Opinion | Raising Boys Who Have Empathy and Emotion

To the Editor:

Re “Let’s Teach Boys the Art of Emotional Labor,” by Ruth Whippman (Opinion guest essay, Aug. 9):

I was thrilled to read Ms. Whippman’s observations about how strikingly different boys and girls emotionally perceive their worlds. I so appreciated her honesty, specificity and understanding for how boys tend to be more mechanical and less relational.

This essay ties into an underlying societal issue that I have long thought needs to be addressed: hurt. In our and perhaps most cultures, boys aren’t allowed to hurt. They are sissies if they do. Boys aren’t dummies. They learn to separate from their hurts and move into the more socially acceptable realm of anger.

It is long past time to acknowledge and work with the simple reality that boys have emotional pains and hurts, too. I can’t think of a more masculine, tough challenge than empowering boys to understand the emotional workings of themselves and others.

David Dillman
Occidental, Calif.

To the Editor:

I strongly object to Ruth Whippman’s assertion that “there is a bizarre absence of fully realized human beings” in the fictional worlds of male toddlers and preadolescent boys.

As the father of two grown sons and grandfather to three children, two of whom are boys, I’ve been reading dog-eared copies of books by Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle and Jane Yolen, who among many authors of magical morality tales for young children have offered my sons and grandsons extraordinary opportunities to learn about what Ms. Whippman calls “the mess of being a real human in constant relationship with other humans.”

I know that my 16-month-old granddaughter will soon learn from these same stories, offering her the same rich exploration of friendships and emotional dilemmas that have enriched the young lives of her brother and cousin.

Peter Schmidt
Phillipsburg, N.J.

To the Editor:

Ruth Whippman makes serious assertions about gender based upon her experience with three sons, ages 10, 7 and 3, that are in my opinion seriously flawed. The claims she makes about the influence of vehicles, villains and middle-school nihilists on the development of boys away from the capacity for empathy and concern for others fortunately don’t stand up to the experience of those, like me, who treat many adult men and women where the distribution of this capacity is surprisingly divorced from gender.

Many men are more sensitive to the feelings of others than many women. The capacity for concern is a developmental achievement that is independent of the games children play and the identities that they try on during their early years. For boys being a warrior or a racecar driver is no more a determinant of their interpersonal sensitivity than fantasies of being a ballerina or a princess are for girls.

The idea that superficial interests are gender-specific and can be correlated with the capacity to relate to others has outlived its usefulness.

Henry J. Friedman
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

To the Editor:

This essay resonates with me. I just returned from a week serving as a first-time Scouts BSA leader to our troop while we attended camp in New Hampshire. Our group had 10 boys and one girl, ranging in age from 10 to 17. Thankfully, my co-leaders were a father-and-son team of Eagle Scouts with a lifelong commitment to scouting (the father serves on the national committee, the son is the cub master for our community).

During the week we spent in camp, I witnessed innumerable social interactions among the Scouts (campwide, about 95 percent boys), supported by the Scout Law, which states that a Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

I agree wholeheartedly that boys deserve more examples of how to develop and maintain positive social relationships. Social skills, like other skills, require modeling, instruction, coaching and practice to become second nature.

Scouts BSA, despite the well-publicized difficulties, reflecting problems that have existed throughout all reaches of human society, currently provides a safe, time-tested format to foster social skill development side by side with active interests that are designed to engage boys.

Diane Johnson
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

As a middle-grade author, I’ve often had parents stop by my signing table to ask if my books are “for boys” — and then turn away when I mention that one of my main characters is a girl. Respectfully, the author of this essay may have better luck finding good books for her sons — books that model emotional intelligence and complexity — if she stops looking for “books for boys” and starts looking for books for kids.

Yes, there’s a trend in children’s media toward higher and higher stakes, and it does sometimes feel as if there’s less room on the shelves for the kind of “quiet” stories that a lot of parents grew up reading. But while most of my favorite new children’s books are packed with action and adventure, they’re also packed with empathy. All you have to do to find them is expand your focus past a category that feels like an echo from an earlier time.

Nick Courage
Pittsburgh

To the Editor:

As the father of two boys (ages 8 and 2) and one girl (age 6), I appreciated your guest essay on our cultural failure to teach social emotional literacy to boys. I wish the author had also written about the ways we are failing our girls.

In the essay, a girl invited to two birthday parties furtively attends both in order to avoid possibly disappointing either friend. We teach girls that they must never hurt anyone’s feelings, at the same time that we fail to teach boys that other people even have feelings. What do we expect to happen when they get older?

We need more balance. As Rabbi Hillel used to say: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Andrew Barnet
Middletown, Md.

To the Editor:

I agree with Ruth Whippman that too many children’s books concern heavy machinery and combat. After four siblings, three children and 40 years of teaching, I’m less sure that what children need, instead, is more relationship training. What young people of any gender could use is noncompetitive, individual, hands-on engagement with the material world.

Gardening, sewing, wood shop, cooking, metal shop and instrumental music all come to mind. There is nothing more “human” than combining hand, tool and mind. Many people have written about this, and some of this kind of coursework has come back to our schools. More would be even better, especially now that machines and electronic devices typically stand between us and “reality.”

For a growing mind, studying coding is no substitute for direct material agency. There’s plenty of time later for the inevitable screens, machines and relationship issues.

Peter Yates
West Harrison, N.Y.
The writer is an adjunct professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

To the Editor:

Boys absolutely need to develop emotional intelligence, and children’s books are an excellent way to learn these valuable lessons. Ruth Whippman deplores “the lack of positive people-focused stories for boys.” There is a trove of outstanding children’s literature published today that weaves themes of emotional resilience and empathy into their stories.

Andrew Clements, Peter Brown, Gary Paulsen and Sarah Weeks are some great examples of children’s authors whose readers are gaining knowledge of these essential life skills. I am a retired elementary school librarian and would be happy to supply Ms. Whippman with my reading lists for boys.

Lorna Rubin
Chappaqua, N.Y.

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