If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you….
As we were driving, my kids were screaming away this song with Bruno Mars, when suddenly my son lowered the volume and asked me “Ami would you really sail the world around to find me if I got lost?” And I nodded with fleeting thoughts of Titanic, Robinson Crusoe and coconuts all at the same time. Soon after realized, things that seem inconsequential and part of routine are constantly hitting a chord somewhere with our children. Perhaps such emotional reactions are often expected from girls and it certainly raised an eyebrow thinking how my son had picked up a lyric, implanted himself in the situation and wanted re-assurance from me.
Coincidentally the same day I learnt of Dr. Michael G Thomson an author of nine books, a clinical psychologist and international speaker, since the last thirty-five years, on the subjects of children, schools and parenting. Based in Massachusetts, US, he travels across the country and around the world conducting talks and workshops in schools, seminars and talk shows about parenting, raising children and understanding the complicated network of emotional intelligence and sensitivity. His book “Raising Cain”, published in 2009 suggests and describes in detail how young boys evolve, their sensitivities, levels of emotional literacy and most importantly the role of parents.
I went on a mad frenzy to try and get in touch with him and take his interview. As you can see below, Dr. Michael was most gracious to let me interview him over the phone.
Me: Where do you think mothers are going wrong in raising children, especially boys?
Dr. M: I think this is the most conscientious, loving, and anxious generations of mothers we may have ever have. Educated mothers in the United States have doubled the amount of time that they spend with their children and I think that is in many ways, wonderful. But, they are hyper focused and they are always benchmarking their children’s’ performance and their anxiety gets out in front of their children’s development. So the mothers don’t trust development and always thinking ‘what should I be doing?’ ‘Is my child on track?’
Parents don’t put enough trust in development. In my new book, “Homesick and Happy,” I have a chapter in which I describe eight things you cannot do for your children, starting with you cannot make your children happy and you cannot give them self-esteem. You can, of course, love them and give them a loving home, but you cannot pick their friends or become their agent, coach and manager. There are limits to what parents can and should do.
The mother is always thinking that she is responsible for everything that is happening with the child. And parents have to remember that you can’t change everything, let development do some work also.
Me: There is a general belief that girls are more intelligent and mature faster than boys – do you agree?
Dr. M: Girls are not more intelligent, they are just more organized in a “school way”. The average girl is more organized and more focused than an average boy of the same age. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Boys and girls test the same way for intelligence. Boys are very organized about things they love. For instance, boys are organized learning about Pokemon monsters.
Me: Well in that case girls are also organized in a “home way”
Dr. M: Well, the question is do we ask enough from the boys in a “home way”. We often don’t ask them for help, but we teach our girls to help at home. Mothers rarely ask their sons to get organized at home, perhaps thinking that they are maturing at a slow pace in this respect.
Me: So there is a difference in gender expectation, do you think this is cultural?
Dr. M: Yes it is cultural, prevalent in the United States and worldwide.
I have seen in summer camps, when you take boys out in the wilderness and ask them to chop wood, make a fire and cook for themselves they would do it, because it is important for them. But if the moms are doing everything, and they (boys) figure out that moms will do everything they wont move a limb. So I went to a camp in Canada, and there were a lot of boys from France. And they just waited for the girls to do everything. That’s a cultural impact!
Its prevalent in South Asia also, certain roles are pre-assigned for boys and girls. That makes the boys less competent. They are waiting to run the world but it certainly makes them less competent.
Me: What is the unheard voice of most school going boys, that they want to communicate to us through their silence, behavior or even aggression at times?
Dr. M: I am not sure they are looking to communicate anything. Sensitive boys are trying to find a place in a world of “boy status” and “boy power”. Every boy is trying and learning to be a “strong” boy respected by other “strong” boys. They are always looking for respect in other boys. For many boys the respect of other boys is more important than the respect of their mother.
Me: Is there any truth in a “Sensitive Strong Boy?”
Dr. M: Of course there is. All boys are sensitive. It is a misunderstanding that strength and sensitivity don’t go together. Boys very often hide their feelings because they feel ashamed of any feelings of inadequacy and worry. However, there are some anxious boys who cant hide and they look like anxious boys.
Me: What are the top three things that parents should do when they are trying to impart emotional intelligence to their children.
Dr. M: I have many suggestions in the last chapter of my book “ Raising Cain”. I want to give boys a safe place to play; they should be able to play their own games with their friends without getting into trouble. The greatest loss in our systems has been the loss of “free outside play”. That’s how boys used to have fun, grow up and gain respect from others. Boys need to get away from their moms, away from adults and allowed safe play
Second is to talk the language of emotions to them and provide them with the vocabulary of emotions. Boys generally convert feelings of shame and inadequacy into silence or anger or some form of negativity. So we have to say the right words to them, which describe their emotions. We should understand that “anger” is not what the underlying emotion is; it could be “fear”.
And the final thing is asking the boys what they are already thinking. Don’t make them reflect, because they are already reflecting. When mothers think, “what should I be doing” instead ask you sons’ – what should they be doing.
Reflectively and reluctantly I put the phone down as Michael was rushing for another call, gradually drifting back to my sailing in the sea. While I sail away, sharing a recipe of cupcakes with you that my son is particularly fond of. He has a habit of giving his feedback the instant he gulps down the first bite of anything that I make. And as he bit into the freshly filled and frosted cupcake he said “ Hmmm, not bad actually” and I said to myself “ Hmmmph, like father like son”
“Sense of stability fosters a resilient foundation of trust and love, on which he (sensitive child) can build other relationships” Raising Cain, 1999
A sensitive boy should never have to receive deleterious behavior from his parents, family, teachers and caregivers. As mothers of young boys we must strive to strike a balance between emotional literacy and the typical “masculine code” that most boys wish to follow. Let their sensitivity come out and shine the way their eyes lit up when they eat sweet frosted cupcakes.