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How to raise our sons with a full emotional life—from vulnerability to strength

Before having sons, I heard all the stereotypes. Boys are “noise with dirt,” all rough-and-tumble, love sports, etc. As with all stereotypes, these ideas hide an underlying truth—boys are complex human beings who experience the whole range of emotions.

In past generations, societal pressures put boys into a box of toughness in which they were scolded for experiencing sadness, pain or any type of vulnerability. Although I didn’t think I had bought into these male stereotypes, I have to admit I never completely saw their folly until having little boys of my own.

Having experienced immense sweetness, sensitivity and compassion from my boys, I now see why these stereotypes are so hazardous. Any mindset that limits a child’s emotional development is misguided and sets them up for not fully realizing their potential.

In our generation, most of us are trying to raise boys with a more fully developed emotional toolbox. However, we still hear and see those voices of the past telling us to make those boys “toughen up” and to “make them quit crying.”

So how are we to help our boys develop empathy, emotional regulation and a more balanced understanding of themselves?

Language matters

As with many aspects of parenting, language holds great power. How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. This goes for how they understand emotions as well.

New studies show that parents who describe to their children how other people might be feeling help foster emotional skills in the children like empathy. It may seem silly to describe how that child feels sad when he falls off the monkey bars, but for young children the feelings of others are not yet obvious like they are to us.

Set limits, not emotions

While we do need to set limits on behavior, it is not our role to limit their emotions.

This can be tricky in real life parenting situations. Putting boundaries on behavior involves setting expectations and following through on them. For example, kids are expected to sit correctly at the dinner table. However, trying to control their emotions would involve making them feel as though their emotions are not valid or important.

Ultimately, we all know we cannot really control our kids’ feelings anyway. In a nutshell, it is this balance between setting limits on behavior but doing so in an emotionally supportive way.

For all kids, this type of parenting provides the structure they need but also allows them enough independence to develop good emotional regulation skills.

Let them play

Some boys are known for having boundless amounts of energy. Unfortunately, many of today’s school systems do not allow for enough movement and exercise for active boys. Too many limits on movement cannot only affect their ability to concentrate in school, but it may also affect their emotional development.

At least one recent study showed that kids who were given more recess time where more empathetic towards their peers than those given less (or no) recess.

They key aspect of recess is that it is free play—that is kids are not organized into a team or following pre-set activities established by adults. Free play, in which kids have to negotiate their own rules or activities with one another, is the proving ground for true emotional development. Without adults controlling every aspect of their play, kids must learn to set their own limits and abide by the rules of the group.

Our generation of parents knows that raising kids has to include a great deal of emotional work. Both girls and boys develop best in a supportive environment in which they learn to cope with the powerful emotions they feel.

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting guru, but rather a translator of academic research into knowledge that parents can actually use.


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