Surprise! Boys Care About Love Too. A Dad Shares 3 Easy Ways to Talk to Your Son About Relationships
Flowers, hearts, and candy! It’s all for girls, right? Think again!
The silent thoughts in the back of a boy’s mind on Valentines Day may not be what you imagine. Boys also long to understand and connect with the romantic feelings that surface as they grow.
It’s a common misunderstanding that boys are only interested in sex, or even mostly interested in sex, as they grow into teenagers. As the 1980s band, Foreigner once put it, boys also “want to know what love is.” A desire for deep emotional connection comes with maturation, and boys experience that too!
Valentine's Day is a time we celebrate emotional and romantic intimacy. Unfortunately, our society rarely provides opportunities for boys to learn and talk about such relationships.
Expand your conversations about relationships
Here’s a fun fact: about 80% of kids say they have a crush on someone. A lot of boys and girls feel shy about their crushes, with 40% saying they don’t share their feelings. But 60% said they do talk to someone about the people they like.
When kids share their feelings of attraction, immediately steering the conversation toward sex ed does kids a real disservice, says Elizabeth Miller, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“Parents can unintentionally oversexualize the situation while undercutting healthy feelings. Tweens aren't usually that interested in sex itself. Their questions are generally more innocent. They want to know how to approach someone they think is cute, not talk about STDs. Let them guide the conversation, and listen carefully to what is really being asked.”
When masculinity competes with intimacy
It can be difficult for boys to know what to do with feelings of closeness and tenderness toward another person. Especially when that is not part of our society’s definition of what it means to be a man.
Our culture has rather narrow expectations of ideal masculinity. Studies have identified beliefs that men should be independent and self-reliant, be physically tough, not show emotion, be dominant and sure of themselves, and be ready for sex. William Pollack argues that we’ve actually created a “boy code”, which means you’ve got to be tough and divorced from your emotions, except anger – anger is OK.
This viewpoint can create an internal conflict when a boy begins to feel attraction and tenderness toward, for example, a girl that he likes.
One study of ninth grade boys found a complex interaction between boys’ desire for intimacy and emotional connection, and the pressure they felt to conform to traditional masculine norms that tell them not to show emotion.
Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of a boy who feels drawn to someone. Something inside him wants to connect emotionally so he can share his feelings, disappointments, and passions. Something creates a desire to have that person respond with acceptance and affection. This is emotional intimacy, which is a universal human need. Unfortunately, emotional intimacy is something boys rarely hear anything about.
Don’t wait! Talk to boys about relationships now
Boys do want to talk about these feelings. We can sense the longing and confusion boys feel in this quote from a 16-year-old boy when asked what he wanted to learn in sex education. Instead of wanting to know about sex, he said:
“We want to be told what it’s like to fall in love.”
“When we tell an adult we are in love they don’t take us seriously but laugh and say its just a crush you’ll get over it, they just put us down.”
How can we guide our boys and help them honor these feelings in healthy ways? Here are a few tips for teaching boys about love, romantic feelings, and emotional intimacy.
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Build emotional awareness
Practice talking about feelings with boys. All kinds of feelings! It’s so important to help boys develop emotional awareness and expression.
Romance, love, and emotional intimacy are life-energizing emotions. Boys need to know that all of us have the same kinds of feelings. You can even use an emotion wheel to help them put words to what they are feeling.
Discuss the unhealthy beliefs in our culture that sometimes dictate that boys are not supposed to feel and express “soft” emotions.
Talking about feelings can be part of everyday life in our homes. Give boys a chance to get comfortable sharing safer, less personal feelings before asking about deeper personal emotions. It may be asking too much of a boy to discuss romantic feelings if he’s not used to sharing times when he feels lonely or left out, for example.
We can start by sharing our own emotions more often - even painful feelings. That’s the best way to create a safe place to talk about feelings. Then we can ask our boys how they are feeling and keep inviting them to share to get beyond answers like, “Fine.” It might help to say,
- “When I was your age, I sometimes felt …”
- “Lots of kids your age feel like …, do you sometimes feel like that too?”
- “I learned that when I share how I feel with someone else, I feel better. You might find that too.”
We can make this something we do frequently at home, giving boys lots of practice talking about how they feel. Be patient, over the years you will see progress!
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Have boys teach you about feelings
All of us often come to new insights as we talk out loud about things. Ask boys their opinion. We can ask,
- “What do you think love means?”
- “How would you describe what it feels like to love someone?”
- “What do you think the purpose of love is?”
- “How can you show someone you love them?”
- “Have you seen any good examples of love?”
Maybe a boy has thought this through already, or maybe he hasn’t been encouraged to sort these things out yet. Help him process a feeling by asking questions about it.
Kids are more likely to want to give their opinion than hear a parent lecture. They need to talk about what they feel more than they need a lesson on feelings. All kids, boys included, like to know that their ideas are important to adults. Be sure you listen more than you talk!
You don’t have to know all the answers
It’s okay if love and emotional intimacy are somewhat mysterious and hard to describe. We only have to share what we have felt in the best way we can.
If a boy asks his father or another man what it feels like to be in love, he will be perfectly happy with a response such as, “I don’t know how to describe it. I just feel all warm and tingly inside,” or “It feels like really wanting to be around another person and I can’t stop thinking about them,” or “It made me feel amazingly happy if she just said ‘Hi!’”
Want to know the most powerful way to teach about emotional intimacy? Share your own stories of being in love and romantic relationships. Boys don’t want a class on love, they want to hear stories about what love feels like.
Boys need help knowing appropriate ways to express their feelings of love. Sometimes it can feel so huge that some boys overreact in ways that have the opposite effect they were hoping for!
While the feelings they have are big and powerful, making a grand statement to a girl or buying her something really expensive can scare her away. Boys need to know that girls often appreciate most the small things that let them know they are noticed. Simple gestures can be very meaningful, such as;
- Listening to what they have to say
- Asking questions about what they enjoy doing
- Coming to an event the girl is participating in
- Nice notes
- Simple acts of service
- Gifts can be sweet, especially if they are small and thoughtful
One high school boy would leave for school early on a winter's morning so he could stop by his girlfriends' house and scrape the ice off her car windows as a surprise. Now that’s a memorable act of love.
And of course, talk about appropriate ways to express physical affection according to your family’s values.
"The message may be different for each family based on their culture and dynamic. The important thing is that the policies be very clear, consistent and enforced. Kids should know exactly where parents stand when it comes to their digital lives, as well as actual dating. And they should be aware of the consequences if they don't follow the established family rules." Fran Harding, director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Ideas for Valentine's Day: Celebrate emotional intimacy
Valentine's Day is a celebration of love and romance - the perfect teaching moment! Talking to boys about relationships and emotional intimacy around this holiday is a natural fit.
Here are a few ideas for talking to your son:
- Family discussion. Gather the family and ask, “What is Valentine’s Day for?” After everyone has shared a little, pose the question, “What is love and what does love feel like?” Parents could share stories about when they had tender feelings of affection. Especially if fathers, grandfathers or other male role models talk about love, boys will learn that it is normal for boys have these feelings as well.
- Father-son talk. A father or other father figure could take a boy out for a burger to celebrate the holiday. Dad could mention that Valentine’s is a time we celebrate intimate relationships. That dad could explain that emotional intimacy is feeling very close to another person, and being able to share our thoughts and feelings with someone who shows the same kind of interest to us. The father might share times he has experienced these feelings and invite the boy to share if he has ever felt that way toward anyone. Let the conversation flow naturally after that.
- Movie Night. Celebrate Valentine's Day with a movie that shows a healthy romantic relationship. It might take some thought to find one geared in a way that a boy could appreciate it. The movie should focus on romantic feelings, not the physical expression of love, so that the boy can tell the difference. For example, Disney’s animated Aladdin is at a child’s level and is focused more on the male character than the female. Have a brief conversation afterward about the feelings of attraction and affection the male character, such as Aladdin, had for the female, such as Jasmine. In that conversation, discuss that it is normal for boys to eventually have feelings like this. Ask your son what he thinks about the idea of romance and attraction.
Valentine’s Day vs Pornography
Pornography is the antithesis of healthy emotional intimacy. Valentine's Day is a celebration of the best kind of loving intimacy, and pornography can never give that. This is a good time to teach boys that there is something waiting for them in the future that is more fulfilling than the false illusions of pornography.
In spite of the progress our culture has made toward being open with our feelings, boys still feel pressure to pretend they don’t care about such things. We can make a difference this year and give them opportunities to talk in the safety of our home. Men do need emotional intimacy and do have romantic feelings. All boys come to a time when they want to know what love is. We can help them see that this is a wonderful thing!