Last updated: January 12th, 2017
“All she does is cry.”
My son was not too impressed with his new sister.
Warned by peers who had been there before, I hadn’t promised him a friend or a playmate… or even someone who he would have anything in common with. (Unless of course his hobbies included bringing up milk and pooping around the clock.)
Yet even with the lowest of expectations, this loud tiny human was failing to impress her big bro.
“She doesn’t have any words yet.” I explained. “She cries when she wants something, and she is trying to let us know what that is. As she gets older, she will learn some words and be able to say ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m tired’ just like you do. And then she won’t cry so much.”
He nodded and looked thoughtful.
“Because I’m a big boy” he replied. “And big boys don’t cry.”
Be a Man About It
My immediate instinct was to fixate on the obvious gender bias my 5-year-old had unwittingly stumbled across. And it definitely needed addressing. Developmental psychologist Dr Christina Spears Brown discusses exactly this. “We often teach boys that sad emotions are something only girls are allowed to express.”
This affects more than just what we see on the outside. Yes, girls will feel more comfortable to shed tears in public. But the real issue here is more broadly the education of emotion itself.
When we use expressions like ‘man up’ or ‘don’t be such a girl about it’, what are we subconsciously teaching? Brown continues, “For boys, they are [being] taught that sadness is not okay, and expressing sadness is definitely not okay.”
Bearing this in mind, did you know that almost four times as many men as women commit suicide in the USA?
Clearly, there is a long journey from ‘Be a big boy’ to this tragic statistic. But we shouldn’t ignore the relationship.
The simple fact is as Jane Powell, CEO of Calm agrees, “telling men that they should at least pretend to be invincible, shouldn’t show feelings, should be strong and silent if they want to be a ‘real man’, is destructive.”
Crier Crier Pants on Fire
My initial reaction to the word ‘boys’ makes sense, but I didn’t feel more at ease. After all, it doesn’t help if we change “boys” to “kids.” I am someone who is often moved to tears by running out of milk once the coffee machine has turned on. I have first-hand knowledge that big kids do cry!
In fact, this particular big kid has checked out the crunched numbers. According to research from Tilburg University, American women will enjoy a crying session an average of 3.5 times per month. Men in turn cry an average of 1.9 times.
It doesn’t matter whether you are more or less teary than the average. The chances are that you have reached for the tissues more than once since you were a baby. Tears are the most common way of expressing emotions. Not just sadness but also anger, frustration, confusion and sometimes even happiness.
Simply put, when we say to our children, “big kids don’t cry” we are lying to them. Seeing your parents cry can be a frightening experience for a child. This is only made worse if you are starting out with the illogical belief that adults don’t cry in the first place.
If you don’t encourage the idea that your tear ducts get removed around the time you hit puberty, you can explain why adults cry to kids fairly simply.
My son understands that a baby cries because they don’t have words yet. Well, sometimes grown-ups don’t have words either. As we move out of childhood, of course we have more language to express our feelings. But we have more feelings too! A baby might be hungry or tired or lonely. A young child experiences more feelings than a baby, for example frustration or disappointment. Your emotions only increase as you get older.
Cry Me a River
So why discourage crying as something negative? Isn’t this an implicit suggestion that letting your emotions out is somehow bad or wrong? Luckily, there are ways to change this attitude.
One way is by acknowledging that there are some benefits to having a good cry.
Tear researcher Dr William Frey has shown that “crying is a natural way to reduce emotional stress that, left unchecked, has negative physical effects on the body. [These include] increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other stress-related disorders.” In fact, “85% of women and 73% of men [are] less sad and angry after crying.”
I realized that I was listening to my little boy proudly claiming both maturity and masculinity by announcing that he didn’t cry. Changing his perception of tears won’t be a simple task. But it begins with changing that language.
There are alternatives to ‘Big kids don’t cry.’ I attempt to quell tears by asking my children if they can explain how they are feeling once they’re ready. I also remind them that Mommy and Daddy cry too sometimes. Of course, they might then repeat negative thoughts about their tears. I try explaining that crying and expressing emotion is good for you, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
Defining tears as a loss of control or something to apologize for is a dangerous stigma. It is not something to hold onto preciously for the next generation like some kind of heirloom. As Dr Spears Brown agrees, we all build our own beliefs about “what emotions feel like, how they should be labelled, and how they should be expressed. We aren’t born with these schemas, we are taught them.”
If we think about how we describe crying to our own children, we have a real opportunity to reinvent how we discuss tears. We can encourage our kids to confront and embrace their emotions, and use crying as a vehicle for better communication.