When my son was eight, my wife and I took him to an outdoor showing of Lilo and Stich 2: Stich Has a Glitch. His favorite stuffed animal is a Stitch doll and he loves Stitch in that intense way children can befriend a fabrication. Despite the movie’s corny name and its status as a sequel (a sequel released straight-to-video, mind you), the movie proved unforgettable. Not because it was a masterwork (it wasn’t), but because it left my son struggling against a flood of tears. And, for once, I handled his emotions well.
My son fits the definition of what Dr. Elaine Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Child. Dr. Aron uses the term to refer to children who are “easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others.” In the movie (spoiler alert?), Stich dies. Not really, of course. But momentarily, and long enough for my son to feel the impact of it, the horror of losing a close friend. He was absolutely devastated.
Easily overwhelmed, indeed.
Since his earliest years, my son has barreled through the world, emotions first. Love. Guilt. Happiness. Fear (especially fear). They all churn and beat inside of him, often surging past his ability to contain them. This can be wonderful. Who doesn’t want your son telling you earnestly and often that he loves you more than anything in the world? This can also be challenging. What do you do with a six year-old who is terrified of being dropped off at an ostensibly fun summer class? How do you react when a nine year old can’t go to school for days because a gerbil died? How do you console a ten year-old who has accidentally lost his mother’s wedding rings and is convinced he’s lost her love along with them?
I would like to say I have handled all of these situations with aplomb. That I never yelled at him for losing those rings. That I never took his Stich doll away from him because he refused to step into an ostensibly fun summer class. But I am unfortunately and frustratingly imperfect. And I didn’t know there are resources out there for raising a child as emotional as mine. What I knew—what I know—is that I love my son and want him to have the best possible life.
Nurturing Emotional Intelligence
I could write gigabytes about all the ways society tries to strip boys of their emotional intelligence. All the ways the common concept of “manhood” robs us of good and sensitive men. I won’t go into all of that here, but I bring it up to provide context for what occurred after the conclusion of Lilo and Stich 2. You see, I understood why my son was fighting back tears. I am a man who often fights back tears at the movies. And I was a boy who was teased and bullied for his propensity to cry.
Society told me to be ashamed of my emotion. And even though my parents were—are—awesome and never shamed me, I grew up believing myself weak for feeling certain emotions so strongly. Now, as a grown man, I didn’t understand how an unstoppable fear of abandonment could make my son refuse to step into a class about which he was excited the night before. And I didn’t understand how a pounding guilt could be responsible for my son’s two week delay in telling us that he was the one responsible for the disappearance of my wife’s rings. But I could understand how a movie can make a boy cry. And I wasn’t about to tell him that his reaction was wrong.
I held him and I told him it’s cool to cry. That I cry. That crying is part of living. And he listened and he cried and cried some more. Then he stopped crying and felt better and asked for chocolate ice cream.
I’m not sure he even remembers that night. Obviously I do. And while I can’t say I’ve been perfect ever since (the incident with the rings happened after this, and so have other incidents when I’ve been a less than the perfect dad), I can say I often think about that moment with the movie when I see my son struggling with his emotions. The thought of it can give me pause when I’m becoming agitated by his emotional reaction to the world. And the thought of it can give me some pretty good guidance on how to best help him when his emotions surge.
Our society spends a lot of time trying to make our boys tough. Yes, there is value in teaching endurance, perseverance, fortitude (to our boys and our girls), and my wife and I work with our son to make sure his fears and guilts don’t overcome his ability to engage with the world. But I also think there is a lot of value in teaching our boys—our children—that their emotions, however strong, are not shameful. That, in fact, responding to the world emotionally can make life brighter and broader and richer. I want my son to have the best possible life. And I believe that means ensuring he has the space to feel deeply and experience fully. Even at a movie about Stitch.
“Stitch’ed” by Taylor McBride. © 2009
“Mudra” by Giampaolo Squarcina © 2013