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Is The Way You Talk to Your Son Hurting Him?

Photograph by Twenty20

If you've ever found yourself talking to your daughter with more emotive words than you use while talking to your son, you're not alone. Turns out that parents actually don't talk to boys the same way that they talk to their girls, according to The New York Times.

Just as women's studies classes have examined the way that people use gendered language to undermine women and girls, recent research has shown that stereotypical messages are similarly damaging to little boys.

Emory University researchers found that fathers sing and smile more to their daughters, while also using more "analytical" language, and dads also acknowledged their daughter's sadness far more than with their sons. Meanwhile, the words that dads typically use with their sons are more about achievement, such as "win" and "proud." Researchers say that the way dads talk to their kids early on may contribute to the consistent findings that girls often do better than boys in school.

But it's not just dads who talk differently to the kids. Parents of both genders talked to their sons differently than their daughters after visits to the emergency room due for accidental injuries, researchers found in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Parents were four times more likely to tell their daughters to be more careful if doing the same activity again, while sons were less likely to receive those instructions. The same study also found that parents use directives when teaching their sons how to climb down a playground pole, but offered extensive explanations to their daughters.

Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Edward Tronick, who has tracked the relationship between infants and their mothers for three decades, has discovered that moms unconsciously interact with their infant sons more than with their daughters because the sons needed more support for controlling their emotions. Tronick says the boys emotional reactivity was "restricted or perhaps more change-worthy than the reactivity of girls." What may be even more shocking is that mothers actually initiated this through physical withdrawal.

"So the 'manning up' of infant boys begins early on in their typical interactions," Tronick told The New York Times, "and long before language plays its role."

What does that mean exactly? If your son falls down, you should comfort him with a hug and tell him everything will be OK, rather than telling him he's fine and to get up and keep playing.

Researchers are still seeking out the answer as to why, exactly, we limit the emotional vocabulary of boys. However, some believe that it is because we are preparing our sons to fight (literally and figuratively), even though the Harvard psychologist Susan David insists that we are not making resilient boys the way we may believe.

"Research shows that people who suppress emotions have lower-level resilience and emotional health," she said.

In order to change the way our culture talks to boys, we need to start by letting boys experience all of their emotions without judgment. We need to teach boys that emotions are not bad or good, and they are not something to fear or be embarrassed by.

The best advice? "Just show up for them," she said. "Get them talking. Show that you want to hear what they’re saying."

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