5th grade is an ideal time to focus on self-understanding, emotional expression, body image and stress reduction (basically everything that we adults are still working on).
These discussions are essential as peers become more important and pressures become more common.
So my husband and I created a 5th grade self-awareness curriculum titled, Be U: Helping 5th Graders Become Emotionally Intelligent Leaders for 20 kids, 10 girls and 10 boys, beginning this fall in the western suburbs of Chicago.
With just a few simple emails the 10 girl spots filled immediately, we even started a waiting list for girls who want to take the class in the spring.
But nobody signed up their 5th grade boys.
Initially we figured it was because we have three daughters, so naturally we know more families with girls. We felt that when we opened it to the public, the spots would fill.
It opened up, and more girls wanted in, but only a few emails trickled in from parents with 5th grade boys.
The difference between parents wanting this for their girls and parents wanting this for their boys was extreme.
I’ve been pondering this for days, and I know it speaks to a bigger issue in our society – our inability to understand the importance of male emotional awareness.
I feel like putting the words “male” and “emotions” in the same sentence makes people roll their eyes or at the very least creates discomfort.
But our boys struggle with the exact same things as girls do – they get hurt by others, they get bullied, they deal with body image issues, and they feel tremendous pressure to compete and be the best.
But they have the extra pressure of having to pretend they aren’t scared or sad when they have challenges.
We raise our boys with an underlying belief system that they need to be competitive, powerful, brave and strong – all positive traits if they are balanced with emotional awareness, but without it, these traits show up as aggression, violence, greed and disconnection from the whole.
Emotional understanding and compassion are imperative for our boys. They need to have their feelings acknowledged and respected, and they need to feel compassion so they can live compassion.
Too many boys are left feeling unheard and angry, which is just a second tier emotion to sadness, embarrassment or any other uncomfortable or unacknowledged feeling.
They are left to believe that feelings are bad and that squelching emotions is the masculine thing to do.
They are taught that emotions are feminine, and they don’t want to be called a “girl” (don’t get me started on this one…); they don’t want to be perceived as weak.
So they learn to numb out their feelings and they learn to live in a disconnected state.
This shows up as an inability to respect or honor women, an inability to connect with friends over anything but sports, and an inability to place the good of all over the need for power and money.
These men, who were once little boys, don’t know how to listen and understand other people’s feelings, because nobody understood their feelings.
They become fixated on competition, being the best, making money – they become fixated on getting ahead to prove that they are worthy, and in the process miss the joy of their daily experiences.
They feel too disconnected or numbed out to feel gratitude or notice what is working.
This disconnection can lead to anger or violent behavior toward others, or they may turn these feelings inside and experience depression.
But a boy who understands his inner workings has the capacity to connect and feel empowered.
He can use his strengths to give back, he can feel the joy of a loving relationship, and he can feel the relief of being real instead of putting on a show.
We need this kind of male leadership. We need more boys (and men) who know how to listen to others, respect other people’s opinions, tolerate differences, and understand what it takes to effectively work as a team.
I know there are plenty of emotionally intelligent boys and men out there already; I am lucky to know many of them, and I am optimistic that the numbers are increasing every day.
But I also know that our society still has a lot of work to do and we owe our boys more than we are offering.
We’ve got to loosen our stereotypes and start opening up to the idea that regardless of gender, we all need emotional awareness.
We all need to know self-love, feel connected, cry and be held, and speak from the heart.
Filling this class turned into a mini research experiment, a reminder of what we view as most important for our boys.
But like all things, it’s an opportunity.
A way to shine the light on gender misconceptions when it comes to emotional expression, and to recognize the balance of what our boys need to live a meaningful and contented life.
Cathy Cassani Adams, LCSW, CPC, is the author of The Self-Aware Parent, the host of Zen Parenting Radio, a columnist for Chicago Parent Magazine, and a blogger for Chicago Now. She’s a self-awareness teacher and yoga instructor in her community, and she teaches in the Sociology Department at Dominican University.