More silence. This is really hard for these boys, even the ones who usually have all the answers in class. They squirm in their seats uncomfortably trying to come up with something that will get them out of this discussion. It's no use. They're stumped.
If a boy this age were unable to decipher the alphabet or read any better than this, every adult in his life would recognize that he needed help. But emotional illiteracy is so pervasive among boys that no one notices until something drastic happens. It takes a schoolyard shooting, a hole kicked in a wall, a drunk driving arrest, or a suicide for a boy's emotional needs to get anyone's attention. For adults, the question might be: "Do boys have to cry--or run or crash or kill, even kill themselves--before we suspect that something is wrong, that they might be hurting?"
Is it any wonder, then, that so many boys seem so emotionally bereft or limited? How can they be so oblivious to others' feelings? What happens to boys that denies them full access to the world of feelings?
All Boys Are Born with Emotional Potential
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 ..." The 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.
When researchers compare men and women or boys and girls on their emotional awareness, understanding, and expression, males almost invariably finish second. If boys and girls are given a series of pictures of faces showing different expressions, boys generally will be less accurate in their identification of the emotions that are being displayed. In therapy one of the most common complaints we hear from women about men is that men so often seem oblivious to the hurt feelings or emotional needs of others. Many men readily acknowledge that the generalization is true: they do prefer to avoid emotional people and situations. That doesn't mean, however, that men lack the "wiring" for expressing or understanding emotion. Newborn boys, on average, are actually more emotionally reactive than girls. For example, studies show that baby boys cry more than baby girls when they are frustrated or upset.
Despite those expressive beginnings, the overall pattern is that--with the possible exception of anger, regarding which the research results are inconclusive--as boys get older, they express less emotion. This is true when they are observed in natural settings or when they are observed watching slides or film of emotionally arousing situations. Leslie Brody, a leading authority on gender differences, describes this as a "developmental shift in which males become less facially expressive of emotions with age, whereas females become more so.
So boys don't show as much emotion. But does that mean that boys actually feel less? There is evidence that they may feel more. When heart rate or skin conductance--sweaty palms--are measured in emotionally arousing situations, there is no consistent pattern of differences between girls' and boys' responses. Studies that have shown a difference suggest that boys may react to a greater, not lesser, degree. Other research findings suggest that when boys get emotionally aroused, they may do less well at managing their emotion. In an intriguing study by Richard Fabes and Nancy Eisenberg at the University of Arizona, researchers played a tape of a baby crying to a group of kindergarten and second-grade boys and girls and monitored their physiological and behavioral reactions.3 Specifically, they noted whether the child tried to eliminate the troubling sound by turning off the speaker or to soothe the baby in a manner that had been demonstrated previously by an adult--talking to the baby over the speaker.
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