Tuesday Tips: Raising sensitive boys

Raising sensitve boys

sensitive boys

My father, one of ten children, was raised on a farm in rural America. His parents were Dutch immigrants who had lived through World War II and they were strict, no-nonsense types. They believed in hard work, discipline and obedience.  As a result, my father’s sensitive side was mostly ironed out of him at a young age and he only rediscovered it later in life.

I remember sitting in the back of the car with my little brother who, by nature, was a really sensitive boy. I remember him fighting back tears and wiping his cheeks with his sleeve as my father shouted from the front seat to stop crying. I don’t think my dad meant to cause any distress, but I do think he discouraged my brothers from being sensitive or emotional.  He parented the only way he knew how: the way he had been taught, which was to hide your emotions, dry your tears, be a man – not a mouse, shake it off, toughen up…

Thankfully, nowadays most of us can see the folly of this approach, but still… I’ll admit that I will occasionally say things like ‘there’s no need to cry’ or ‘come on, it’s not worth crying about’. I don’t say it in a ‘be a man’ type of way, but more in a ‘let’s move on so I can go back to cooking dinner’ type of way. This is especially true if they come to me crying about something that doesn’t seem very important (a missing Lego, a skipped turn in a board game, the smaller half of a shared biscuit, etc.).

I recently met up with Lydia Gard, editor of Mr Fox: the new online magazine for parents with boys (and mother of two boys), and she reminded me that even these innocuous types of comments are probably not healthy for our children, especially for our boys who already face societal pressure to ‘man up’. It led to an interesting discussion about raising boys and how important it is not to stifle their sensitive side. I asked Lydia to share some tips for raising boys in a way that doesn’t repress their sensitivity and she’s agreed. Here are her suggestions:

1. I firmly believe that telling a boy that he shouldn’t cry or shaming him when he does, won’t teach him to manage his emotions, only to suppress and ignore them. I want my boys to grow up confident that they can speak their minds or show their feelings openly, without being mocked or humiliated, and so I offer a safe space in which they can express themselves, without fear of judgment. I’m also careful not to let other family members use derogatory terms like ‘babyish’ or ‘man-up’ in response to my sons’ tears.

2. Habitual responses, like ‘It’s nothing to cry about’ are really commonplace among busy mothers and, frankly, they sound pretty rational to other grown-ups. But if someone were to say that to me when I’m weeping over a sad song or because I’m knackered after a week of sleepless nights, I would feel invalidated! I often think, would I say that to another grown-up? If it comes off as cruel or lacking empathy, then I shouldn’t say it to a child either.

3. When my children cry I always try to choose between empathy and action: they need to know that I’m either in their corner (a reassuring hug is often enough) or that I’m willing to fight for them if the tears are over some injustice – a sibling fracas or a school bully.

4. My boys are both prone to drama, so I take a few seconds to let them just cry, and then ask them to tell me the problem, in their words. Sometimes I have to wait patiently for the answer. Parenting guru Noel Janis-Norton believes that we need to teach and train boys to express their feelings and thoughts, their worries and their dreams. “It is important that boys become comfortable with describing their inner life. When feelings come out in words, they are much less likely to come out in misbehaviour.” It’s not always easy when the dinner is burning or the phone is ringing, but I always think it’s worth the investment of a few extra minutes to make sure they feel heard.

5. Why something triggers a tearful response is often unfathomable. Have they fallen over? No. Were they arguing? Don’t think so… Is it always a reasonable and rational reaction? The answer is probably no. And while I may not agree that his LEGO Chima Fire Temple is sacred and that missing one tiny little, grey speck of plastic warrants ten minutes of rib-wracking sobs, he does, and it’s my job to comfort him (and then crawl around for 2o minutes with a head torch trying to locate it). 

Photos above are of Lydia’s two boys. Thank you Lydia for your tips!

As always, please leave comments below if you have additional tips, thoughts or questions! xx


Comments (17)

March 17, 2015

I can really relate to this post. As a mum to two boys (and girl), and being on the cusp between the Gen X / Millennial generations – I really feel I have a responsibility to move the needle on how the next generation of boys act. I know ‘girlsgonechild’ Rebecca Wolf writes a lot on this subject. It is an inspiring challenge. I’m going to check out the Mr. Fox website.

March 17, 2015

I really identify with this post, thank you. My daughter is 6 and our 2 year old son adores him – so when he steps into one of her tutus and cries because we’re out of yogurt, my husband insists he removes said tutu and to ‘not waste tears – that’s what girls do.’ I am all for sensitivity in boys. Thank you for the Mr Fox reference – I shall look into it. x

March 17, 2015

What a great topic! I don’t have a boy but it makes me so happy to read things like this as I think letting our boys develop emotional intelligence and empathy will have a huge impact on the next generations of boyfriends/husbands/fathers and perhaps even on the next generations of businessmen/politicians/etc. That said, I think that in general empathy has become something of a lost art. I know I have really had to work on my own ability to be empathetic as I parent a very spirited little girl. I have found a source of great inspiration for dealing with difficult situations with empathy and humour. While it can sometimes be more difficult/time consuming to go with empathy, I always get better results. And knowing that I am teaching my daughter empathy by practicing it is the best motivation to keep on going.

March 17, 2015

Love this! My comment goes in a different direction but I noticed that my boyfriend who was raised a bit differently than me, often tells me when I’m sad that it’s nothing to cry about. Even though I haven’t been able to explain to him why I feel this is lacking empathy I hope he’ll act differently around our son (only 10 months old right now).
I never understood why men weren’t ‘allowed’ to express their feelings while it is almost expected of women. One can only hope this will change in the future and, of course, practise empathy in our childrens education, no matter if they are girls or boys.

March 17, 2015

Great post! I’m guilty of the “come on don’t cry it’s not that bad” but recently I noticed with my eldest son (8) that when he cries about something small it’s usually just a excuse to get some tears out about some bigger stuff going on in his life – we all sometimes need an excuse to cry. My mum and I used to deliberately watch ‘little house on the prairie’ on Sunday mornings for our weekly cry!!! With my son I now take the chance to give him a cuddle – I don’t get so many chances anymore with him being all cool and 8! So I get them while I can!

March 17, 2015

Love this! Thanks Courtney!

March 17, 2015

Such valid, kind words as always. Such a necessity to take a step back from our personal humdrum lives to empathize with the free flow of tears no matter how innocuous the cause may initially seem. There is often a deeper route source to the problem but of late i worry since my son has turned 8 he is less inclined to verbalize the cause.The hugs and patience to avoid pressuring are still prevalent but the words aren’t forthcoming even after emotions are settled.Fearful of this becoming habitual, oh how to proceed.

March 17, 2015

I think as parents in Western cultures we are getting much better at realising that boys and girls should be raised similarly. I don’t quite agree with point 5. At some point children, whether male or female need to be taught that crying over lost Lego is extreme. If they are not taught this then they will find many trivial situations too stressful to deal with as they get older.

March 17, 2015

As a mother to a sensitive 3-year-old boy who has ranged from fussy baby to emotionally distressed child, this is definitely something I’ve been considering from the beginning. As a sensitive person myself, I’ve been really conscious about refraining from telling him he can’t cry or be upset, and so I’ve sought other ways to work around it. Now that he’s older, and we can have conversations, what I tell him is that crying is for special times, when we are very hurt or very sad — so that he can understand that crying is very much valued and important, but that we reserve it for deserved times. Of course, whether the situation is deserving of tears varies from point of view, so as an adult I also need to be aware of how a 3-year-old might view the world. When it is very much appropriate, I just hold him and tell him I understand and try to nurture his tender heart and tell him how much I love how caring he is. But outside of those times, we try to find other ways to express our emotions. Same as with anger, I ask him to use his words, to talk through a situation, or I give him some alone time to calm down. I have noticed him talking a lot to his stuffed animals when he is upset, and I think that is a great way for him to cope right now. As he grows older and gains more skills, I would also love to channel his emotions into more artistic / creative outlets.

Irene Kemp
March 17, 2015

What a great post and how timely. I am reading a lot about this at the moment as my little boy is very sensitive. I strongly believe that my son goes through times every day on this new curve of social learning at School where ‘big boy’s don’t cry’ and therefore l feel it is my job to make his home a safe place to be his authentic self. A shelter in the storm of life where he can come and lay down his fears and voice his sorrows and where l will listen with an open heart and be the rock he can lean on.
I think it is massively important to protect the emotional life of boys and l do not think we need to ‘man up’ our boys in anyway, testosterone and society will do that in the long run. In a generation were ‘cool’ is the ‘in’ behaviour and there is no room for shame, which is the one major emotion every boy and man fights (ask your husband what his biggest social fear would be and see if it’s not shame in some form!), we need to allow our boys the room for emotional growth.
I always try to remind myself that l am raising someone’s future husband/partner and would l want then to be sensitive and
understanding of his wife/partner, here’s hoping l help him get that bit right.
It is indeed a huge responsibility raising the men of the future in our little boys we see today and allowing them the room to feel every emotion and not to feel ashamed of any one of them.

March 18, 2015

As usual Courtney interesting topic, these are the articles I love to read on babyccino!
Having two boys myself, I never tell them to man up or boys should not cry. I do think brushing girls and boys over one comb will not result in suddenly boys turning as sensitive as girls, as they have one huge difference: hormones! They think, work and react (no matter if you avoid desensitising comments when raising boys) in the same circumstances emotionally totally different from girls.
We are different from men/boys and that does not have to be a bad thing and we should not try to turn boys into girls and vice versa or make them behave in similar ways.
I also do think Mel has a valid point – there comes a pint where crying over a fi lost doll or piece of Lego will need to be addressed as not a huge drama. I do totally think a cuddle no matter what cry it is, is the best medicine for boys & girls no matter what age;-) – understanding and compassion for others is very important and something the world is missing at the moment!

March 18, 2015

The best book about the subject: “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” by Daniel J Kindlon, I can’t recommend highly enough to anybody raising boys!

March 23, 2015

[…] my other favourite parenting sites, Babyccino Kids did a little profile on Mr Fox in a post titled ‘Raising Sensitive Boys’ I knew this was an online magazine that would strike a chord. So goes the blurb on their […]

March 23, 2015

I am the mother of a 2.5 year old boy and I really agree with some of these points. I would like to add something which I think boys are not taught to do very early on and that is to listen without proposing a solution. Just listen with the purpose of acknowledging someone else’s feelings and developing empathy. From the arguments I normally have with my husband, I can see that no matter how gentle and kind a man may be, he still can’t see that sometimes people talk and complain and just want to be heard. They don’t need a magical solution to their problems or quick action. When I am upset, I try to explain to my son why I feel sad or angry. I try not to hide my feelings from him so that he can learn that everyone’s feelings are valid even though sometimes they are not rational (I always cry at the end of Toy Story 3 for no good reason, as an example). I think in this way I am trying to raise an empathetic child.

Courtney in London
March 23, 2015

What a great point, Kiana. Thanks so much for your comment. (And I always cry at the end of Toy Story 3, too.) xx

June 1, 2015

A really thought provoking post. But as a father, I worry about what happens when boys start to show their emotions in this way around other boys who haven’t had such sensitivity-oriented training. It’s all well and good for a boy to cry at home in front of their parents in their safe place, but I worry that if they show their emotions so openly on the bus, or in the locker room, they are going to be targets for bullies. Also, there a plenty of times in your life where cyring about a situation is just not the way to go about things. You have to pull it together and either solve the problem or move on.

How do you balance “It’s okay to be sensitive and express your sorrow via tears” with “There’s a time and a place for this kind of emotional display.”?

February 25, 2016

[…] gender boxes — we should encourage both girls AND boys to be emotionally sensitive (see this previous post), we should encourage both boys AND girls to be brave, and we should stop praising girls for what […]

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