Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Boys into Men: The Power of Words

My daughter and I went out for an early dinner last week, and our table was next to a large table of adults and children celebrating a young boy’s birthday.  He was probably five or six.  The children were having a great time.  Then we heard the voice.  

Influence versus Force 
The voice was that of the birthday boy’s mom, and she had an agenda.  She wanted photographs of him with his guests, and she wanted those photos to be picture perfect.  Candid photos of him actually having fun were not OK.   He had to stand a certain way and he had to smile a certain way.  Her harsh tone sucked all of the fun right out of the party.  She was not influencing her son to be a happy part of the picture; she was forcing him to be a part of her picture.  When he didn’t comply, her next words were, “You are upsetting me.”  My daughter looked at me with very wide eyes that seemed to say, “Yikes!”  

Emotional Responsibility 
Mom was making a five-year-old responsible for her reaction and her emotions.  Her repeated claim - “You are upsetting me” – sounded like a threat of impending doom.  Something cataclysmic was about to happen when she actually reached the point of upset.  I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t sound pretty.  

Boys into Men: Big Decisions  
Our words are very powerful.  Our children are making decisions about the world, relationships, how men are, and how women are based on their interpretation of feedback from the important people in their lives.  These are very influential decisions that will guide their worldview.  “You are upsetting me” muddies the water about ownership of our emotions.  

I was very curious about what this young boy concluded from his interaction with his mom.  I wondered what he decided about having fun, pleasing others, and handling emotions.  I wondered what he decided about women.  Are women’s emotions his responsibility?  I have a hunch that he had probably heard those words from his mom before the birthday party.  She probably lets dad know that dad upsets her, too.  How dad responds to mom then paints an even bigger picture for this young boy.  From his father’s response, he gets feedback on how men relate to women.  Words are very powerful. 

In this moment at his birthday party was he thinking that he must comply with the requests of others in order to be loved?  Did he conclude that being upset was bad and having someone become upset was something to be avoided at all costs?   Maybe he simply concluded that mom was weird or bossy or not much fun or gets tense at high stakes birthday parties.  

The Birthday Gift  
I won’t know the answers to those questions.  I do hope, if we were to fast forward twenty years, that the decisions he made at his fifth birthday party have led to a happy relationship with his wife or partner and to lots of fun in his life.  Mostly, I hope he is crystal clear that although he does indeed powerfully influence others, others remain in charge of their emotional responses.  I hope, too, that his twenty-fifth birthday will be full of warmth, a professional photographer, and many candid photographs.

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