Exploring the link between gender and emotional expression
August 31, 2016
August 31, 2016
Filmmaker Ivan Reitman sat centre stage, in the spotlight for a change. The Toronto International Film Festival was celebrating the work of the legendary Canadian comedy director, and an audience of a few hundred people hung on his every word. His son, Jason, himself a filmmaker of note, was interviewing him. When the conversation came around to his classic, Ghostbusters, he described seeing the film’s stars in their iconic ghostbusting gear for the first time. As he was recalling the moment he realized he had something great on his hands, his eyes welled up. This would be the first of four occasions that evening that an emotional trigger would bring him to tears. He finally had to stop and take a tissue out of his pocket.
In that moment I thought “I love this man!” There was no embarrassment or shame. He seemed quite comfortable with his display of emotion. It was like his walk down memory lane and the feelings it conjured up were just another day at the office.
It got me thinking about men and crying. What happened in their childhoods and lives to make some more willing to cry, and others not so much? Why do some men handle it with grace and dignity, like Ivan, and why do others take a stiff upper lip in public, then run off to nurse their wounds in private? What makes some boys feel that it’s okay to cry, and others feel like they’re less of a “man” if they do? Most importantly, what role do parents play in helping boys grow into men who aren’t afraid to cry?
Crying is important. “Emotional” tears have a different chemical makeup than tears produced when you get dust in your eye. Dr. William Frey, a biochemist and “tear expert” at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, discovered that tears excreted during strong emotions contain stress hormones. In other words, when we cry we are literally crying away stress. The release of tears then becomes an important human need – to both males and females.
Yet from the time of being in diapers, there seems to be a separate set of rules for boys vs girls. “Research suggests that people respond differently to infants and toddlers depending on the sex of the child,” says Dr. Kristel Thomassin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa. “It seems there isn’t really a ‘shift’ in parental practices, but rather a set of societal influences that shape children’s development from very early on.”
Michael Reist agrees. The Ontario psychologist and author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys says “Emotional repression begins in childhood when boys’ emotional lives are shut down or repressed – usually by men or other boys. Mothers are far more comfortable with emotional expression because women are allowed, indeed encouraged, to express their emotions freely. … The two biggest problems facing males today are emotional repression and a lack of role models for mature masculinity.”
Mental health professionals understand that what we repress, or push down continues to grow and intensify. Submerging our emotions has nothing but unhealthy outcomes. Dr. Thomassin says “Children’s emotional learning begins at an early age. And, just like many other values and skills that children learn, parents play a very large role in shaping what children come to learn about emotions and the expression of emotion.”
Michael believes a child’s emotional health is influenced by the parent’s emotional health. Parents need to take care of themselves so they can take better care of their children, he recently told an audience at the Burlington Public Library. He feels strongly that having children gives you the opportunity to deal with “your stuff”.
As well as the issues created in their home environments, boys are attempting to define their own masculinity, and as a result reject anything considered feminine. In our world emotional expression is considered the terrain of being female. Is some of this issue just a need to mimic what they see around them?
“It is men who need to change their attitudes about emotional expression,” says Michael. “Boys need to see men who express a broad range of emotions, and men need to be careful not to shame or discourage the expression of emotions in boys. … We need fathers, teachers, coaches who are aware of this phenomenon and talk back to it. The feminist revolution happened because individual women spoke up, acted in different ways, challenged prevailing attitudes and provided role models for girls. The same thing has to happen with men and boys. Women have a role to play, but it is really a male issue that has to be taken on by men.”
Damien, (last name withheld), is an Ajax, Ont., father of two teenage boys. He grew up in an environment where he felt no negative reactions to his emotions, and therefore has a comfort level with himself and letting his two boys express themselves freely. His wife feels the same way.
“I’ve always considered the ‘boys don’t cry’ as absurd a reaction as insisting that young girls don’t play sports. We all have emotional reactions to events, but as children, boys are often made to feel ashamed of those feelings. This is ridiculous. I think our boys’ comfort with their emotions has less to do with my emotional comfort level and more to do with not restricting what is their natural and healthy response to emotional situations.”
Damien and his wife encouraged their sons to express themselves. “We fostered an environment where, I hope, they also felt comfortable expressing themselves. Even when we disagreed with them, we allowed them the space to tell us why they felt the way they did. I think we tried to be respectful of our children and take their opinions (and needs) into account in our decision-making process.”
The stakes are high, says Michael, who says that emotionally damaged boys become the criminals of tomorrow: the abusers of our society, the addicts and warmongers. “The responsibility for the way some boys grow up to be destructive men lies with all of us.”
Research is just beginning. As we grapple with the effects of social media and video games, who are boys to look to for role models of liberated and emotionally healthy men? Musicians? Athletes? Call of Duty characters? Not likely. The first line of defence begins at home by providing boys with a secure and understanding environment where they feel seen and heard and can openly express the array of emotions that make us human.
Michael urges parents to encourage boys to explore a broad range of interests and activities, regardless of gender bias, including the arts and artistic pursuits. “Girls have moved into all kinds of non-traditional activities like hockey and lacrosse. When is the same thing going to happen for boys?” he asks.
At a recent workshop, Michael noted it is important to accommodate boys’ natural energy. Rough and tumble play and letting loose through sports or activity should be embraced. Unstructured play is essential for mental development as well as psychological development. Boys need to be able to express aggression and energy. That’s what makes boys boys. It should also be noted this outlet is just as valuable in the life of girls.
He went on to say that we need to get to a point where young men don’t feel the need to abandon what society deems as being “feminine”, which includes laughing or smiling. It is time for the type of revolution that happened for women to happen for males. The world would be a much better place for it.
Katherine Di Marino has worked in the film and television industry for more than 20 years. She is currently working on a script for a feature-length children’s film “Eddie Barbone”, which she hopes will go into production in 2017.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Aug/Sep 2016.