I watched a young boy on the school playground with his father, tears streaming down his little face, uncontrollably weeping about something his father considered trivial. Instead of offering comfort, the boy’s father told him to stop the waterworks. Instead of the warm safe arms of his father around him, the little boy got to hear that crying wasn’t necessary, that his tears wouldn’t change anything.
Another morning in my son’s classroom I saw a father take his 4-year-old daughter in his arms. She was shaking with sadness, sobbing until she could hardly catch her breath, so her father held her until her tears dried up. He reassured her that they’d make a new play date. There was no discussion about whether her tears were needed; her tears were an accepted part of her bitter disappointment.
The fathers’ reactions are typical of society’s attitude to crying, to wearing emotions close to the surface; a crying girl is acceptable, a crying boy makes us uncomfortable. Boys who show their negative feelings are not viewed positively. Sensitive boys are labeled sissies and cry babies. They are told to man up. Told to grow balls.
The idea that “boys don’t cry” is something that schoolboys learn early on. It’s a mantra practiced with vigor and enthusiasm should any male classmate dare to cry in front of them, making themselves the subject of teasing and even bullying. Boys are saturated from an early age by media pressure to act tough and are shamed for showing their emotions, all emotion except anger that is. The stigma attached to a male crying only grows as boys make their way through junior school.
Which is ironic because studies show that baby boys are actually more emotionally reactive than baby girls. A recent experiment showed that men’s reactions are actually marginally stronger to emotional stimuli than women’s but that they are less willing to express those feelings than women. They are merely living up to the gender stereotype placed upon them and learn to curb their natural reaction to cry.
Boys change how they express themselves in order to be accepted by their peers, by society around them. They project an image of themselves for the outside world that doesn’t match the boy they are on the inside. Young boys start burying their emotions deep inside to fit in with the world around them. They bottle up negative feelings such as stress and anxiety, which becomes an emotional time bomb in the making.
And that’s bad news for all of us, because those boys turn into adult men who are uncomfortable expressing their real feelings, who look for other ways to express their stress. They turn into the big boys who won’t cry. They evolve into the fathers who are uncomfortable with their young sons crying on the school playground. It’s a cycle we need to break.
I have three young sons. They are highly sensitive children, they’re emotive and show more than their fair share of empathy. They care what others think about them and don’t want to stand out. Their sensitive personalities make learning how to model masculinity in their own way imperative if they are to avoid altering the essence of who they are. It’s important that they learn to stand their ground and not be easily swayed to hide how they feel.
I want them to know that it is society’s unnatural and unrealistic expectations that need to change, and not them. I want them to understand that no male should be expected to detach himself from his emotions. That presenting the illusion of emotional immunity is not what defines being male. I want them to cherish their sensitivity, not banish it to a deep place within them.
I want to give my sons the gift of being fathers who encourage their own sons to express their feelings, to be the kind of fathers that let their sons know it is okay to let their tears roll.
It is part of my role as their mother to teach them the importance of authenticity, so they live their lives being true to who they are, and not what others want or expect them to be. It is my job to nurture the whole boy in each of them, not quash the spirit of who they are. I want them to be proud of their sensitive nature and not see it as a curse.
But the norms society places on males makes my job harder than it should be. So I’m starting small whilst thinking and wishing big.
I’m teaching my boys, whilst they are still young, that it’s okay to cry, that their tears are healthy and natural and don’t need to be hidden away under a cover of shame. With those words enveloping them as they grow, I hope they will become men who still believe their mother’s assertions that big boys do cry after all.
This was originally published as Changing the Notion that Big Boys Don’t Cry, One Little Boy at a Time over on The Good Men Project.