Men and Affection: Three Practices to Raise Boys Unafraid to Love
When I was twenty-one I spent two months living in London with a group of young people from around the world as part of a summer mission project. It was a great opportunity to meet people from various countries and to learn more about the world. I was part of a small team that included men and women from Germany, Finland, South Africa, Jordan, Brazil, and several others countries.
One afternoon Kamal, a young Jordanian, and I went to meet some others in Hyde Park. Along the way he grabbed my hand as we walked side-by-side. I quickly removed my hand from his grasp and Kamal kindly explained that it was common for Arab men to hold hands as a sign of friendship and affection. But it was sign of friendship and affection that I was not comfortable with, not mature enough for and, though he repeated this several times over the summer, I always let go of his hand as quickly as possible.
As a boy I loved to hold my younger brother’s hand. He was my best friend and, though he was only eighteen months younger, feeling his soft little hand in mine made me feel good, and protective. That tenderness quickly moved into aggression and we would wrestle, punch, and kick each other. Yes, often in fun. But seldom have we, after our early years, expressed our affection for each other in a physical way (with the exception of a bro-hug).
Now, over twenty years after Kamal reached for my hand, my son is in kindergarten and I love to watch him interact with his male friends. They hug each other, can often be found with hands on each other’s face or in hair, rest their heads on each other when they talk and, yes, even hold hands.
Logan clearly loves his male buddies.
When and why do we stop expressing affection for our male friends? As adults this extends beyond the physical. I can do “bro hugs” easily but find it difficult to speak if I try to tell a male friend how much I appreciate him.
For boys as they age there is the pressure to avoid being a “sissy”. Girls, we’re told (and shown) are emotional, weak, and cry. If you’re like a girl you must be gay. And sadly, of course, for many people that is still unacceptable. It is this pressure that quenches some of the natural physical affection that boys express for each other when they are young and we learn to express our affection violently, through punches, teasing, and other forms of verbal abuse.
It saddens me to think it will happen to my son.
So, what can we do to help our sons express affection for their male friends?
The following three practices can help our sons learn to be unafraid about showing affection:
1. Watch our words. Don’t speak in demeaning terms about girls, crying, homosexuals, or the expression of emotion. Don’t react negatively when our sons share their affection in a physical way.
2. Demonstrate appropriate physical touch with your male friends. Hug your best buds, shake hands, and stand with your arm around your friends. And tell them how important they are to you. Avoid confusing affection with violence or verbal attacks. There are various ways to express affection. Make a practice of demonstrating them in front of your son.
3. Express physical affection for your father and/or male siblings. I kiss my father on the cheek when I see him. I do this not only to show my love for him but also because I want my son to always kiss me and not be afraid to show affection for me.
Did you see the film Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts? I don’t remember much about the film but what I do remember is Felipe, the character played by Javier Bardem, a Brazilian divorcé, whose college-age son visits. Felipe kisses his adult son on the lips and openly weeps when his son departs the country.
Rarely do you see an American father express this type of affection for his son. I was a new father when I saw the movie and thought: that is exactly how I will be when my son is older.
Every night, before I go to bed, I silently enter my son’s room (he is approaching six now) and kiss him and whisper that I love him.
I know, soon enough, he will likely ask me to end this nightly show of affection.
But he’s a deep sleeper. Don’t tell him and I just might get away with it until he goes away to college.