Emotional Literacy for Boys: Raising Cain

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This post is inspired by an article recently posted here On Men’s Pain and Transformation by Tim Walker.

If you haven’t yet heard of or read the book Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, allow me to introduce you to it now.

As a daughter, sister, friend and lover, being in relationship with men and touching on or encountering their pain can be somewhat mysterious in terms of how to best engage with varying levels of emotional literacy. This is not to say that as women we don’t fumble in the emotional realm. What I appreciate about Tim’s article is the voice of personal experience, speaking to pressure, at a very early age to project a particular image as a boy. That interior realm of emotion and pain can seem like a vast untouchable Universe for anyone outside of it. Raising Cain speaks to this, not only pointing to boy’s propensity towards hiding this from others or themselves, but to our culture’s propensity towards being blind to it.

Perhaps because men enjoy so much power and prestige in society, there is a tendency to view boys as shoo-ins for future success and to diminish the importance of any problems they might experience in childhood. There is a tendency to presume that a boy is self-reliant, confident, and successful, not emotional and needy. People often see in boys signs of strength where there are none, and they ignore often mountainous evidence that they are hurting.

As a mother of a young son, this cultural blind spot around emotional literacy in boys is of great concern. Particularly as I am let into the interior worlds of men both personally and as a professional coach, seeing the impact that an early education in emotional literacy, or lack thereof, has on every aspect of a man’s adult life, this concern becomes a primary directive in how I want to parent my child who, at this stage is very clearly a full feeling, emotional being. Early in this book, they speak to the presumption that this is uncommon in boys.

One of the most common disclaimers we hear from mothers talking about a problem their son is having is this: “I know my son is sensitive, but..."                                                                                      This inference is, of course, that most boys aren’t sensitive and that her son is somehow different because he is. That’s something our culture would have us believe but it’s not true. All boys have feelings. They’re often treated as if they don’t. They often act as if they don’t. But all boys are born with the potential for a full range of emotional experience.”

Not only would I recommend this book to anyone parenting or otherwise in relationship with boys, but to anyone wanting to better understand this cultural phenomenon and gain useful tools in supporting emotional literacy. I do wonder if for grown men encountering pain and struggling with how to transform it, such a book may help to reconcile the challenges that were faced in childhood and help build a new relationship to and expand language and understanding around their own emotional landscape.

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