Boys and girls emote differently: can’t we be OK with that?

Man-up! Take it like a man! Shake it off!

Most boys hear those words and exhortations constantly throughout their lives.

Men don’t cry!

Men suck it up!

Act like a man!

Recently, I’ve been hearing push back on that phrase, with a growing number suggesting that Man Up! is one of the most damaging phrases a boy can hear.

Anyone raising a boy or seeing the way boys are often robbed of the ability to express what we often categorize as “soft” emotions would have a hard time disagreeing. We seemingly live in a culture that has a difficult time allowing boys and men to show any emotion other than anger—and we don’t like that emotion, either. Crying, for example, is often pegged as one of the most anti-manly things a guy can do. It’s a sign of weakness and a guy can never show himself to be weak.

You’ll get no disagreement from me on the problem. I think we do a great disservice to our boys and the rest of culture when we socialize good, healthy, emoting out of our boys.

But, contrary to much of what I’ve been reading and hearing as of late, the answer is not to socialize boys to cry more or to nurture them to be more verbal with their emotions (or to put it more bluntly, it does not help boys emote by insisting that we can nurture/socialize them to emote more freely like girls often do).

To start there is to do a great disservice to our boys.

My friend, Dr. Michael Gurian, has been using brain science research for over 30 years to help educators better teach to a boy brain and a girl brain. Brain science research has found at least 100 differences between the male and the female brain. While males and females are mostly the “same,” those over 100 brain differences make a big difference.

In addition, at the risk of oversimplifying, males are made up primarily of testosterone—an aggression/action hormone. Women are made up primarily of estrogen and oxytocin—bonding/tend and befriend chemicals. While males and females are mostly the “same” those hormones make a big difference.

Boys generally do not emote the way girls emote. For one thing, because of the way boys brains are wired, they access and express their emotions differently than girls.

Ask a girl how she’s feeling about something and generally all you have to do is step back and listen to her verbally express her feelings instantaneously.

Ask a boy how he’s feeling about something and what you’ll often get is a blank stare or a mono-syllabic grunt…not because he doesn’t want to answer the question…but because he doesn’t know. Dr. Gurian tells us that it can take a boy 30 minutes to over a day to access his feelings and put them into words.

Girls tend to processes stress in the front of the brain enabling them to verbalize the stress. Boys tend to process stress in the back of the brain, moving them to a fight, flight, or freeze response—i.e., a response that doesn’t use a lot of words.

Where a girl’s brain is wired to tie emotions and words together, a boy’s brain is not.

Women throughout the world have higher levels of prolactin, which controls, among other things, the development of tear glands…hence, generally, wherever you go (even in a culture that is friendly to male tears, like Italy), you  see more tears from women’s eyes than from men’s.

Leadership and the Sexes, Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis, pg. 14

My point is not that we should not nurture our boys to emote in healthy ways, but that you can’t start a discussion on helping boys emote more freely and healthily by focusing first on nurture. When we start with nurture, usually to the exclusion of nature, we tend to assume that boys can be socialized to express their emotions and feelings like girls—who tend to do it more openly and verbally. But this, in the end, will only frustrate boys more. Because it is trying to nurture them to emote in a way that isn’t a part of their nature.

Many will claim that the brain has great elasticity, meaning that it can be molded and shaped through socialization and nurture, which is true. But the brain also has some set points, so to speak, that make a male male and a female female. These cannot be changed.

Boys’ emotive nature, however, can be recognized, affirmed, and nurtured to respond accordingly. Meaning, if we want to free up our boys to express all of their emotions, we need to understand how boys are wired to emote, and then free them to do so. We start with nature, and then nurture their nature.

Most boys will not emote like most girls. But boys are wired to emote and to do so in powerful, profound, healthy ways. (Movement is always a good starting point for most males—get them moving and it will energize their brains to verbalize better, bond, shed some tears, emote, access feelings, etc.)

Our job is not to nurture boys to express emotions the way girls do, but the way boys do.

In other words, when we exhort a boy to Man Up! we should pour a rich understanding of nature and nurture into those words, so that we are truly inviting a boy to man-up into the healthy, thriving man he is created to be.

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