Children Will Suffer for Their Parents’ Misdeeds – Liberating Men from the Cables of Patriarchal Culture.
By Tamir Ashman
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (Jeremiah 31:29)
During the years I’ve been occupying in treating men who behave violently in the marital/family space, I heard countless of shares by men about themselves as children and about handling their parenthood. Through listening to repetitive motives which are revealed in the men’s stories, I will ask to describe the ancient masculine inheritance which is passed on from a father to son during the past hundreds and thousands of years, as a whisper or an ancient tune that our fathers sang to their sons. The importance of this ancient melody is rooted in the fact that mothers and fathers continue to memorize it, teach it and pass it on to their children. This legacy is therefore inherited in the narrative of the human species, perhaps from the day in which gender partition between man and women began. The purpose of this papers is to shed a light over the depressing side of the male legacy. The assumption is that the awareness to those sides, might slightly minimize the damages this legacy causes our sons in particular and the overall society.
At the age of eight days, as a typical Jewish son, my parents chose to circumcise me. I made a similar choice when my son arrived the rightful age of eight days. This is not what this paper is about, and I don’t have much to say in this topic. In half a smile, I can say that the ceremony of circumcision is a first, constituent and empowering connection between masculinity, pain, and escaping the pain using alcohol. I request to focus in an additional circumcision which occurs in the human culture. The second circumcision, in which the parent circumcises and cut the foreskin of the emotional world of our sons. This in fact ‘the process of masculine knot’
I propose that we start the journey from our mother’s uterus. Let’s imagine that in the mother’s uterus there are twins – brother and sister. Is it possible to find emotional differences between boys and girls already in their mother’s uterus, meaning their ability to be in touch with their feeling? Is there a difference in their ability to communicate their emotional world to close people? Is there an innate difference in their ability to create intimate relationships?
In an interesting research which was conducted in Sidney university in Australia the researchers tried to understand and ask – which gender, boys or girls, cry more after coming into the world? Observers in the delivery rooms in Sidney followed the first hour in the life of hundreds of babies, boys and girls, and counted the frequency of crying, and its volume during the hour post birth.
The results of this research revealed that boys cry a bit more than girls in the hour after their birth.
Each parent who raises a baby, knows that the basic language that the child uses, before learning the skills of language and speech, is the language of crying. If we listen to the baby’s crying we learn that there is a variety of crying types, since crying in its essence is the baby’s only possibility to organize and act versus the helplessness in his needy situation. The crying provides the baby an efficient tool to communicate his internal world – the hungry, anxiety, frustrated, tired, and hurting with the adults’ world who are responsible to raise him. As parents we cannot remain apathetic to a baby’s cry, and we’d do anything to stop or improve these sawing sounds. It is known, that a new born baby, who grows in a human environment which doesn’t listen nor responds to his cry, slowly he will stop crying, close into himself, his immune system will be significantly damaged, and there is an actual risk to his life.
Apparently that our boys are born sensitive and vulnerable just like our girls according to the experiment. This raises the assumption that the boys’ ability to communicate their emotional world and needs is identical to the girls’. In other words, boys obtain the inborn ability to be in intimate relations, to feel compassion and empathy for themselves and later for fellow people.
And however, if we remember for a moment in ourselves as adult males, how are we speaking our emotional world to people who are close to us, I’m afraid we’ll get a slightly mute response, so far off from the inborn nature the boy holds. Hearing the stories of men that have come to my ears during my work I assume that the typical normal man holds a very limited emotional vocabulary in his attempt to communicate his emotional world to his spouse, which includes a limited repertoire of laconic sentences such as ‘I’m tired’, or in the expanded version ‘leave me alone I’m tired of ‘why are you nagging and going in my vains’ ‘I’m furious’ etc.
When I was five or six years old I especially liked the poem ‘Danny the hero’ by Miriam Yellin Shtaklis. Today as the years sent by I deeply understand why it was so important to me to hear that poem again and again. After all the poem ‘Danny the hero’ is nothing but an empowering anthem of masculinity.
Danny the hero/ Miriam Yellin Shtaklis
My mother told me: Danny
My child is a hero and bright.
My child will never cry
Like a little gullible
I never cry
I’m not a crying baby
It’s only the tears, the tears
They cry on their own
I gave a flower to Nurit,
Pretty and tiny and blue.
An apple I gave to Nurit
I gave her my all
Nurit ate the apple
The flower she threw at the yard
And she went off to play
With another child
I never cry
I’m a hero not a cry baby
But shy, oh mom, why
The tears cry on their own?
A lot was said and written about this poem, yet, if we dare to understand Danny’s private tragedy, the little boy, through an empathic and compelling observation, we’ll understand something very deep about ourselves and the way we treat our children. Both in the poem and the reality of many men’s lives. Already in the age of kindergarten, Danny, as a boy, internalizes the rules and norms of his gender – boys must and have to learn to overcome and conquer their feelings.
At the age of five “Danny the hero” already has a live and beating emotional system, since he can devote himself to a relationship, go fall in love, to love, to get hurt, to be excited and to give. Danny experiences in the poem the basic complexity of love, which is temporary and could slip away and always comes with sadness. Danny feels upset due to initial feelings of heartbreak, thus he goes to his mother, who he still believes in. The mother’s role is basic, similarly to the father’s job, she needs to encounter the boy with his emotional world, meaning assisting to conceptualize, digest, experience and to transcribe his internal world.
Danny’s longing for an unconditional acceptance and acknowledgement of the mother in his feelings. He expects his mother to provide him a sense of normalcy, an experience of confirmation or validation to his feelings. But instead, Danny is facing a mother who sacrifices her son at the alter of popular norms for boys/men, and that is in words which sound “cradling”. In fact, in her “cradling” words the mother attacks him and tells him to behave as a hero, and to cry like a baby. This is the process of socialization. Thus, Danny internalizes quickly the social message, and eco his mother’s sayings:
I never cry
I’m a hero not a cry baby
But shy, oh mom, why
The tears cry on their own?
Danny is therefore erased as an individual and is recreated as a social creature. The price he pays for this socialization process is heavy. Danny’s personal and collective experience, ends in the process of Danny’s alienation to his body and feelings. Danny’s effort to control his feelings has failed. He experiences his body as a traitor, while his tears cry on their own. This national children’s poem, in his essence, is a song about betrayal. Allegedly Nurit’s betrayal in Danny, but in fact the mother has betrayed her son, and due to that Danny has betrayed his body and feelings.
I have one memory from preschool. I remember how one day in the yard, I saw a bee laying on its back. Excited of the opportunity, I began exploring the bee’s body. I put my hand towards her stomach, fearless. The bee chose to end her life by stinging me. I remember how the tip of my finger burned in a feeling of pain I didn’t know before. I went to the kindergarten teacher, who I trusted, with my finger outstretched towards her, while my other hand grasps it tightly. I told the kindergarten teacher I got stung by a bee and it hurts really bad. She looked at me from above and said ‘I don’t believe you! you’re lying!, if you were stung by a bee you would have cried a long time ago’, I remember how my physical pain turned into an even more painful mental pain. The vocabulary I had back then couldn’t help to express my feelings, I held myself from crying until the preschool day was over, and I came bac, home, my mother opened the house door, and when I saw her my entire body was shaking, my tears and crying burst out of my throat, and how did my dear mother treat me? Did she provide me the acknowledgement and validation which I needed so bad?
Plato said, ‘in order to meet itself, the soul needs another soul’, meaning, the boy needs adults in order to meet himself. In practice, the boy will experience a long chain of empathic failures from the adults’ world, which will delegitimize his emotional system. When the boy cries, in the worst case he’ll get beaten, yelled at, mocked, will be shut in the shower until he calms down, will be punished and threatened. In the less severe cases, but as destructive he will be told ‘you behave like your sister!’, ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘calm down!!, nothing happened to you!!’, ‘why are you crying, I don’t understand why are you crying?!’, or other expressions of lack of patience and rejection, in light of the boy’s feelings.
Like the girl the boy wishes, to be accepted unconditionally in his family. The boy realizes very fast that to survive emotionally at home, he must not risk himself at acquiring emotional words which will put him at a risk of rejection and aversion by his parents and siblings.
A friend told me how his 8-year-old son Jonathan, came back for the first time from a private lesson in music, the father asked his son ‘how was your class Jonathan?’ Jonathan told his father enthusiastically, ‘dad it was simply amazing, this teacher is charming, and I really like him, when will I have my next lesson? The lesson just ended, and I already miss him.’
Try to imagine the father’s response, how would you respond if your son chose to be amazed and phrase like that?
In this case the father was relatively aware to himself. He avoided attacking the child directly, but he couldn’t avoid having a shocked expression on his face, and of course that Jonathan, the son, internalized their meaning, that became even clearer when he saw his father approaching his spouse and asked her: ‘what’s wrong with Jonathan? He’s been talking weird lately. And besides I’m not happy about that music teacher’.
When the son doesn’t acquire a language, which will conceptualize his emotional world, he is incapable to provide himself an acknowledgement and acceptance of his feelings, and in the absence of acknowledgement the boy loses his ability to listen to his needs and communicate it to fellow people. His internal world is experienced as aggressive and scary; thus, repertoire of the boy’s comments is limited to fight or flight. In this process the son stops trusting and no longer trusts himself or the others and comprehends himself as weak and incapable.
Another example, I went to pick up my daughter from kindergarten one day, and I saw a father and son leaving the kindergarten and I listened to their conversation, I saw how the son looked at his father and tells him in a sad and despaired voice ‘Eric hit me again in kindergarten today’. I saw how the father’s shoulders elevate, his back getting firm, and after a second of silence the father scolded his son, ‘well did you hit him back?!, I hope you didn’t behave like a sucker!’, I saw the boy’s small shoulders shrink a little, his back was slightly bent, and both males continued their walk in silence.
I understand the father’s helplessness. One of our jobs as parents is to teach our children (boys and girls) how to defend themselves versus aggression which is directed at them. The father’s response is not empowering the child, it leaves him more lonely, helpless and lacking the tools of coping. The father chose to give an advice without even being asked to give it. In my opinion, the father was better off if he just listened, to validate his son’s feelings, to ask him questions about the way that his son organizes in situations like these, to tell him a similar personal memory from his own childhood, and countless of other creative ways.
This and more: a thirty years old man began a therapeutic process. During the second session he wanted to show me pictures of his family on his cellphone. He showed me a picture of his wife, his daughter and his six-year-old son. I look with attention on the boy’s eyes in the picture. After a certain pause I tell the man ‘your son has sensitive eyes, he is sensitive, right? The man leans back, sighs, and said: you’re right, now I understand why I come for you for these conversations, help me kick out this sensitivity from my son!.”
In our culture, they boy’s sensitivity still qualifies as a problem, something which will cause the boy to suffer in his environment, something that needs to be uprooted from the child. Parents still obtain a little fear, that if we don’t oppress the boy’s sensitivity, then he won’t survive life. Perhaps his sensitivity will put him at risk of becoming a homosexual? Maybe when he grows up and becomes a man, he won’t be able to provide security to his family and the entire country? In brief, a failure.
It is important to understand that a man who is not sensitive and attentive to himself, will not be able to provide sensitivity and attention to his spouse and his children. Sensitivity is a source of strength and power, and it is not conflicted with masculinity, on the contrary, it makes masculinity creative and less schematic and predicted.
A final example in conclusion.
Often, I host conversation circles with therapists, where I tell about the prices which men pay over the masculine depression, as well as the challenge in raising boys, and the importance of providing boys a soft and beneficial space, which will offer conditions of support and recognition of their emotional world. Almost every time there are people in the audience who say, that if we as a society will embrace these messages, our sons, once they grow up to be soldiers – won’t be able to fight. That we won’t be able to defend ourselves during war, that we won’t survive as a country in the middle east if our sons will be sensitive.
I understand the concern, we live around here in a complicated reality, but it is important to understand that a boy who doesn’t know how to express his needs and feelings in words, will look for alternative ways to express his needs, and we’ll start seeing already in kindergarten ages, and in school how the normal boy expresses himself through acting out and less through the verbal language, we’ll start noticing as parents and educators, that the boy’s physical body chooses to express and communicate his internal world using physical symptoms (obsessive eating, asthma attacks, allergy attacks, migraines, stomach aches etc.)
If we choose as adults to free ourselves from the existing gender social order, and we learn to accept our sons’ emotional world, we’ll benefit as a society. I have no doubt, that if we change as a society and culture, the oppressing treatment towards our sons, we’ll benefit men with a higher capability to defend themselves and their surroundings, our sons will be in touch with their emotional needs and will know how to communicate it to their close ones. Our sons will learn how to trust and devote themselves in a relationship. We’ll receive an attentive and compassioned society, which is a lot less violent.
In the name of that hope, I will finish with another clause from Jeremiah 31 which opened this paper:
‘So, there is hope for your descendants, declares the lord. Your children will return to their own land’ (Jeremiah 31:17)