A young man is so strong, so mad, so certain, and so lost.
He has everything and he is able to use nothing.
--Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River
Emotional Literacy: Education versus Ignorance
If you ask a boy the question "How did that make you feel?" he very often won't know how to respond. He'll talk instead about what he did or plans to do about the problem. Some boys don't even have the words for their feelings--sad or angry or ashamed, for instance. A large part of our work with boys and men is to help them understand their emotional life and develop an emotional vocabulary. We begin by helping them increase their clarity about their feelings and those of others--recognizing them, naming them, and learning where they come from. We try to teach them emotional literacy--the ability to read and understand our emotions and those of others.
This process is much like learning to read. First we must master the letters and sounds of the alphabet, then use that knowledge to decode words and sentences. As we begin to comprehend and appreciate increasingly complex thoughts, we are able to communicate more effectively with others. Eventually, reading connects us to a larger world, beyond our own, of experiences and ideas.
Similarly, learning emotional literacy involves recognizing the look and feel of our emotions, then using this skill to better understand ourselves and others. We learn to appreciate life's emotional complexity, and this enhances all our professional and personal relationships, helping us to strengthen the connections that enrich our lives.
We build emotional literacy, first, by being able to identify and name our emotions; second, by recognizing the emotional content of voice and facial expression, or body language; and third, by understanding the situations or reactions that produce emotional states.1 By this we mean becoming aware of the link between loss and sadness, between frustration and anger, or threats to pride or self-esteem and fear. In our experience with families, we find that most girls get lots of encouragement from an early age to be emotionally literate--to be reflective and expressive of their own feelings and to be responsive to the feelings of others. Many boys do not receive this kind of encouragement, and their emotional illiteracy shows, at a young age, when they act with careless disregard for the feelings of others at home, at school, or on the playground. Mothers are often shocked by the ferocity of anger displayed by little boys, their sons of four or five who shout in their faces, or call them names, or even try to hit them. One of the most common complaints about boys is that they are aggressive and "seem not to care." We have heard the same complaint from veteran teachers who are stunned by the power of boy anger and disruption in their classes. Too often, adults excuse this behavior as harmless "immaturity," as if maturity will arrive someday--like puberty--to transform a boy's emotional life. But we do boys no favor by ignoring the underlying absence of awareness. Boys' emotional ignorance clearly imposes on others, but it costs them dearly, too. Lacking an emotional education, a boy meets the pressures of adolescence and that singularly cruel peer culture with the only responses he has learned and practiced--and that he knows are socially acceptable--the typically "manly" responses of anger, aggression, and emotional withdrawal.
When we first began working with and speaking about boys, a large part of our task was to convince skeptical parents and educators of a truth we knew from our years of experience as therapists: that boys suffer deeply as a result of the destructive emotional training our culture imposes upon them, that many of them are in crisis, and that all of them need help. 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.
Excerpted from Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Copyright© 1999 by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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