Boys do cry: why we need to talk about men and mental health

Boys don’t cry.

We’ve all heard it. Some of us have said it. While as a girl, I know about the messaging that is directed at us from birth, there is also antiquated views pushed onto baby boys.

There’s this (misguided) belief that crying is expressing emotions and feelings. To emote is to be weak. To be weak is to be feminine. It doesn’t seem to matter the cause behind the tears — fell off your bike, didn’t get the last cookie, didn’t get selected for the team? — better button up that lip and halt those tears in their tracks better than the levee in New Orleans.

Pushing the fact that emotions being connected to being a woman (and that it’s bad) aside, I find myself asking the question why. Why aren’t boys allowed to cry? Who is it hurting?

Crying is literally the body’s way of expressing pain or sorrow. (That’s not the official definition, just my own). Stifling tears is no more unnatural than trying to hold your need to urinate. Sooner or later, something will come out of you. In the case of tears, it manifests itself in negative ways over the long term.

As a single mother to a little boy, I am hyper aware of what the world already thinks of me. That I cannot in any way, raise a boy to become a man. That his chances of being a ‘mama’s boy’ are exponentially increased. That he will grow up to be a sissy who gets bullied. I’ve heard and seen it all. 
But as a parent, my job, no matter the gender of my children, is to raise them to be WHOLE human beings. Period.

When my son was a toddler, throwing tantrums over Oreo cookies, I would firmly halt the tears in their tracks. My response: we don’t cry over food. As a writer, I know that words mean things and that children are sponges. The message I wanted to send was: crying over food isn’t something we do.

As he’s gotten older, and instead of tantrums is the never-ending-parental-question: WHY, I explain there are children who don’t have things to eat and wasting food or making demands for it isn’t fair. When the time is right, I will take him to a food bank to see with his own eyes where people have to grocery shop for their families. No never-ending wide variety of fun choices. Just shelves of boxes and cans. He won’t ever associate tears with food.

The other day, I had to have a conversation with him about words. He had said some inappropriate things to his caregiver. Words that I know were picked up on the school playground. I asked him why he said it, if he thinks he should have said it and told him I was disappointed and it wasn’t very nice.

His reaction? To cry.

Mine? To let him.

He crawled into my lap and sobbed because many children know the wrenching feeling of having disappointed your parents. It’s worse than them being angry. I didn’t want to yell at him but wanted to get the point across that words mean things. I told him if he’s sad, he’s allowed to say he’s sad. If he’s angry, he’s allowed to say he’s mad.

When the tears subsided, he went and played with his trains. All was eventually right with his world again.

For the record, he’s 4. So when people say that kids are too young to learn/know certain things, I say those people don’t have children. They know more than we think they do. They observe and HEAR everything. They push boundaries and force us to think carefully of how we will react.

He’s not going to be 4 forever. Before I know it, he will be 14. And 24. And 44. And I don’t want the next time or only time he cries in his adult life is at a funeral of a loved one. He’s going to suffer loss, heartbreak, despair. He’s going to experience physical and emotional pain. That’s just the human experience. I can try and shield him from it as much as possible, but it’s not realistic.

If we raised boys to be full human beings, women wouldn’t be dealing with men now who don’t know empathy and compassion. We wouldn’t be frustrated when we pour out our feelings to be replied with a 1-word answer. We wouldn’t try to be his safe space in times of adversity because he shuts out the entire world.

Rainbows only come out after a storm. Plants grow best in the season of rain. The wide spectrum of emotions we have humans is what makes a life.

Let our boys experience them all. Let them cry. We will all be the better for it.