He Literally Doesn’t Have the Words
by Tamara Levy
So, boys aren’t good at talking, huh?
I try not to indulge or engage in the stereotype that girls are more emotional than boys, or that boys often fall short when searching for comforting words or complex emotional language, or that girls thrive in this area in contrast. But I think most would agree that there is some degree of truth to this – and it turns out there’s a reason why.
Like with everything, we learn it all in childhood. If a parent never speaks to their child, they will never learn to speak themselves. If the parent never points at a tree when they’re walking through a park with their child and says ‘look, a tree!’, the child will never learn what a tree is. Talking forms the basis of children’s first point of language in a strange, complex world, and needed within this is an abundance of emotional vocabulary.
Recent research from Harvard medical school shows that “boys are in fact more emotionally expressive than girls…this begins in early infancy…so it is possible that boys might actually begin with at least comparable, if not a higher, range of emotional expressions.” So this whole it’s-just-how-they are, boys-aren’t-good-at-talking-thing is starting to look like a complete falsity, and what’s worse is that it could all be environmental.
Different Approaches to Parenting
There’s lots of general controversy surrounding how one should speak to their infant child or baby. Some parents may enjoy talking to their baby in specific, sweet, dulcet tones, repeat words or phrases, exchange ‘dog’ for ‘doggie’, train for ‘choochootrain’ and, a personal favourite, ‘milk’ for ‘milky’. Even those such as myself who don’t see sense in it favour it when meeting a pair of beautiful blue eyes. Some parents refuse this way of talking, and believe that age shouldn’t play a factor in tone or language. And perhaps some won’t necessarily think about it, and will just do what comes naturally. But I think that there’s an unconscious factor, something many of us allow to alter how we speak to children and babies: gender.
Even those who don’t generally engage in ‘baby talk’ are (without realising) more likely to adapt their tone depending on the gender of the baby in question. The studies from Harvard medical school show that generally, girls are spoken to in sentences that contain more emotional vocabulary, and boys are spoken to in more angered tones, with a less complex range of emotions portrayed. The result of this is that boys do not retain the emotional relatability they are born with in the same way that girls do. So, it turns out we are making boys this way, rather than them being born this way. Pretty frightening, eh?
Will Boys Be Boys?
As a society, I think many of us are guilty of this. It’s important to remember how much a child listens to everything we say and do, and what appropriations they might be making from our tone or language, or how often they notice the change in tone that’s cast upon a sibling of a different gender. But it’s hard to get out of a habit if we don’t even realise we’re doing it. That’s why it’s important to listen to our kids, because the proof will be in their behaviour. We cannot erase the stereotype that boys aren’t good at talking if we continue to be oblivious to the fact that we are the ones perpetuating it. If we don’t teach our boys to have the words…well, they won’t, well, have them. Literally. It just won’t be in their vocabulary.
If we take this one step forward, looking ahead into young boys futures, it is no secret that statistically, men are less likely to reach out for help when it comes to mental health difficulties. According to Matt Haig in Reasons to Stay Alive, “worldwide, men are over three times more likely to kill themselves than women.” Up until now, I have been focusing my attention towards the fact that a contributing factor towards male depression is the difficulty they often have with talking about their emotions – something which I can now perhaps attribute to language inequalities and barriers created in early childhood. But perhaps these studies are exposing an even more potent issue, that men may not even contain the vocabulary to explain how they’re feeling. It’s hard enough as it is to suffer with mental health difficulties, but not being raised with an abundance of emotional vocabulary, literally not having the words to explain, well that’s just going to make it even harder.
It’s not just in the home that we need to be aware of this issue. Lifting Limits collected data from surveys undertaken by staff in their pilot schools which showed that “staff don’t always have the confidence to identify and address” gendered language. Within this category of ‘language’ we can explore many sub categories such as body language, tone, or even commonly used phrases such as ‘big boys don’t cry’ that can all have profoundly negative impacts. And because it’s become the norm, because it rolls off the tongue, we may not even realise we are doing it. We need to create a new dialect, or rather, get used to reverting to the same dialect that doesn’t recognise gender when it comes to conversing with boys and girls in the early years. We need to give boys the best chance possible at developing a range of emotional vocabulary that will inevitably enable them to express their feelings and attitudes clearly as they develop into early adulthood. We need to teach them all the words they will need.
not only pink and blue
Erasing gender based language stereotyping is a big part of what we try and do at Not Only Pink and Blue. If you want to find out more about why we are doing what we are doing pop over to our About Us section; and to get involved in the discussion, check out our site and socials like Instagram and FaceBook. We look forward to hearing from you!
 Gruber, June, L. Borelli, Jessica, The Importance of Fostering Emotional Diversity in Boys https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-importance-of-fostering-emotional-diversity-in-boys/ [accessed 03/10/2021].
 Haig, Matt, Reasons To Stay Alive, p.54. (Canongate, 2015).
 Gestetner, Caren, Lifting Limits, “Gendered Language in Schools” https://liftinglimits.org.uk/2019/03/gendered-language-in-schools/ [accessed 03/10/2021].
About Tamara Levy:
Tamara Levy is a recent English Literature graduate from City, University of London. She obtained a First in her degree and specialised in women’s studies. Since graduating, she has worked as a nursery practitioner whilst studying for an RQF Level 3 in the Children’s Workforce. She has also worked as a content writer, photographer, and freelance illustrator, and is about to begin her first role in publishing at Signature Gifts Ltd, where she will primarily write children’s books and work in product development. Tamara is passionate about erasing gender stereotypes in the early years and believes that sign languages such as Makaton (which she is attempting to learn) should be seen as a universal language across all schooling communities worldwide.