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The Question That Brought My Family Closer

Photograph by Getty Images

Not long ago, each school day ended with a conversation with my son Zion's teacher, who would invariably tell my son's father or me that our son had a difficult day. We would learn that he'd been using inappropriate language, refusing to listen or take instruction or hitting other children. These discussions would stir a mix of feelings within me—I felt both helpless and angry at my son for continuing to behave that way.

One day after speaking with Zion's father about our son's day, I decided to drop by his house to just check on Zion and say hello before work. When I arrived, Zion greeted me with his usual exuberant, "Hi Mommy" and a big hug. His father was slightly withdrawn; I assumed he was concerned about our son's behavior.

We sat down to just connect as Zion moved between us. In the past, we removed privileges when Zion's conduct was an issue. We eliminated screen time and access to his favorite toys for the evening. But that day we all gathered together, which, from the looks of it, was not punishment for Zion at all, but a rare treat.

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After a bit, his dad approached the subject of school and began asking Zion several questions about his behavior. He introduced the conversation gently as Zion sat in my lap. His voice was calming and supportive, and I just listened as he asked, "Can you tell me how you feel when you are at school?" He was helping him identify his feelings, which is something I'd never heard him do before.

Zion listened intently, as I held him around his waist. We waited for his answer for a few moments. Finally he said, "I don't know."

Then his dad asked, "Did you feel angry, sad, or happy?"

There was more silence as Zion took time to process the question and remember what had happened. "I felt sad." Zion went on to explain that his best friend and he had been saying mean things to one another. They were both doing it and it had been a game. Zion said his feelings were hurt and he decided to start hitting his friend.

Never again would I feel intimated to share my feelings with my son's father.

In all of my nearly 50 years on the planet, I've never once seen an exchange between a father and son, of any two men, like this. As I listened, I recalled the years I'd spent married to this man, who would never think to consider feelings as the motivating factor for actions—not his or mine. But something had shifted in him, and his new philosophy moved him to discover what feelings might be beneath the behavior.

I knew he'd never been asked how he was feeling by his father. If anything, he was told not to feel at all, because men don't have feelings; feelings are for sissies. I knew he's played with a tribe of female cousins during his early years because he was much younger than his male cousins and brother, and at one point he started being teased for being like a girl. In order to be with the boys and do as boys do, he'd rejected acknowledging his (and everyone else's) feelings. He'd decided to man up.

So I was surprised and delighted to see my son's father offer him a new approach to boyhood. He was being given the permission to feel and to use those feelings to help him better understand himself. And though I was happy for my son, I was even happier for his father, who could now access his feelings and express them fearlessly.

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In those few moments, our lives changed. Never again would I feel intimated to share my feelings with my son's father, and I would move forward with an open and curious approach to what he felt. And the beauty of experiencing the emotions shared between my son and his father was priceless. My son's father has created the safest of spaces for our son to discover himself as he matures and grows into a man. In my family, "How do you feel?" has replaced "man up," and we're dramatically better for it.

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