Watching my child play online with his friends, I notice that one of the primary ways that we learn how to navigate our emotions is by seeing others express them.
It is common and normal to playfully refuse to follow requests, and to make inappropriate requests. My child is currently playing Minecraft, for instance, and he and his friends will say things like, “Go here” and “No, I won’t, you can’t make me.” This talk can seem downright aggressive at times to an outsider, but it’s part of healthy conversational exploration of boundaries and emotions.
The problem comes in when our tripwires are hit and we don’t have the space to express that. If there’s no socially safe way to honestly say, “Hey, my feelings were truly hurt when you did that. I know you thought I was kidding, but I was serious.” We need ways to practice communicating some form of that (even if not in those words) so that we understand both boundaries and proper communication of feelings.
By teaching our boys that it’s not cool to have feelings, we undercut that. Even worse, we open our boys up to later accusations of being the ones responsible for being victims of bullies.
I’ve seen teen boys who are clearly uncomfortable with how their peers are treating them. But they don’t say anything, and when I ask them how they’re feeling, they insist everyone is “just having fun” and “it’s all cool.”
This even leads some adults to discount the bullying on the grounds that “they’re all just playing” and “if the kid is upset about it, he should say something about it.” Worse yet, we might even say, “If he doesn’t like it, he should find other friends,” as if (1) it’s easy to change friend alignment in high school (it isn’t) and (2) it’s easy to create healthy emotional relationships when you’ve never known any or had them modeled.
So we’re setting boys up for failure by not allowing them those opportunities.