How would emotional intelligence help end the boy crisis?

by Joseph Cohen, President and co-founder, Empowered Fathers in Action (EFA) Foundation

You don’t have to be a clinical psychologist to know that one of the main reasons girls have made indisputable strides from the corporate world to the entertainment arena and many sectors in between during the past few decades is because of their emotional intelligence.

Although emotional intelligence is learned by girls as part of their early female socialization process, it’s not second nature to boys.

“For boys there is an ever-widening gap between the heroic intelligence that it took our sons to be respected as men in the past and the emotional intelligence needed for your son’s future.” says Warren Farrell, Ph. D, co-author of The Boy Crisis and Chair of the Commission to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men. “Yet few schools are teaching communication skills and empathy training to help boys make that transition.”

To understand the importance of making that transition, let’s look at why emotional intelligence is so critical for a boy’s future. “The more sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes,” according to Farrell, “the more we will yearn for humans to fill the emotional intelligence void.” From a career perspective, Farrell believes that the caring professions — such as in the health care or home care industry — are currently female dominated and will thrive while traditional male careers shrink.

While some might argue that artificial intelligence can to some extent replicate emotional intelligence — as addressed in the popular movie Her ? — it won’t replace how important emotional intelligence is for a father, male partner, physician, or nurse to be most effective.

Having the ability to respond appropriately to the subtleties of body language, tones of voice, speech patterns, and eye contact is as important as simply knowing when it’s best to listen rather than speak or when creating space is better than being proactive. These characteristics are the voids Artificial Intelligence will create. As a result, filling those voids will become valuable and command greater pay — an opportunity for boys, if they can learn empathy and emotional intelligence.
Are boys simply inferior compared to girls when it comes to developing emotional intelligence? Not when there’s money on the line.

Studies show that when observing casually, girls pick up more accurately what others are feeling. But when there is pay offered to assess the feelings of others — as was discussed by Kristi Klein and Sara Hodges in “Gender Differences, Motivation, and Empathic Accuracy: When It Pays to Understand” published June, 2001 in Personality and Psychology Bulletin 27 — the empathy gender gap disappears. This implies that the capacity for empathy and emotional intelligence is just dormant within boys until they know it becomes valuable to develop those characteristics.

Helping boys develop empathy and emotional intelligence

“Parents can foster empathy and emotional intelligence by understanding what their son is feeling and by validating his feelings,” says Linda Olson, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and founder of Georgia Childhood Domestic Violence Association. She suggests that parents first ask themselves what does my child need from me right now rather than asking their child what they “think” or what they want to “do.” Dr. Olson explains that asking your son “what are you feeling” rather than “what happened” or focusing on the facts of a situation will illicit a very different type of dialogue. “Asking them about how they feel helps them to acknowledge and own their own feelings, which builds empathy,” she says. “Parents should avoid the trap of telling their child what to do or how to feel.”

For example, a validating statement such as “that makes sense you feel misunderstood and alone” helps builds emotional intelligence and empathy. “We build empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, taking the time to listen, and validating their feelings,” says Dr. Olson. “Try to see the world from your son’s point of view. What stressors does he have? How would you feel if you were in his shoes?”

She explains that in her practice taking a trip back to childhood is necessary for building empathy and emotional intelligence while creating lasting results. “I often ask my patients to bring in a picture of when they were young,” says Dr. Olson. “I tell them the child inside you needs your help. Your child within needs you to see them, hear them, guide them and love them.”

An effective approach she uses is to ask her patients to hold the picture in their hands and ask their child within what they need the most from their adult self. “Talking to your child within creates a sense of clarity, will eliminate the unresolved pain, and help build self compassion and empathy,” says Dr.Olson.

Teaching empathy and emotional intelligence in schools

Although the personality characteristics of children are developed in the formative years at home, schools can also help because many are funded to stop bullying. “Both bullies and the bullied have three things in common,” according to “Predictors of Bullying and Victimization in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-analytic Investigation” by Clayton Cook published in School Psychology Quarterly 25. “Both come from negative family, school and community environments; both have low self-esteem; and both have poor social skills.”

Apparently, both bullies and their victims are similarly vulnerable. And teaching empathy and emotional intelligence skills would help both. So since these skills can be taught — and will help boys compete in the professions with the greatest demand — schools must include this curriculum during the formative years.

Fortunately, schools from K-12 across the United States have already begun using an effective evidence based Social and Emotional Learning program called the Choose Love Enrichment Program developed by Jessie Lewis Choose Love Foundation, an organization founded by Scarlett Lewis who lost her six year-old son, Jessie, in the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Joseph Cohen is a former New York city public school teacher and journalist who recently published Write Father, Write Son : A Bond-Building Journey.

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