“Put ’em in jail!”

28 Mar

The jury is in on emotional intelligence and the verdict is that boys benefit from being able to understand, express, and control their feelings.  However, raising an emotionally strong son is tricky in a culture that tells boys they’re sissies if they don’t toughen-up and stuff their feelings. Male stereotypes are at best stoic and often come across as emotionally illiterate. What’s a dad to do to? Here’s a personal story about my son and me.

If Braden, who just turned three, gets disappointed about something, it can be hard to pull him out of the nose-dive. Emotions are really concrete for boys his age, and they run the show. A good example is when he wants to play with toys, and I want him to get in the car to go to an appointment. He usually becomes very sad and disappointed.

Since little guys don’t have a lot of control in their lives, one way they exert power passively is by changing their speed. When I want to get-in-the-car-and-go, he slows to something between a standstill and a snail’s pace. The real issue, however, isn’t the speed. It’s helping deal with his sadness, disappointment, and anger by giving him a sense of power and control.

Braden LOVES stories, so in the moment when the nosedive begins, I think of a mini-tale. “Hey, let me tell you a story.”

He looks up instead of lying down on the floor, so I know I have an opening. I pick him up and say, “Let me tell you a story about what you can do with your feelings.”

Three-year-olds are very concrete, so I grab my shirt by my chest and pretended I am pulling something off of it. Then I hold my fist out in front of me. I say, “You can grab feelings you don’t want and hold them in your hand like this. You try it.”

He smiles and copies me. “And then you can THROW ‘EM AWAY.” I make a big throwing motion with my hand as I enthusiastically say the words. He does the same.

“After that, you can grab some good feelings and pull them down to your heart.” As I say this, I reach up to the ceiling, make a fist, pull it down, and open my hand onto my heart. I tell him to do the same thing. “Doesn’t that feel GOOD?”

He says, “YES!” and the nosedive is over.  For the purists out there, I admit that this wasn’t really a story, but the boy never would have bit the bait if I’d said, “Hey, let me teach you a coping strategy you can use.”

Dads can feel self-conscious about being so dramatic. It doesn’t match the masculine code. I don’t mind saying that there is a part of me that thinks it’s REALLY cheesy too. But for the very same reasons that I think it’s silly, Braden thinks it’s great. All boys like humor and fun, and little ones especially need lessons like this to be tangible. All kids enjoy it when Dad acts a little goofy, so for their sake (and our own health) sometimes we just need to loosen up a little.

As we were walking up the steps, Braden wrapped things up by saying, “Dad, I just threw those bad feelings in jail!”


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