“Why do we limit the emotional vocabulary of boys?”
In this piece from the New York Times, Andrew Reiner collects some recent research about how infant boys and girls are treated differently. He cites quite a range of research and not all of it seems to fit together. It may well be that this opinion piece is a chopped up version of a longer essay. I have had that happen to me and I am prepared to be sympathetic. Or it may be that he has a critique in mind—the one with which I have begun this reflection on his column—and that he is just grouping around it the research that comes to hand.
I am quite sure that “we” in the question includes teachers like himself. I am reasonably sure that by “limit,” he means that without the actions he and others take, the “emotional vocabulary” of boys would be richer. I suspect that if the “emotional vocabulary” of boys were “richer,” it would be very much more like that of girls.
So then I wonder why that would be a good idea.
I come to this question by a devious and personal route. My wife, Marilyn, died in 2003 and I had the kinds of grieving difficulties men have when their wives die. One of the difficulties was confusion. A lot of the things that were being recommended to me didn’t seem to help. Some of them made everything seem worse. That’s why I was confused.
I heard an interview on NPR with author Kenneth Doka, co-author with Terry Martin of a book now called Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways that Men and Women Mourn. Doka was saying in this interview that the work he and his co-author had done showed that men and women very often grieved differently. That didn’t surprise me.
Then he said something that did surprise me. He said that the style more commonly used by women—they call it the intuitive style—is also the gold standard among mental health counselors. So if a man is grieving, he has a grief problem to deal with. If he sees a counselor who tells him how he should be grieving, laying out the common elements of the intuitive style, then, Doka said, he has two problems.
Not only is he grieving, but he is doing it wrong.
They call the style men more frequently use, the “instrumental style.” Just hearing Doka describe the kinds of things that many men do with their grief and how helpful they have found it made me relax. Some very large, very intimate tension inside me just gave way at that point. I was so grateful that I went out and bought the book and read it three or four times.
And that is why when I hear lines like “expanding the emotional vocabulary of boys”—which might very well be a good thing once the “How far?” question is answered—I think of my experience with the intuitive and instrumental styles of grieving. 
Expressing and suppressing
There are three ways to frame this problem.
- You can say that there is “a right way to do it.”
- You can say that gender styles are too tight (rigid) or too loose (unclear).
- You can say that a particular person should think about gender and emotions differently, that he or she would be benefitted by emoting, lets use that as an example, differently that he or she does now.
Just to shape of the contours of those dilemmas a little, let’s try to imagine what questions they offer us.
- The first setting can be illustrated by saying that suppressing emotions is a bad thing to do. Note that that instance bypasses both the gender-appropriate and the person-appropriate forms of the question. Here’s an example from Reiner’s article.
“…Harvard psychologist Susan David [says]: “Research shows that people who suppress emotions have lower-level resilience and emotional health.”
That may be true. “Suppress” is hard to be sure about. “Suppress” means that an emotion is experienced and prevented from expression. Nothing here says that boys, for instance, who are judged to be “over-expressive” have better emotional health. Nothing says that Charlie, the boy himself, would benefit from suppressing his emotions more or less. Both of those question are bypassed.
- The second way of framing the question is saying that gender roles are too narrow—or alternatively, that the boundaries are too rigid. Clearly, “limit the emotional vocabulary of boys” falls into this pattern. The implication is that the emotional expressions of boys would naturally be broader—i.e. more like those of girls—except for the “limiting” that is done. Most of the studies cited in Reiner’s piece are about how such limiting is done. He does a good job, I think, of posing that question.
But there is the matter if whether that is the best question to pose. In posing this one, he bypassed the other two question we are keeping in mind. The first is whether “broad allowances for emotional expression” are good for people. In focusing on the possibility that these limits are bad for boys, Reiner bypassed the question of whether people in general are benefitted from rich and unconstrained emotional expression. If that were true, we would expect to find that cultures that presuppose free and unfettered emotional expression would be healthier than cultures that do not. I am not aware of any research that holds that to be true, but I will keep my eyes open.
Then there is the question, also bypassed by Reiner’s choice, of whether a particular boy would be benefitted. If Reiner were a counselor, rather than a professor, his job would be to look after the well-being of his client. Some clients will need to be taught better control, some greater spontaneity, and some finer discrimination between one social setting and another. Under no circumstances should Counselor Reiner allow Professor Reiner to dictate how he handles his clients because clients have such a distressing tendency to differ from each other.
- Finally, there is the question of whether any particular boy would benefit from “a richer emotional vocabulary.” There is no way to deal with this question abstractly and I don’t criticize Reiner for failing to deal with it. I mention it here only because asking it bypasses the other two questions. We cannot begin with a particular boy in mind and ask whether people are healthier if they are more expressive; nor can we ask whether the gender-based expectations for emotionality are too broad or too narrow for boys.
Should boys (men) be different from girls (women)?
My own answer is that they certainly should, but the question isn’t very often asked that way and you will notice that Reiner does not ask it that way either. He asks whether boys would “benefit” from an array of emotional expression that is more like that of girls.
This is a question of the second kind as I explored the three above. It does not ask what is good for “people” or for a particular person, but for the members of one sex, males in this case. That raises the question of what problem of boys the proposal addresses. If it is “limited emotional vocabulary,” as in Reiner’s case, the question we want to ask is what benefit “unlimited”—I know he doesn’t mean that, but “limited” is such a weasel word—would bring to boys. How would they be better off if they expressed themselves more emotionally?
As you would guess by now, my answer is that some boys would benefit and some wouldn’t. Furthermore, some girls would benefit from a more limited emotional vocabulary and others would not. This is the most important kind of question for parents, but I agree with Reiner that it isn’t very good for outsiders. The research Reiner reports has to do with mothers and fathers with young infants. No one is asking what kind of treatment is going to benefit this particular infant. That is not a question that can be asked yet.
A 2014 study in Pediatrics found that mothers interacted vocally more often with their infant daughters than they did their infant sons. In a different study, a team of British researchers found that Spanish mothers were more likely to use emotional words and emotional topics when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.
That’s interesting, but it isn’t important unless it contributes to the “problem” Reiner cares about in this column, which is the “limited emotional vocabulary.” And if I care about the growth and development of little boys and girls, I can’t tell how this finding should matter to me.
Reiner also reports research about the orientation of parents to young children, which is perfectly appropriate, but the research he reports is limited entirely to narrow interactions, rather than to the effects on the person.
What’s more, a 2017 study led by Emory University researchers discovered, among other things, that fathers also sing and smile more to their daughters, and they use language that is more “analytical” and that acknowledges their sadness far more than they do with their sons. The words they use with sons are more focused on achievement — such as “win” and “proud.” Researchers believe that these discrepancies in fathers’ language may contribute to “the consistent findings that girls outperform boys in school achievement outcomes.”
It is not hard to imagine, based on this study that fathers acknowledging the sadness of their daughters validates any inclination they might have had toward emotional expression. Similarly, the fathers’ focus on the achievement of their sons might very well be related to the sons’ focus on task-oriented behavior, rather than on emotional expression.
Looking at this from my standpoint, I see the precursors of the intuitive style of grieving and the instrumental style of grieving. The lesson I took from that setting is that there is a perfectly good style of grieving that doesn’t require an expanded emotional vocabulary (as well as one that does) and I am inclined to look at Reiner’s piece from that standpoint.
Peer and mate selection
One question an adolescent boy might ask if he were to read Reiner’s piece (OK, what are the chances?) is “How is the emotional style I choose going to affect my life?” Reiner offers two little clips that bear, ominously, on that question. One comes from his own classroom, presumably at Towson University in New Jersey.
Nowhere is this truer than in English classes where, as I’ve witnessed after more than 20 years of teaching, boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments.
His point in citing this is that the guys in these classes seem to “fear”  emotion-rich engagement with poetry, for instance. For whatever reason, saying these kinds of things is likely to get you in trouble with your buddies and everyone in the class knows that. Your options at that point are to endure the trouble, to fight back, or to choose different buddies.  None of those is easy, which is why the “policing function” exercised by same sex peers is so effective.
The other question one might ask is how a style of emotional expression might affect your marriage chances. Here’s Reiner on that question.
Indeed, a Canadian study found that college-aged female respondents considered men more attractive if they used shorter words and sentences and spoke less. This finding seems to jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they appear.
Or as Brené Brown summarizes it: “Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them [bur]…many grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer.”
So as a young man of the college and marriage age—I remember a time when those were very nearly the same—I look at myself and my emotional style and seek the approval of my male friends and the prospective appreciation of my female friends and I say that succinct and task-oriented are the way to go.
That’s not entirely fair to Reiner. He is offering a gender-based critique and he had taken the risk of showing that the research cuts both ways. I am calling into question the research that doesn’t go the way I would like it and using nearly all of the research he reports that does go the way I like it. But those small points aside, in putting the crucial question in the mind of a young man, a particular young may, I am undoing his whole strategy that “boys”—the whole genderful of people—be considered as the subject.
When a particular young man asks this question, he may well come out further down the line than Reiner would like him and closer to what I would like.
There is a problem here that needs to be solved. Surely there is. I am not sure, based on my reading of Andrew Reiner’s piece in the New York Times just what it is.
 Nobody wants to deal with the “how far” question. “More” which is just a direction seems safe. I think boys should have more. But “how much more” is a destination, not just a direction, and it asks the question, how much is enough and how much is too much? The critique is often as broad as the gender. The the answer is going to have to come one boy at a time.
 I think that in practice, “narrow” and “rigid” are just two visualizations of the same problem. “Narrow” refers to the space of behavior that is allowed. Broad, many kinds of behavior are permitted (not stigmatized) and “narrow,” only a few kinds are permitted. I think that “rigid” refers to the lability of the boundaries. If the boundaries are flexible, the whole question of whether they are broad or narrow is bypassed.
 The choice of “fear” is advocacy language. What would be obvious to any observer, the professor included, is that the other guys are disapproving “sensitive” or “emotionally nuanced” interactions with literature. The idea that this disapproval is the product of the “fear” of the other guys is an explanation that advanced Reiner’s view of the problem, but isn’t an “experience” he has had. It is a theory he is pitching.
 Of course, it isn’t always gender. Michelle Obama, when she was a little girl, was reproved by one of her classmates for not sounding black enough. “Ooooh,” the friend said, “You sound like a white girl.” The First Lady-in-training responded that she liked the answer she had given and was not going to change it to make it sound blacker.