Are Boys Considered Emotional? Using the Arts to Teach Emotional Intelligence to Boys
Are boys considered emotional? The societal assumption of males as stoic and females
as emotional, as in, “you’re just being dramatic and emotional,” seems to be fading fast in an
era of new and clearer understanding regarding the range of human emotions. There is a strong
body of evidence indicating that we as a Western society need new ways of raising our boys. A
central part of this evidence calls for finding ways for boys to express certain emotions, but
have historically and culturally been taught to suppress in order to appear “tough” and
I am a teacher in the arts and a choral teacher. Helping boys use their art and their voices to express emotions in productive, inclusive, and accepting ways is just as foundational in my work as helping my students read notes on the page and find their part in a song.
WHO ARE YOU?
As I introduce myself to new people, and the question of what I do for a living invariably enters the conversation, the revelation that I am a teacher is often met with a comment similar to the following: “Isn’t it great to have summer vacation!?” It is great, and I have done my fair share of resting and renewing myself this summer. However, as is common with all educators, I have been working, as well. Conferences, lesson and syllabus planning, and in my case, programming of music for the coming school year, are all a part of my summer vacation.
In June, I was fortunate to attend the International Boy’s School Conference in Montreal, Québec. The conference theme was, “Boys and the Arts; Great Minds, Big Hearts.” As a choral director, this was a chance for me to engage and commence with other arts educators at all-male schools from around the world. The central lesson from this conference was a reaffirmation of the power and importance of the arts in the expression of emotions for young students, especially boys.
The statistics surrounding males are bleak. We have seen an increase in ADHD and depression among adolescents and teens. Male suicide rates skyrocket to six-times that of females by the time they reach middle-age. Gun violence, gang violence, and rates of incarceration are all higher than those of females. In the groundbreaking book, The Boy Crisis, John Gray and Warren Farrell lay out these striking statistics before positing a path forward for raising our boys in a new, more emotionally intelligent way.
During the IBSC conference in a standing-room-only session in the high school gymnasium, I heard psychologist Dr. Michael Reichert speak about relational learning and new approaches to raising boys. I own two of his books that are related to the field of education: I can Learn from You, and Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys. He began by contending that art, and indeed all forms of creative expression, are vital to the emotional learning of boys today. In fact, his words were "emotional intelligence," which he identified as a skill that must be honed and practiced.
I am primarily a chorus teacher, which translates to a more traditional, conductor-led classroom structure. I program music, rehearse the ensembles, conduct concerts, and organize tours. However, in addition to this, I am also tasked with teaching music appreciation. I find boys entering my class ready to engage with music, any music, in order to have some moment of expression outside of a rigorous classroom. This points to a need for socio-emotional learning among boys. The benefits boys receive in arts education are innumerable, and the pathway for their emotional output is often stifled or blocked due to societal norms surrounding “male-ness” or in its extreme form, toxic masculinity.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So how do I teach emotional intelligence through arts, and more to the point, how do I teach it in my choruses? The art that boys are making allows them a conduit to express their true emotions in a safe, validating arena. They can show their struggles through photographs, sculptures, spoken-word poems, and paintings. In my chorus, the students discuss the meaning behind each piece, which influences their interpretations of each piece. A WWI commemorative piece will be interpreted differently than a sea chanty. The beautiful sound-making and collective emotional experience of singing with other boys provides a sensitive outlet for boys, all boys, and is an integral part of their overall well-being. Those boys that include reflective art within their daily schedule are typically happier and more likely to say they are in touch with their emotions.
My favorite moment of the 2019 IBSC Conference came in the middle of Dr. Sonia Lupien’s keynote talk on stress. She began by breaking down why humans physiologically have stress reactions in modern society, despite the absence of predators anymore. She made the point that breathing exercises and slow, abdominal exercises in the diaphragm, can reduce stress precipitously by slowing down the sympathetic nervous system’s reaction to a stressor (a related NPR report shows a similar study here). But what is the best way to get adolescent boys to sit and slowly breathe in and out from their diaphragms? Dr. Lupien had the answer: “The best way to trick them into doing this is through singing!” I immediately felt all of my colleagues sitting with me turn their heads in my direction. I just smiled knowingly, as this is something I’ve known my entire career!
However well this works, tricking boys into stress-reduction is not sustainable. They must be willing participants, and they are. Even at Avon Old Farms, the New England private school for boys, enrollment in the arts is incredibly high, with over a third of the students enrolled in some music course. Boys want to include this type of learning in their lives, and even better, in their academic schedule. The boys that I encounter desire a meaningful, emotional connection to the things they are learning.
In recent decades, we have made incredible strides in education in regards to equality, but we are still a long, long way from “solving” all of the issues in education. I offer this one part of the solution—art as a conduit for bringing out emotional intelligence in males—as a part of my job and mission at Avon Old Farms high school in CT. Having an artistic class in the middle of a long school day is only one piece of the incredibly complex issue we are facing. All constituents must accept that we must look at the way we educate our boys in a different way. I am so grateful that I have an incredible school community that encourages me and my students to keep making beautiful music.
About the Author
Director of Choirs