Our youngest was in T-ball when the baseball took a bad hop and clocked him on the cheek. He returned to the dugout, lips pursed, nostrils flared, about to explode into wild tears of hurt. I was part-way down the stands, ready to give him a hug while he cried it out. Before I could get to him, the coach grabbed our boy’s shoulders and said in a firm voice, “Suck it up. Shake it off. You’re fine.”
I froze. That was the exact opposite message I wanted him to have.
But our sweet, sensitive boy nodded. He sucked it up. He shook it off. He went back onto the field.
He was not fine.
He was surprised and hurt and the wisdom of his instincts told him to let it out . . . so that then, and only then, would he be fine.
But it was too late.
His coach taught him to stifle his feelings of hurt.
It didn’t matter how many times his dad and I gave him the message that it was okay to cry, to feel his feelings; he could no longer hear us. The only voice in our son’s mind was that of his coach . . . and other men in his life who reinforced a similar message of “Suck it up.”
By the time, our son entered middle school, he’d deeply learned the message that to feel sad was weakness and to feel anger was strength.
There was no space for anything else.
Too many boys are fed these harmful messages, causing them to close off emotionally. Their sadness doesn’t go away, it morphs into something destructive, even violent. If boys don’t have a healthy way to experience their feelings without shame, those feelings will come out in ways that’s damaging to them and to society.
That’s why I write young male characters full of sensitivity and gentleness. The characters I create are guides for my young readers. The pages of my books offer permission for young male readers to feel their feelings. All of their feelings – sadness, loneliness, grief, joy, wonder — without judgement.
Conrad in Abby, Tried and True is the boy every parent would want their daughter or son to date. He’s thoughtful in his dealings with Abby, makes tea for her and asks consent before their first kiss.
Cleveland’s best buddy, Declan, in The Paris Project, offers her lime spritzers and a compassionate listening ear when she needs it. He also tells her when she’s done something to hurt his feelings.
Miles, from In Your Shoes, acknowledges the loss and grief that his new friend, Amy, feels after losing her mom. He also shows a range of messy emotions as he deals with the death of his beloved grandfather.
My novels offer emotional roadmaps for young readers, especially young male readers. That’s why it hurts my heart when a parent sees a girl on the cover of one of my books and says, “This isn’t for my son.” My books are most definitely for that person’s son, even when there’s a girl on the cover. Especially when there’s a girl on the cover.
Boys need to learn to value the rich interior lives of girls, to value them and respect them. That begins with acknowledging and listening to/reading girls’ stories.
Peggy Orenstein (Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity) discovered when researching the emotional lives of young men that the women in their lives (mothers, girlfriends) did the emotional work for them. And consequently, the young men saw women as there to fulfill their needs, not as having their own rich inner lives.
It’s essential that we counteract the messages of toxic masculinity boys receive from a very young age, sometimes from the people they admire most, like their T-ball coaches. We need to tell boys stories where girls have rich inner lives and boys are allowed to feel a wide range of emotions without shame or guilt.
What books do you put in the hands of the boys in your class to help them acknowledge and experience their own rich emotional lives and the emotional lives of their classmates?
Award-winning author, Donna Gephart, has published eight MG novels with Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster. Her latest books are Abby, Tried and True, The Paris Project and In Your Shoes. Her first picture book, Go Be Wonderful, came out from Holiday House. She’s a popular speaker at book festivals, conferences and school visits (virtual and in-person). Visit www.donnagephart.com to learn more.