First off, let’s get one thing clear: no child should be told not to cry, regardless of their gender. Telling a child not to cry is equivalent to telling them it’s not okay to feel what they’re feeling. It’s telling them their feelings don’t matter. This is not something we want to teach our children.
But boys in particular are too often given the message that crying is a sign of weakness, or worse, that crying is something boys don’t do—only girls cry. Of course, this message diminishes girls in addition to the boy who hears it. The message isn’t simply “You’re like a girl.” The implicit message, the real message, is “Girls are weak, and so are you.”
Spoiler alert: Girls aren’t weak, and neither are boys who cry.
There is ample evidence to suggest that telling boys not to cry leads to unhealthy expressions of emotion. That’s because unexpressed emotions do not simply vanish. Emotions are like energy that can neither be created nor destroyed—they flow through us, rising up due to a combination of circumstance and brain chemistry, and they seek a way out. If not through tears and rumination, then through rage and violence. We can’t simply choose not to express an emotion. It will come out one way or another.
My 12-year-old son Lucas recently had a rough night trying to complete a hefty pile of makeup work due to missed assignments. I admit; I had told him several times that I didn’t have much pity for him—he’d brought this on himself. He needed to suck it up, take ownership of his mistakes, and complete the work with a good attitude. My husband lurked in the background, echoing my sentiments. To me, as annoyed as I was in the moment, Lucas’s frustration looked like the temper tantrum of an entitled brat.
I’m not sure what made me stop and ask questions rather than continue to lecture, but that is what I did. I sat next to Lucas and asked him to talk to me. He tried, but he couldn’t get the words out. He could only mumble incomplete sentences about hating school between gritting his teeth. My husband sat on Lucas’s other side, silent.
Then I remembered something Lucas had said in passing a few days before: “I’m trying, Mom!” It had to do with an unrelated topic—I was on his case about some other thing, and he had snapped at me that he was trying.
Maybe that’s what was happening now, too. I said, “Is it because you feel like you’re really trying your best, and it feels like it’s still not good enough?”
That did it. I had expressed exactly what Lucas was feeling. He dissolved into tears, and in that moment, my husband and I could see how much our son was struggling—how intensely frustrated he was with himself and with others’ lack of patience for him. For Lucas, who struggles with ADHD, someone is constantly reminding him of his inadequacy.
Then my husband did something I’ll always remember: he began to cry too. Our son’s tears reminded him of when he first came to the States from Peru to attend college, and how difficult it had been trying to fit in with other students whose first language was English, and for whom, in comparison to my husband, everything seemed to come so easily.
He told Lucas this. He told Lucas how lonely it felt to have to work five times harder than everyone else to get the same grade or lower. How he had to learn from the textbooks because no matter how carefully he listened during class, he couldn’t catch all the words. My husband didn’t have ADHD, but he empathized with Lucas’s sense of loneliness, the frustration of always missing something important, the feeling that no matter how hard he worked, his efforts went unnoticed. Because Lucas was trying. He was doing his very best.
He still had to make up the work, because this is a life lesson we want to teach our son—you do the work. You finish what you start. Even when it’s hard, even if it’s not perfect, you persevere.
But the lesson we absolutely will not teach our son is that he is not allowed to cry. His frustration was legitimate. What purpose would it have served for Lucas to choke back his tears and stuff down his very valid emotions? Where would his mind have turned if my husband, instead of empathizing—crying himself, even—had said, “Listen, son, boys don’t cry”?
Because it simply isn’t true that boys don’t cry. Otherwise, boys… wouldn’t cry. Obviously, boys cry, we see it all the time, and the only reason they ever stop is because they’re told they must. But why? This helps no one. The tears that aren’t shed come out as anger later. Boys do cry. Little boys, teenage boys, men. They cry. And it is perfectly normal and healthy to do so.
It’s high time the myth that boys don’t cry is laid to rest. I, for one, won’t shed a tear over it.