Raising Boys In A World Where “Boys Don’t Cry”
Boys don’t cry. Or do they? They do and they should. Here’s how you can help your son learn that all emotions, including fear and sadness, are normal and show him healthy ways to express them
By Saakshi Kapoor Kumar • 15 min read
Arjun, a 2-year-old, wailed because his favorite “blankie” was a little ripped. His father came home after a hard day at work and as soon as he entered the house, he asked his wife, “Why is he crying like a girl?” This was the first time Arjun got the subtle message that boys don’t cry.
Kian, a 5-year-old, was playing with his twin sister Kiara at the park when they saw a group of older boys playing football. Kiara wanted to play with them. The two of them walked up to the boys and Kiara asked one of them, “Can I play too?” The boy replied, “Girls don’t play football,” to which she responded, “Why?” He answered, “You can get hurt while playing football, but you can’t complain. Girls cry, boys don’t. Boys are stronger!” When Kian heard this answer, he was confused, because he knew for a fact that he cried too and that his sister played football better than him.
Aaryan was just 10. His friend was upset about his low scores in one of the exams. Aaryan felt sorry for his friend. But instead of comforting him, almost in an automated fashion, Aaryan said, “Boys don’t cry. Don’t you know it?”
Emotions are the essence of what makes us human. When your little boy comes crying to you after he scratches his knees, he wants his hurt to be validated. When you hug him and tell him, “Oh, that must really hurt. Come, let Mumma clean it and make it better,” he feels safe and comforted. But if you were to tell your son that he shouldn’t cry, you would be suppressing his emotions. It would be like saying, “What you’re feeling is wrong.”
We have been conditioned to believe that crying is a sign of weakness. How can something that comes so naturally to all of us be considered weak? When a newborn arrives, the first thing we all want him to do is cry and yet, we spend the rest of our lives telling our little boy that crying is unnatural. In this article, we’ll throw light on how this stereotype plays out in our lives, how it impacts our boys and what we can do to help them express their emotions in healthy ways.
The myth behind boys don’t cry
Whether you’re a man or a woman reading this, chances are you’ve heard expressions such as “Boys don’t cry” or “Be a man” or “Don’t cry like a girl.” These comments may or may not have been directed to you but you must’ve heard them in casual conversations or in movies. The point is—we’ve all heard them and we’ve internalized them. And therefore, these statements have become a part of our inner voice.
When you hear something over and over again, you begin to think it’s true. When you start believing it to be true, even if it isn’t, you become a part of the problem. You begin to view everything through a foggy lens. Unfortunately, you can pass this lens on to your children. And naturally, they begin to view the world (and themselves) through this lens. In the above scenarios, the young boys are repeatedly being told, implicitly, that it’s not okay for boys to display emotions.
These narratives and stereotypes didn’t just come out of nowhere. Historically, men have always been considered tougher—simply because they have more physical strength. Biologically speaking, men are tougher and the presence of testosterone makes them appear stronger as well. This led to the generalization that men are tougher and they shouldn’t display their vulnerabilities. As a result, men feel the need to match their outward “manliness” with their inner being, something which can be traumatizing for them.
The role of parents in stereotyping behaviors
Just like most other things in life, children learn about emotions mainly through interactions with their parents. According to an article by Catro and colleagues published in the journal Infant and Child Development in 2015, parental influence plays a critical role in a child’s emotional development.
- In a study titled Gender Differences in Parent–Child Emotion Narratives published in Sex Roles in 2000, conducted to analyze parent-child conversations, it was found that parents tend to share their emotional experiences with daughters more than with their sons. Both mothers and fathers were more emotional when discussing sad events with daughters than with sons.
- It was also found that mothers talked more about emotions with their daughters than with their sons. Also, daughters are often introduced to a greater variety of emotions than sons. In the beginning of another study, when the child participants were 3.5 years old, there were no gender differences in how they expressed their emotions. However, by the time the children reached the age of 6, girls talked more about emotions and also initiated more emotional discussions than boys.
- Notable gender differences were found in children’s emotional expression. Girls displayed emotions such as sadness and sympathy, while boys showed more anger. Such patterns of emotional expressions emerged in children all the way from toddlerhood up until middle school.
- In another study, it was found that in middle school, girls more frequently release pent-up emotions and seek support for feelings.
When we express our emotions more with our daughters than with our sons, inadvertently, we are perpetuating stereotypes such as:
- Girls are gentler and more caring. Boys are insensitive.
- Girls can cry. Boys can’t.
- Girls can’t express anger. Boys can.
- Girls understand emotions. Boys don’t.
- Girls are vulnerable. Boys are not.
When boys hide their emotions …
- When we raise boys to be tough and expect them to suppress their emotions, they grow up feeling that they shouldn’t feel any sadness, vulnerability or fear; they believe such emotions are reserved for girls. But boys do feel these emotions. So imagine your boy’s confusion when he’s told not to “feel” this way. He doesn’t learn how to express his feelings in a healthy way. As a result, his pent-up emotions turn into anger and aggression, emotions that make him appear “tough.” As the child grows, he falls deeper into this “tough guy” pit because of the fear of being labeled a misfit in society.
- When boys begin to hold their emotions in and suppress them, there’s a greater risk that no one talks about. Because boys are told to be strong, confident and tough all the time, they feel the need to shut themselves off and keep all emotions within. They also begin to associate emotions such as sadness, fear and confusion with “shame.” Unable to cope, the internal turmoil leads to depression and anxiety. What’s worse is that boys even exhibit symptoms of depression differently than girls. Research has found that men are less likely to seek professional help and even unconsciously exhibit behaviors such as anger, rather than sadness, when they’re depressed.
- Another study titled published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity in 2010, it was found that when men restrict their emotions, they are more likely to show aggression and experience more emotional intolerance or lack of empathy.
When boys express their emotions freely…
- they feel more in control of their emotions and become more self-aware
- they can empathize with others
- they can cope with their “big” feelings without crumbling under the gravity of the emotion
- they can form deeper bonds, lasting friendships
- they can deal with stressful situations and transitions
- they do better at school
- manage moods better
What you can do to support your son’s emotional development
Nature may be partially responsible for some of the differences we see between boys and girls. But nurture, the environment in which children grow up, has an even larger role to play in promoting this gender disparity. Daughters talk more about their emotions because parents talk to them more about emotions. Perhaps, we haven’t bothered to equip our sons with the emotional vocabulary they need to better process their emotions. How can we expect our sons to express something they don’t have a word for? It’s time to pause and give such questions more thought.
Many parents feel that even if they encourage their boys to express their emotions at home, their sons will eventually be exposed to gender stereotypes in the outside world. But even if the world tries to curb your child’s emotions, your home can be a space of solace, an oasis of relief for your child. Here are five ways to raise boys who feel comfortable expressing their emotions:
1. Provide them the emotional vocabulary
Start using words that describe emotions, such as happy, sad, confused, scared, lonely, excited, etc. When children are equipped with the right vocabulary, they can put a name to their feelings and express them better. As they grow, keep adding to this vocabulary and talk about emotions often. Read stories to them or indulge in some role play and ask, “What do you think X was feeling?” This will help your child better articulate what he is feeling and thus, help him regulate his emotions. It will also help you understand and empathize with what he is feeling.
- When your son refuses to go to the doctor
Avoid saying: “What’s the problem?”
Try saying: “Are you feeling nervous or scared about visiting the doctor?”
- When your son throws his pencil in frustration while doing his homework
Avoid saying: “Why did you do that?”
Try saying: “You seem confused and frustrated right now. Is that why you threw your pencil?”
2. Validate his emotions
Acknowledge what your child feels. Instead of saying, “That’s not something to cry about!,” say, “Oh, I know how much that hurts. It’s alright. Do you want to find a way to fix that pain?” As they grow, you can always remind them that it’s okay to feel low, sad, angry, confused. Let them know you’re there for them. Instead of saying, “Why don’t you talk about your feelings?,” try saying, “Hey, you know you can talk about ANYTHING you want with me.” When your child knows that home is a place where no emotion is off-limits, they are more likely to express them to you and thus, better manage their emotions.
- When your son is wailing, and you don’t know why
Avoid saying: “Boys don’t cry!”
Try saying “It’s okay to cry. We all cry” and soothe him with a hug, if he’s okay with it.
- When your son loses a toy and can’t come to terms with it
Avoid saying: “What’s the fuss about losing a toy? Why are you whining?”
Try saying: “I know how upsetting it is to lose something you love. What can we do to make you feel better?” Then help him think of ways to make him feel better.
3. Use creativity to get him to express himself
Remember that your child may not always prefer expressing emotions verbally. For some children, expressing themselves through a drawing or even a song they created is easier. Let your son know that there are many ways to express his emotions. Have your child try out different activities and help him discover what works best for him. Then have him talk to you about what he has done and how that helped him express what he was feeling. As he grows, encourage him to write a journal or a diary.
- When your son is scolded by his teacher and doesn’t want to go back to school
Avoid saying: “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Try saying: “Let’s sing the feelings song to find out what’s going on.”
- When your son has a fight with a friend and doesn’t want to play with her anymore
Avoid saying: “Who gets upset about a silly fight? Just go and play with her!”
Try saying: “Let’s act out what happened between you and her. Then we can see why you’re so upset.”
4. Read trigger signs
As a parent, you can easily figure out when something isn’t quite right with your child. Maybe he’s too quiet or too talkative. Maybe he keeps to himself or he’s having difficulty sleeping. Tap into these signs before they turn into emotions that he can’t manage. Talk to your child about how he’s feeling when you sense something. Be honest and upfront in asking him, “Is there something bothering you?” or “Let’s chat about our feelings.” Begin by talking about something you’re feeling. That way, your son is more likely to open up about his feelings.
- When your son is awfully quiet, and you know he made a mistake
Avoid saying: “Open up. Come on, talk!”
Try saying: “Talk when you are ready and remember, you can tell me anything you want.”
- When your son is disappointed about something, but can’t express it
Avoid saying: “There’s no need to cry over such small things.”
Try saying: “That’s so disappointing, right? Can I give you a hug to make you feel better?”
5. Don’t jump in to provide advice, listen patiently
As parents, it’s difficult to watch your child struggle with emotions. Before you let your inner mama or dada bear jump out to protect your little cub, listen carefully. Ask him what he wants to do. Ask him what he would like you to do. When you involve him in such a process, you are letting him know that you believe he’s capable of managing his emotions. If you’re too quick to problem-solve, you’re preventing your son from developing problem-solving skills. This doesn’t mean you can’t comfort him. You simply have to hear him out, let him know you’re there and help him find a way out by brainstorming the possible solutions.
- When your son is playing with the neighbor’s dog and gets scared of the dog’s sudden bark
Avoid saying: “I told you not to play with the dog. No point crying now!”
Try saying: “Did that loud bark scare you? It was completely unexpected. Come here. Let me hold you close.”
- When your son comes back from the park crying after a fight with his best friend
Avoid saying: “If he makes you so angry, don’t play with him next time.”
Try saying: “Looks like something Rohan did really upset you. Would you like to talk about it?”
If our sons learn to express their emotions better, chances are they’ll grow up to be well-adjusted adults, who respect themselves and others around them, especially girls and women. This gives us hope that our sons and daughters can work together in harmony to create a world that values ability more than gender stereotypes, a world where each child can be his or her best without the fear of judgement.
No matter the age of your son, your nephew, your husband or even your father, they all cry— although, you can’t always hear them. Give them a gentle hug, hold their hands or simply listen.
In a nutshell
- Boys and girls both feel a variety of emotions. Crying is a natural way to express feelings of sadness, fear, confusion and sometimes, even happiness.
- There are many stereotypes concerning boys’ emotional development. Boys who cry are considered weak.
- Another stereotype is that girls cry easily and therefore, they are weaker.
- Parents can take simple steps to raise a more emotionally regulated child, whether it is a boy or a girl, and break stereotypes too.
What you can do right away
- Normalize emotions at home by talking about them often. Talk about your own feelings in daily conversations.
- Create an “Emotions Dictionary” at home. Write words and encourage your child to draw what comes to mind. Anytime your child is struggling to find a word for his emotion, have him refer to this dictionary.
- Talk to your child about different ways of expressing emotions. Some like to verbalize their feelings, some don’t. This way, your child will also learn empathy.
About the author:
Written by Saakshi Kapoor Kumar on February 02, 2021.
Ms Kumar holds a Master’s degree in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi and is working as a Senior Associate-Special Projects (Content Solutions Zone) at ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and Parenting Coach at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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