An adorable toddler who is about to be vaccinated twice is totally unaware of what is to come. The mix of his dad's gentle voice and the toddler's sweet replies is heartwarming. After the needles are seamlessly given the little boy slowly comes to the reality of what just happened. There is much congratulating and requests for high fives to assuage the youngster as his happy face morphs into sadness and tears.
And then the words spill out: "Don't cry!....Aw, big boy! High five, high five! Say you're a man!"
What does "Say you're a man" mean to a toddler?
I recall waiting with other parents for our kids to emerge from our local library's beloved story time one summer afternoon. The session was about half over when a little boy came out holding hands with the librarian. He was crying and wanted to go home. It was his first story time experience. His dad crouched down and took his son's hand, quickly tried to comfort him, and the wording went like this: "Aw, little man, go back in. It's okay. You'll have fun. Go ahead. C'mon, boys don't cry. Boys don't cry." The little boy continued to cry. His dad gently picked him up, kissed him, and said once more "Boys don't cry" and left.
Everything the dad did was loving, supportive but the words didn't match. Why don't boys cry? They have tear ducts and emotions just like girls. Why "don't" they cry?
In his NYTimes article, titled "The Masculine Mystique: Teaching Students to Look Beyond Die-Hard Stereotypes," professor Andrew Reiner assists students with tracing emotional honesty in men and what the influences are that can develop or stifle it.
The vaccine video was submitted by a student in the Towson University's Honors College seminar as an example of how boys are often taught to redirect their emotions. Instead of saying, "I know that hurts," "I see you are in pain," "I'm sorry that makes you sad," as a way to empathize with the child, the inference to "be a man" is often the default.
This is not a criticism of the parent. It is an example of what we thoughtlessly reach for when trying to help a child in distress. It shows that our default language often is at odds with our intention. I believe the dad wants to help his son in every way. I also believe he is influencing the boy's emotional learning to be more about toughness than about how to handle pain.
As noted in Reiner's article, the video ends with "the whimpering toddler screwing up his face in anger and pounding his chest. 'I'm a man!' he barks through tears and gritted teeth." Teaching our boys how to handle emotion through anger lays the groundwork for a sad detachment that harms not only males, but the females who are part of their lives.
If we are detached from our emotions, then we don't have to deal with them. Regardless of gender, this is where the train of human connection gets derailed. If our toddlers are taught to substitute bravado for feeling true feelings, how does this serve them as human beings? Reiner notes colleges are attempting to teach men how to "think beyond their own stereotypes" as national trends show males gradually falling behind in studies as they age.
The professor cites a report based on a book titled, "The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools," in which sociologists Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann observe: "Boys' under-performance in school has more to do with society's norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure." Reiner adds his thoughts, "By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seeded gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of having to prove an identity to your self and others."
This trend, like all trends, is not a blanket statement but a focus on the direction of male tough guy stereotyping. It mirrors the "princess behavior" stereotype girls are often handed.
As the summer Olympics wind down, we have received eyefuls of powerful, intense, kind, graceful, athleticism in sports alongside thoughtless, arrogant behavior outside of the competition. How are the seeds of these behaviors nurtured? The physical training is paramount but what sort of emotional training, if any, is taking place and when?
"Be a man."
"Boys don't cry."
Instead, let's lead with,"It's okay to be human."
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMxzEUrWaKM
Article link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/education/edlife/teaching-men-to-be-emotionally-honest.html?_r=0