Big Boys Don’t Cry and Other Lies We Tell Our Sons

“You’re a big boy now. Big boys don’t cry.”

Someone spoke these words to my son, on his fifth birthday. In the car the following day, another person said the same thing. I didn’t know how to react the first time, besides shock. It’s 2018, and this is still a thing?! But the second time? My mama bear claws came out in full force, and I spoke up.

“Actually, if you’re sad, or hurt, or need to work out your feelings and crying helps, you can cry. Big boys do cry. Everyone cries. It’s how we show we’re sad, or even sometimes mad, or frustrated,” I said. 

Why do we force this idea on our kids? Crying is a way of working out emotion. Why should we validate the feelings of one gender, while ignoring those of the other? All children deserve to learn how to process their feelings, to understand what made them feel that way and why. They have to learn this, or their actions will be worse than a few tears.

Failure or Success?

A wonderful article shared on multiple platforms and available here discusses how some social norms like ‘boys don’t cry,’ aren’t only damaging but dangerous. Data shows men are more likely to be violent, struggle with substance abuse, and to commit suicide. Myths about masculinity only pave the way for a new generation with the same old problems. 

Psychology Today explains it with this metaphor: “If boys don’t cry, then you shouldn’t have to tell your son that boys don’t cry. I never have to tell my dog that dogs don’t meow. She doesn’t meow, will never meow, and me telling her this tidbit is pretty irrelevant. Repeatedly telling a crying boy that boys don’t cry is ignoring the obvious: that boys do, in fact, cry.” It goes on to highlight how boys are taught to repress their emotions, while girls are taught to dwell on them. This creates a discordance in relationships, contributing to communication issues. Is that what we want for our kids? If we tell our boys that they aren’t supposed to cry, and they do, how will they feel? Are we setting them up for future failure, or for success?

Teaching Communication Skills

I understand we need to teach our children to react appropriately to different scenarios. Crying over a skinned knee and crying because a baby stole your toy are two very different things, and deserve different reactions. But telling them that neither situation warrants an emotional response is just false. Tears from an injury can likely be soothed with a kiss and a bandage. Dealing with the response to someone taking their toy requires teaching them the right communication skills, whether that’s that a baby isn’t maliciously stealing toys or that a toddler needs to be asked calmly and nicely while offered a different toy. 

Other Lies

Boys don’t cry isn’t the only lie we tell our sons. From gendered toys to job roles in society, to not teaching them how to do housework, we’re setting them up to annoy their future spouses in the same way our spouses may annoy us. We need to teach them that if you live in the house, you help take care of it. That starts early; Melissa and Doug make toy cleaning sets for a reason! Kids like to help. With praise and encouragement, they’ll hopefully continue to like to help as they grow. We need to teach them to identify their emotions, and recognize when someone else is feeling aggravated, irritated, or hurt by their actions so they can learn to make amends.

The one piece of advice I got over and over again when I asked how to help my first son adjust when my second child arrived was to give him a baby doll, so he would see his new sibling as ‘his’ baby and not feel resentful about sharing mommy and daddy’s attention. I honestly never got around to it, but thankfully a nurse practitioner popped in shortly after my boys met, saw older brother pouting, and said, “Oh, is that your baby?” to my son. He looked at his new sibling in a new light and said, “Yes, yes it is! This my baby.” That simple act of taking ownership of his sibling truly helped him adjust to a big change when he was only two and a half years old, and I regretted not getting him a baby doll.

We need to raise our boys to be great men: men who are strong inside and out. That starts now, when they’re boys, and need our help learning to navigate this world and their place in it.

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