knee-jerk reaction tends to be very “us” centered.
When I stopped to think about what he needed, I realized that he was hurting, and I needed to be there for him. It doesn’t even matter if the pain is real or not, when you’re 3 or 4 years old, you don’t know how to deal with being hurt. What you need is a mom and dad that provide comfort and understanding, not judgement and coldness.
Sweeping It Under the Rug Doesn’t Make It Hurt Less
That default reaction of stop crying and toughen up teaches our sons that there is something wrong with feeling pain. We’re teaching them from a very young age that when they feel bad, you take those emotions and sweep it under the rug. You don’t deal with your emotions, you hide them.
None of us wants to raise “wimpy” sons. I don’t want a 20 year old son that goes on a date, and turns into a blubbering mess at a restaurant if they don’t have what he wants. I want a son that can deal with his emotions in a healthy way, but he must learn how. Emotionally immature children grow into emotionally mature adults by learning to process and control their emotions. Pain must be processed, not put away. This reaction we have to tell our sons to suck it up and stop hurting isn’t teaching them to process their emotions, it’s telling them that those emotions are bad. Put them away, don’t show them, and don’t have them again.
That’s a recipe for cranking out adult men that don’t know how to deal with their emotional hurts. This can mean disaster in a marriage. When a husband feels wronged by his wife, when he loses his job, or when he loses a loved one. He chooses how to deal with those feelings. If he doesn’t talk about and process them, what happens? Those feelings bounce around inside, and manifest in other ways, like depression or resentment.
For men that don’t want to express emotions, it’s hard because it takes a lot of vulnerability to change those patterns. It doesn’t make you less of a man, it makes you an honest man.
Progressing In Our Emotional Maturity
My oldest is nine years old, and not all hurts are equal. In regards to physical pain, while you don’t have to baby them and talk to them like they’re a toddler, you don’t need to shut them down and make them feel bad for being hurt. When my son gets hit in the head by a baseball, he’s physically hurting. Telling him to grow up and stop crying only gives him another thing that hurts. Dads, get over yourself and your discomfort for the next five minutes. On the other hand, crying because our favorite sweater is still in the washing machine is a bit of an overreaction.
So how am I approaching the emotional maturing of my kids? Physical pain is met with hugs and love. On the other hand, if baby brother accidentally bumps into someone, and they start yelling and screaming like he cut a finger off, then you get a little less sympathy. Emotional pain is met with questions. How do you feel? Why do you feel that way? What should you do about it? We should be asking them the introspective questions that we want them to ask themselves as they mature. They need to hear these questions, and over time, they’ll be able to ask them on their own.
Don’t make your kids feel bad for feeling bad. Love them, teach them, and help them learn to cope with the future pains of life. Those coping skills don’t develop out of fear and shame. The ability to process our emotions develops when we have space to feel those emotions, and work through them without being judged.
Raising children is messy business. Emotions are messy. No one ever cleaned up a mess by ignoring it. If you want to see progress, get dirty, and put in the time. The next time your son has a physical or emotional mess, forget about what you want, and ask yourself, what do they need?
Photo Credit to familytreasures.