Unboxing the Boys

I listened to a great NPR podcast with Barack Obama over my outdoor lunch today. He reflected on, among other things, the changing face of masculinity and manhood at this moment in history.

Before I go on, I just have to share this: When I first considered launching my podcast, I put both Obama and Bruce Springsteen on my “ultimate guest” list. And dang, they one-upped me and went ahead and did a program together!

Such nerve.

One of the many bits the former president and Art of Power host Aarti Shahani touched on was a distinct approach often taken in boys. I’d paraphrase it as follows:

“Lads, here’s a prescription for how and what you need to be.”

Because this is my area of expertise, curiosity and endless study, I was delighted to hear what Obama had to say. (I mean, who doesn’t love it when a president of the U.S. of A. is singing their song?)

I was also reminded that there’s a whole lot of work yet to be done if ever there is going to be a change.

Obama also touched on men and their relationship to empathy, listening and self-reflection.

It’s that parenting approach that really caught me, though. I see and hear it so often in my clients and groups that, when it came up in the interview, it was like the familiar ring of a phone or bell.

Only not in a good way.

All of us have messages broadcast at us from the moment we’re born. Many of those messages take root at such a deep level that we’re unaware of how much influence they have until, having run headlong into enough walls to pop some welds, we step back and begin to ask questions about what’s rattling around and, hopefully, we seek help.

Some of the more insidious messages boys receive and carry into manhood include those that force them to push aside all but a narrow band of emotional operating space, their own self-expression and, in the most extreme cases, the capacity for empathy.

If one is raised in a way that insists that they discount and/or entirely disown their own emotions, how likely are they to develop the capacity to recognize, much less value, the feelings of others?

What I can tell you is that I’ve lost count of the number of men who’ve said to me, “I don’t know what I’m feeling”, often followed by “How do I learn…?”

Let me start by addressing those with young kids at home: Be mindful of what you tell your little ones regarding what the future holds for them and how they need to shape (or contort) themselves to meet it.

While it’s easy to slip into telling our boys they need to be tough, rational, stoic providers, that ain’t the whole story, nor is it a hard, immutable rule of nature.

It’s an opinion about a future that, if we’re honest, we know nothing about.

Why not tell all of our kids, as Barack Obama mentioned he and Michelle did with their daughters, that they get to be who and how they want, rather than who and how we want to mold them?

I often tell a story of witnessing a father admonishing his distraught four-year-old son, telling him “Big boys don’t cry” followed up by the saccharine leading question, “You want to be a big boy, don’t you?”

Of course, four-year-old children aren’t big anything, but those messages are remarkably sticky. It’s not much of a stretch to connect the dots between the little kid who wasn’t allowed to cry and the middle-aged man who can’t stay present with his wife’s emotions.

Emotions are a key part of the human operating system.

Are they messy?


Do they help us make sense of ourselves, our fellow human beings and our world?

I sure think so.

Is it time to stop squeezing our sons into stoic, emotionally stunted boxes?

It sure is.