These misperceptions are deeply entrenched in the assumption that maturity in men translates to emotional stoicism, unwavering self-reliance, and a tendency to show no vulnerability or fear. However, research shows that it’s not innate cognitive or behavioral differences between men and women that can hinder strong male social connections, but rather their level of adherence to societal norms.
One particular study of infants revealed that there isn’t much of a difference between boys and girls neurologically that would affect their capacity for developing empathy. Judy Chu, a professor at Stanford suggests it is culture that is the more determining factor for boys’ social and emotional skill development. In her study, she observed similar abilities to read others’ emotions between genders until about midway through Kindergarten. At this point, she saw the majority of boys’ aligning themselves to more traditional masculine norms often to impress others or maintain relationships with peers. As the boys continued to get older, she noted that there was often a marked difference in boys’ levels of affection shown at home versus in public.
Recent research by California State University Humboldt backs up Chu’s earlier research, with findings that the closer men adhere to traditional male gender roles, the worse their friendships fare. While it may be easy for some men to shrug off the need for close friendships, it may be more important than they realize. A multitude of research about healthy aging all points to strong social connections as a determining factor for a happy life. A review of 148 studies (with 308,849 total subjects) from Brigham Young University found that loneliness is just as harmful to health as alcoholism, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and not exercising.
These numbers may seem scary, but the good news is, it seems that we have a greater chance to influence capacity for male social and emotional skill development. Research points to culture as a major influencer in hindering these important social connections which is why how we raise our boys is extremely important. Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., the Education Director for Greater Good Science Center gave the following suggestions in her Huffpost Blog (to see the full article, click here):
- Help boys both respect their need for connection and develop their emotional and relational abilities
- Examine our own beliefs as adult role models
- Teach them to understand that emotions are just part of the human experience and that learning to work with them in a healthy way actually makes us stronger
- Share with them how much our friendships mean to us and how important friends are to our health and well-being
- Communicate to boys that having emotionally intimate same-sex friendships is part of male maturity, thus encouraging them to maintain their strong friendships with other boys as they get older.
We have the power to make a change in our culture. The decisions each of us make every day has an impact. Let’s start by challenging our own thinking, and teaching our boys to value male social connections as a critical part of overall well-being.
Zakrzewski, P. (2014, December 5). Debunking the Myths About Boys and Emotions. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
Duane, D. (2014, May 1). Men's Journal Magazine - Men's Style, Travel, Fitness and Gear. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
Photo Credit: Katie Hickey