Raising Emotionally Intelligent Boys: Why We Need To Let Our Sons Feel!

Cathy Cassani AdamsMy oldest is entering 5th grade next fall, and to me, this is a life milestone, a teetering between childhood and preadolescence.

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.

Find Cathy on Facebook (The Self-Aware Parent or Zen Parenting Radio) and on Twitter (@selfawareparent or @zenparenting) and on her website www.cathycadams.com.

  • MeredithShay

    I love everything about this blog! Thank you for dedicating your efforts to helping children at that age with their emotions, especially boys. Until I had a son of my own, I wasn’t aware just how nasty our society is at trying to mold little kiddos into their gender specific roles. Teaching social/emotional skills to preschool age and younger has always been a passion of mine (I’ve been teaching for 12 years now), so now that I do in home daycare I really focus on encouraging all the children to learn about feelings, empathy, and self acceptance. We HAVE to teach this younger generation these vital skills to change how this world is going.

    Is this curriculum available for distribution? Thanks again for all you do.


    • Cathy

      Hey Meredith – thank you, and I agree – feelings, empathy, self
      acceptance are the keys to long-term emotional health. We are just
      beginning in the Chicago land area, but hoping we can find a way to
      expand. You can “like” one of my FB pages (https://www.facebook.com/ZenParenting
      or https://www.facebook.com/selfawareparent) so we can stay in touch!
      thanks for your comment and for all you do to spread the word about
      emotional wellness.

  • Rachel

    Wow!! Fantastic job Cathy!!!

    • Cathy

      thank you Rachel! xo

  • Carol

    Would love to purchase this curriculum from you! I have a 7 yr old boy who is already starting to talk about his feelings…ie: “I feel cloudy inside mommy”, or “sometimes I am sad and I don’t know why”……I do talk to him about these feelings, but I want to be sure I am saying and doing the right things. His dad (we are divorced) is an emotionally absent man who connects with him only by doing things (tennis, golf, soccer, etc). Would love to keep my kind-hearted, empathetic little boy the way he is!! Please help!!!

    • Cathy

      Hi Carol – so great that your son is talking about his feelings. The key is to keep him talking, let him know that you are always willing to listen to how he feels – he will eventually hear (or notice by watching other boys/men) that he is “not supposed” to show emotion, but if he knows you are accepting and willing to hear, he will always have a safe place to be himself. Will keep you posted about distributing the curriculum – we are just starting in Chicago, but we plan to keep growing! You can like one of my pages (below) or just go to my website so we can stay in touch. thank you for your comment (and for being a great mama)!

  • Annie Burnside

    Cathy, so thrilled that this wonderful blog has come to TDL! I hope that many, many parents of boys find their way to it as it is extremely important for individuals, families and the world at large. Thank you for your continuos contributions to uplift our planet! Mucho LOVE:)

    • Cathy

      Annie – Thank GOODNESS you are in my life – what would I do without my inspirational and supportive friend? Everyone deserves someone like you. 🙂

  • Eurynome

    Yes!!! Please consider making your curriculum available to purchase. Also consider marketing your class to home schoolers, a group that tends to be noncompliant with societal norms (especially those that identify themselves as “secular home schoolers”).

    • Cathy

      Agreed! Emotional awareness needs to be part of a home school curriculum as well. Thanks for the comment!

  • tedge

    WOW this article is so true & I should know because I’m a male & can really relate to this. I used to be ashamed & not able to show emotions & thought being worthy & proving myself was by using my fists & getting into lots of fights and being macho like I learned through media & other males.. My mother passed 10 years ago & I was extremely close to her BUT I would not let myself cry at the funeral. THANK YOU UNIVERSE FOR SHOWING ME LOVE & GRACE BECAUSE AS I READ THIS & WROTE THIS I HAVE TEARS RUNNING DOWN MY CHEEKS!!!!!!!!!! BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL ARTICLE LOTS OF AMAZING LOVE!!!!!!!!

    • Cathy

      Hi Tedge – thank you so much for commenting and sharing – I am SO glad you are able to cry and understand your emotions, it’s never too late! Amazing love to you, too!!

  • Robin

    Thank you for this – I have two sons and I am seeing how important this is – One son is very open, the other interprets most feelings as anger or aggression. I’m always looking for ways to help him grow emotionally so that he will be a good man.

  • Karlina

    Do you ever need volunteers? I have no kids, but this is a post I can relate too (even as a female) and it is a cause I deeply care about. If there is any way to get involved, I’d love to hear how I can help. thank you<3 ^v^ and many thanks:).

    • Cathy

      thanks Karlina – I will know more after this fall – we are just getting started and will see how this can translate to other places and people. Thank you for offering and caring about such an important issue!

  • Joel Kaat

    well said!!

    • Cathy

      thanks Joel!

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