I have a rather large idea in my head, but I haven't been able to straighten it out in such a way that it makes comprehensive sense. Sometimes, when we encounter a thorough and intractable knot, it is better to unravel one small piece at a time than it is to attempt to straighten the whole thing out at once.
I want to tackle the matter in pieces, to see whether that straightens things. I'm not fully confident in where I'm going with this line of inquiry, so take this blog post in that spirit. Don't nail me to my every claim here. Let's see if we can improve the state of the knot, even if only slightly. These are the front lines of my ideation.
Let me begin with something that should hopefully be the least controversial aspect of the whole matter.
The stereotype says that men and boys are less emotional than women and girls. The stereotype says that boys are pushed into a kind of machismo that hamstrings their emotional sensitivity, rendering them incapable of communicating their emotions in a healthy way, i.e. in the same way that women do it. This culturally enforced strangulation of emotional connectivity, so the argument goes, causes all kinds of mental problems for the men, and can cause them to lash out at women in all manner of problematic ways. According to this argument, the solution is to foster emotional sensitivity in young boys while they are children, so that they can grow into the kind of emotionally sensitive men we want them to be.
I think this argument is partially correct. I think boys are discouraged from being outwardly over-emotional. I think they are discouraged from crying and from talking a lot about their feelings. I also think spending more time guiding young boys through their emotions would make them better off as men. These aspects of the argument ring true to me.
By the same token, I think it's unreasonable to use female emotional sensitivity as a template for how boys and men should behave. I also think that there are a whole slew of female-concentrated emotional problems that males mostly avoid, because their behaviors are less inclined to cultivate those problems. It is also not clear to me that so-called "toxic masculinity" stems directly from matters of emotional sensitivity.
So, first this: Boys are encouraged to be masculine, and I think that is mostly appropriate. If a boy is just dead-set on rejecting anything that looks like traditional masculinity, I don't think his life ought to be made miserable. To the extent that boys want to self-actualize as men, though, I think they ought to be encouraged in that endeavor. To the extent that boys endeavor to be courageous, strong-willed, physically dominant, confident, and self-determined, I think they should be encouraged. To the extent that they sometimes waver in their endeavor, I think they ought to be pushed, lead, guided, and cheered-on. We should help boys who want to become men, become men.
Second, this: Emotional awareness, emotional intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and the possession of a language with which to discuss emotions are all vital for good mental health. This is as true for men and boys as it is for women and girls. We do boys a disservice if we do anything to discourage them from obtaining and using knowledge of their own emotions. It's not as if boys don't have emotions. Even the most macho of men experience the full spectrum of human emotion. And because emotion is a bellwether of psychological activity, boys and men need to recognize what's going on with their emotions so the matters can be dealt with in a healthy and appropriate way.
Third, this: Emotion is one of the areas of human psychology in which males really and truly differ from females. Although men and women both experience the same set of emotions, those experiences are different for the sexes. This matters because boys want to be men, not women. They will tend to reject any solution that is geared toward girls. They don't want to be girls. There is no use wringing hands over it. People want to be the gender with which they identify. (Leave aside discussions of non-binary sexuality as exceptional cases for the time being.)
Fourth and finally, this: Given the above, female emotional health cannot serve as a template for male emotional health. Rather than trying to teach boys to handle emotions more like girls do, we ought to be clarifying how an emotionally intelligent but masculine man handles his emotions. Rather than encouraging boys to talk about their feelings the way girls do, we should make an effort to discover and understand the language of human emotion that is unique to men, and teach that language to boys, so that they can grow up to be well-adjusted men, not emotionally intelligent men who discuss emotions like their mothers.
In the unraveling of this great knot I have been thinking about, the first point I think needs to be made is that men and women experience emotions differently, and that an emotionally intelligent man will behave differently than an emotionally intelligent woman. While it is true that boys are often discouraged from becoming emotionally intelligent as they journey toward manhood, it is not true that their emotional needs will be satisfied by a template of mental health first established by women. Boys don't need to be more like girls, they need to be more like emotionally successful people; especially where those people are men.
Thus, we ought to endeavor to teach boys how to be emotionally intelligent men.
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