Men are not born stoic or emotionally isolated. They are created through different peer groups, societal expectations and ideals of traditional masculinity that value hiding vulnerability over showing empathy.
This is not a genetic trait, but a learned behavior. So how do we teach our sons to grow and become more fulfilled men? How do we bring the best out in our boys, so they become the best of men?
This is the question that Dr. Shelly Flais answers in her new book, “Nurturing Boys To Be Better Men: Gender Equality Starts at Home,” which will be released on October 24. As a pediatrician and mother of three boys, she knows a lot about raising sons.
“I’m all about doing little things early that then make huge impacts down the line,” Flais said. “I look at my sons and as they grow, (I ask) what kind of future do I want for them? We’ve come a long way (in how we raise boys), but we still have so much further to go.”
As the father of two sons, I know the pressure men and boys face to hide their emotions or pretend nothing is wrong. I don’t want my sons to be emotionally closed off or afraid to ask for help because they will be seen as less capable or confident. I think boys can turn into better men if we teach our sons that they don’t have to fight the world. They can instead choose to care for it.
I spoke to Flais to learn her approach to teaching parents and guardians how to raise boys into emotionally mature men who can embrace whatever ideal of masculinity they choose.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: You recommend that parents and guardians should avoid phrases such as “Mr. Mom” or referring to dad as a babysitter. What is a phrase that we should be using with our young boys?
Dr. Shelly Flais: “I need help.” I think that the old-school notion of, and I speak for myself when I was a kid, I thought grown-ups had it all figured out. That they were smart.
Now I know we’re all works in progress, and we’re all figuring it out by doing the best we can, given the circumstances at the time. I think it’s not only OK but healthy to show vulnerability, to show your decision-making process. It involves your children and it shows them that they’re valuable. It shows them that they have something to contribute and it’s something positive.
CNN: You’ve mentioned modeling as a parenting technique. What are some specific ways to model for toddlers to show them the traits we want to reinforce?
Flais: Pediatricians are core lovers of the bedtime routine. I call those stolen moments. Grab that opportunity. What will that look like? And it might even be easier for a single-parent household to model these things because the kids witness that parent doing everything. That’s it. That’s the modeling, the witnessing of caregiving at work. Why can’t it be the dad’s job in your house? What a great opportunity to reconnect and play.
CNN: How do we show our boys how to deal with failure and stress in a healthy way?
Flais: When they need help, we want them to speak up. Once, I remember it was a rough night. I had work and somehow, I had to feed the children. I threw a frozen pizza in the oven. I’m not ashamed of that. It happens. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden there were puffs of smoke coming out of my kitchen.
And I could have gone to my room and freaked out, panicked. And I was very aware that there’s this army of young children viewing me, how do we deal with stressful situations?
I chose to make light of the situation while fixing it. You want them to see how we respond to it and how we navigate it — that makes such a difference. I want my kids to know it’s OK to screw up. So, when they screw up, that’s OK. And we figure it out. We get solutions and we move forward.
CNN: One of the other techniques you bring up is overheard praise. What exactly is that and how do we make it part of our parenting toolbox?
Flais: In the twin world, I go places with them, and people have a thought enter their brain. You would hear “you’ve got your hands full.” The implication is that my kids are a burden, and I take issue with that. And so, with practice — it didn’t come naturally to me — I smile and say, “They’re great kids.” That’s the overheard praise. And they hear that. It’s so simple but is efficient.
CNN: For our teenage boys, how do we bring them out to talk about their emotions? How do we get them to not shut down and walk away?
Flais: I have three bullet points here.
First is to be self-aware and look at how we interact with our sons. Did you do your homework? Did you take the trash out? Why didn’t you clean your room? Who would want to talk to that taskmaster? Most kids are in school for six hours. If they’re in a typical American school system and they literally go from this to this to this, do this, do that. You’re seeing them for very small chunks of time each day. If you fill it with tasks, that inhibits openness and communication. So first and foremost, I would say to be self-aware.
Next, be present. This doesn’t mean being in their face and asking questions. This means being available. While you’re just doing a task, your kid comes and talks to you, and you hear things about their day. I think that so often in communication, the emphasis is on the talking. Parents need to be self-aware to realize there’s value in the quiet moments and allow space for spontaneous contributions.
Third, meet your child where they are. This includes video games. This includes whatever your child is passionate about. Go ahead and join in. Be vulnerable.
CNN: You recommend recognizing your son’ emotions. That can be a very hard thing for parents to do, especially when for some of our teen boys the default emotion may be anger. What do you recommend parents do?
Flais: To come out on the other side of a feeling you first have to go through it. And step one is identifying it.
First and foremost, identifying what’s happening here. What’s the real root cause? Pediatricians love to say that whenever a young child acts out, we’re always looking for the reason underneath the behavior. No young child wants to act out. It’s always a cry for help. It always is a notification that, hey, I’m missing something.
Whether it’s a grown-up who’s acting out or a teenager, it’s always, if we’re going to talk about substances, that’s a version of self-medicating. What need does the teenager have that they feel the need to self-medicate with substances or alcohol when it could be met in other ways, other ways that are safer or legal? Because all too often it’s looking at the surface value of how it’s playing out. But what I would suggest is looking back two steps and seeing what led us to this question.
CNN: You bring up dealing with shame and self-hatred. That’s not talked about enough with boys. How do we guide them through those feelings and emotions?
Flais: When I hear that, my pediatrician’s brain kicks into the reflex of safety first.
If you are concerned about your son’s safety, if he has expressed to either you or a close friend an intent to hurt himself or others, that’s a medical emergency. Families need to call their doctor, call 911 and get him to the emergency room. So that’s my clinical brain.
I felt the need to write the book because I’m all about what steps can we take earlier on (in a child’s life) to impact our current situation. I’m hoping that mental health was discussed enough that it was an open subject and that (there is) the normalization of possible counseling at various stages in a child’s life. Or if the parent goes to counseling or therapy to let them know I’m going to therapy, and all too often it’s kept a secret.
Be present for your son. Then take a step back and look at their overall schedule. Most American teenagers, they’re overscheduled. So, to circle back when your son is in crisis mode like that, evaluate the big picture. I think it’s so important for kids to know the value of downtime. That’s the important thing. If you slow down, are we talking about giving them peace to exist?