Why We Should Let Boys Cry
WHAT’S THE ISSUE: Society oppresses boys and men when it comes to emotional expression. Isn’t it time we started to question these old gender stereotypes? Culturally perpetuated myths like “Boys Don’t Cry” can seriously affect boys’ future well-being. In a world full of judgment and superficial definitions of strength, boys need to learn that it is OK to cry. And this is why.
For Those Who Prefer Videos: To see the spontaneous expression of this article (the ‘first draft’, if you will), watch the above video (be warned – it’s 30 mins long!). I filmed this vlog after presenting at the ENSEC Conference on student wellbeing in education in Budapest, Hungary.
1) LET BOYS CRY, BECAUSE CRYING IS PART OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE
A few years ago, I saw a tiny little boy (barely taller than my knee) playing football with his dad in the local football field.
The little boy was kicking the ball in all sorts of fancy ways. His footwork was clearly advanced for his age. I was impressed! His Dad was not.
You could hear his Dad shouting at him: “That’s not good enough. DO IT AGAIN!! What’s wrong with you?! AGAIN!!!”
The little boy was so overwhelmed with sadness that he stood there, frozen in place, tears streaming down his face as he tried to cry without making a sound.
The yelling continued, this time to the tune of: “Why are you crying!? STOP CRYING!! Boys don’t cry. STOP CRYING!!!!!”
Have you heard of the song, written and performed by a band called The Cure, called “Boys Don’t Cry” that’s reached 64 million views on YouTube? You can see from the kind of exposure this song is getting right now (it’s one of their biggest hits), how deeply ingrained this belief is in popular culture, here in the West.
I believe it’s time we challenged this old belief. Of course boys cry!
Why should we let boy’s cry?
Crying is simply a sign that something’s wrong. It’s a message our body is telling us that we’re in pain – emotionally, or physically.
This is important information.
It’s natural to cry in certain situations – irrespective of whether you’re a boy, or a girl.
Like when someone’s being mean and yelling at you for no (valid) reason. Or when it’s the first week back to pre-school (think Nursery, Pre-K…basically, babies and little people).
The other day, I saw another little boy going to school. First day back, head tucked in to his neck as he tried to hide the tear that was sliding down his face. His mother was bending over at the waist so that she could whisper in his ear: “You’re a big boy now. Is this what big boys do? Don’t make me sad [In Greek: Mην με στεναχωρείs]”.
First of all, why are we lying to our kids? How is a pre-school child a “big boy”? I teach big boys. Big boys go to High School, not Pre-School.
Second, since when is it a little boy’s responsibility to make his mother happy? That’s like saying a husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness! Sounds like a recipe for disaster. As adults, we are all responsible for our own happiness.
Third, what these two examples suggest is that the pressure parents feel for their child to behave a certain way, or to achieve a certain goal, can sometimes be rooted in two damaging core beliefs:
- Belief No. 1: Children are here to “make us happy.”
- Belief No. 2: Children are here to “make us proud.“
What Dr Mordoh has seen (drawing from his wealth of experience working with families, children, adolescents and young adults as a Clinical Psychologist) is that passing on these beliefs can cause serious long-problems for a child’s wellbeing.
We are social and emotional ‘creatures’, and crying is part of what it means to be human.
Let boys be human.
Let boys cry.
2) "BOYS DON'T CRY" GOES AGAINST HUMAN BIOLOGY
Girls have tear ducts. Boys have tear ducts. We ALL have tear ducts.
I don’t know any men who doesn’t cry when he’s cutting a bunch of purples onions. You know, the kind that make your eyes sting when you’re cut them.
There is a biological reason for why we all have tear ducts. Biologically, we all have the same ability to cry when we are feeling stressed, sad, angry, grief or happiness.
Or when our eyes sting from cutting onions when cooking or making a salad.
The belief that “boys don’t cry” goes against biology.
3) TEACHING BOYS THAT IT'S OKAY TO CRY COULD POTENTIALLY SAVE THEIR LIFE
I’m not a Psychologist, and I’m certainly not a Psychiatrist. But I am a teacher. And from the perspective of a teacher, what I see (which concerns me) is that despite having entered the 21st century, many of us are continuing to teach our boys the unhelpful, unhealthy belief that “Boys don’t cry”.
Did you know that men are more likely to commit suicide than women, globally?
Could there be a link between the damaging beliefs we teach little boys and the men’s feeling shame and fear at being seen as weak during financial and emotional crises?
In 2015, I discovered that more men were committing suicide than women in the midst of the financial crisis, here in Greece. Even as far back in the crisis as 2011, the Greek Suicide Helpline run by the NGO, Klimaka, noticed that that (generally speaking) it was the men who were the most at-risk.
According to a study done by the WHO, “suicide was the second biggest cause of death among young people aged 15-29”. Road injury was first, for this age group. In the same article, published earlier this month, the WHO said that “nearly three times as many men than women die from suicide in high-income countries.”
Can you imagine how many lives could be saved if more teenage boys and men were taught life skills such as asking for help when they need it?
Imagine how many people’s lives would improve if more schools and parents started caring more about wellbeing education, and less about whether or not their students and children get into an Ivy League school or Oxbridge.
One of the recommendations made by the WHO is “implementing programmes among young people to build life skills that enable them to cope with life’s stresses.”
Do our children and our students leave schools equipped with some basic life skills for how to cope with the inevitable stresses and strains of modern life?
Most schools around the world continue to prioritize academic skills teaching, while turn their noses up to wellbeing education, because focusing on getting kids into a good university is good for business. Business first, children’s health and wellbeing second.
In addition to skills training, I believe we also need to relieve men from the societal pressure they feel to always be “strong” (which society currently defines, problematically, as: “Don’t show emotions.”)
Whether we’re talking about America during the Great Depression, where the unemployment rate was over 20% in 1933, or the financial crisis Greece has suffered from (where the unemployment rate has remained in the alarming 20%s…for a DECADE), what’s similar with these two societies is that they are both very conservative, patriarchal societies in which men still feel the pressure to be the primary (if not the sole) breadwinner of the family.
When money and wealth are the main metrics society uses to define men’s worth and identity, this can have serious consequences for men’s health during a financial crisis.
A primary source in one of the History courses I teach tells the story of a millionaire who committed suicide after losing a lot of money during the 1929 Wall Street Crash. This sad story raises a host of complex issue to do with boys’ and men’s health that are rarely discussed in families or schools. Issues such as gender stereotypes, and the pressure men have historically faced to “be a man” by making (and never losing) money.
On the surface, money appears to be a head-based affair. Money isn’t emotional; it’s just numbers in a bank account and bits of metal and paper. Material, factual and logical. Right? Not quite. Money is one of the biggest causes of emotionally charged family arguments and conflicts. We’ve all experienced the emotional charge that comes with talking about [or hearing people talking about] money.
We need to teach boys tools that will help them navigate the emotional roller coasters of life.
We also need to co-create school and home environments where boys feel safe to cry, where their feelings won’t be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed.
In my experience of running well being workshops in Greece to people aged 10 to 70, including men, I’ve noticed that men often have an underdeveloped emotional vocabulary. They often struggle to identify what emotion it is that they are feeling.
I believe that creating a safe environment for school-age boys and young men to practice developing their emotional vocabulary and to express their feelings is very important.
Living in a society where you fear being stigmatized if you talk about your feelings or your mental health challenges is oppressive. We can all play a part in helping to reduce this oppression.
4) BOYS' EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY IS USUALLY POOR, SO FEELING FREE TO CRY IS AN ENTRY POINT INTO BETTER UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS
As a teacher, I’ve had the chance to spend hundreds of hours observing how boys and girls interact when they’re free to play and do what they want during lunch and break time, while I’m on duty.
What I’ve noticed is that boys have less opportunities to develop their conversation skills in social settings during the school day.
Boys tend to be the ones playing footie and basketball during lunch time, whereas girls are (generally speaking) more likely to sit and having a chat with friends. [I don’t know how common this is in other schools – do you notice a similar trend in your school? Let me know in the comments below.]
If you calculate the difference in conversational practice hours on a yearly basis [20 minutes for morning break + 55 minutes for lunch break in the school where I currently work], that’s a whole lot of extra conversational skills practice girls are getting in a year, compared to boys.
Furthermore, I’ve notice that I’m also more likely to hear girls using emotional vocabulary when you walk past them during lunch break, or when they come into the lesson [Examples of typical conversational exchanges I’ve had with girls in my class: “Miss, I’m scared I’m going to fail!” “You’re scared you’re going to fail?” “Yes” OR “Miss, I’m so sad”, “Why are you sad?” “I’m sad because my dog died this weekend…”].
Since most boys leave school with the disadvantage of having less opportunities to develop their conversational skills as well as their emotional vocabulary, it is even more important that they can access their body’s intelligence of being able to cry.
How else can they know and communicate that something’s wrong, if their skills in being able to name the emotions they are feeling are under-developed?
5) CRYING IS A SIGN THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO FEEL YOUR EMOTIONS, WHICH IN TURN ALLOWS YOU TO CONNECT WITH PEOPLE's HEARTS
When boys (who society has taught must suppress their emotions) grow up into adults and become parents…it can become difficult for that boy-turned-man-turned-father to truly connect with his child as the years go on.
Partly because that father has already developed a habit of withdrawing – or of only expressing certain ‘masculine’ emotions (such as anger or rage) – in front of his child. He may have spent half his life hiding his sadness and withdrawing during times of emotional turmoil.
If we want to strengthen father’s relationships with their child, we must begin by thinking about how we can help boys and young men to FEEL and process their emotions in a conscious and healthy way.
Often fathers who do not have the kind of relationship with their child that they would like to have are excellent providers, but they suffer from addictions such as work addiction (workaholism) or substance abuse (e.g. alcoholism, drug addiction, addiction to painkillers, etc). For some fathers, workaholism is their particular stress response. For other fathers, going out or partying (if alcoholism) is their particular stress response. Addictions are often a way that we numb – and avoid feeling – our painful emotions.
Strong, healthy relationships require deeper levels of emotional intimacy, and emotional intimacy requires a willingness to study your inner world.
Men would benefit from learning tools for how to increase their knowledge of emotions so as to increase their capacity for emotional intimacy and connection with their child.
Imagine what an impact it would have on father-child relationships if more young men grew up with an interested in exploring their inner world?
6) WE NEED MORE EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT LEADERS AT WORK
At this point in time, the fact of the matter is, more men are CEOs than women. More men are mangers of schools, businesses and organizations than women.
Here in Greece, there are more than 10 schools that offer the IB Diploma. All led by men. All these men are leading schools that staffed mostly by women, who are the ones doing the heavy-duty grassroots educational work in the classroom.
We need more Emotionally Intelligent men in leadership positions in schools as well as in other sectors in the economy.
Men who are more self-aware, and who make time for personal development.
There are consequences for the quality of environment at work when leaders’ emotional awareness is under-developed, due to an over-valuing of logic and academic intelligence.
While more women are now being promoted to leadership positions, what you often see is that in order to survive in a management position (and I’ve spoken with lawyers, managers in the Greek shipping industry – this issue goes beyond the education sector), they feel they need to “become like men”.
These are the words I often hear women in managerial positions say, when I ask them about their work environment.
These women feel that they have to take on this unhealthy definition of so-called masculine “strength” at work [acting more like a machine than a human being because of the crazy pace of your daily work routine, shouting to be heard – macho style], in order to survive in their male-dominated work environments.
We need courageous, Wise Leaders who work in a way that respects their own wellbeing needs, as well as the wellbeing needs of the people they are responsible for.
7) CRYING IS A FORM OF EMOTIONAL FREEDOM. WHY CAN'T WE LET BOYS FREE?
The most important reason why we should let boys cry is because of the intrinsic value for the boys and men who will benefit from experiencing more emotional freedom.
It’s not because it will help boys with their academic work (though emotional education certainly does improve academic performance, as I’ve seen in my work, firsthand).
It’s because of the internal benefit to boys and men for their health and well being.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of courageous young men in my private practice as a Youth Mentor, all of who had the courage and willingness to take their knowledge of emotions up to the next level.
What I’ve noticed is that a lot of young men in their 20s who are currently studying in university ,or who are transitioning into the workplace, are suffering under the pressure that the old patriarchal society puts on men to always “be strong” and “be resilient”.
This saddens me, because it assumes that men are (or must behave) like machines. Moments of “weakness” such as fear or anxiety are then seen as problems to be pushed down and hidden away. I believe we are now ready to start moving into a new era.
Let’s move into a time in History when we focus on what unites us as men and women – our common humanity, our emotions, our vulnerability, our need for emotional intimacy with people who we love and trust – rather than what divides us.
Don’t we all want to be free?
So why don’t we give boys and men the chance to experience what it’s like to be free to feel the full range of their emotions free from judgement, mean jokes and other forms of verbal attack?
8) CRYING IS A SIGN OF STRENGTH
Are boys machines? Can they not feel sadness? Hurt? Grief?
We need to redefine “strength”.
Unhealthy definitions of strength are built on damaging beliefs such as “Crying is a sign of weakness”, and “Strong men don’t cry”.
For me, this is a healthier definition of strength: Doing what’s hard.
It’s hard to be a man who is willing to work on their inner world with the help of a qualified coach, therapist, or Psychologist, because we live in a time in History when the men who have the courage to reach out for help are still a minority [fortunately, this is now starting to change].
It’s easy to mock, to bully, to dismiss a boy’s feelings. It’s easy to shame boys for crying. All you have to do is follow the crowd and display let’s-just-go-along-with-the-pack kinds of behavior.
Doing what everyone else is doing is easy. Since when was doing what’s easy a sign of “strength”?
The real challenge is to dare to be different. Being a boy who talks about your emotions when most boys or men are hiding them makes you different. That’s hard.
It’s hard to be different. It takes courage.
Being different and challenging the status quo takes real strength.
I highly recommend The Mask of Masculinity, by Lewis Howes, for anyone who’d like to explore this issue further. Whenever I’ve gifted this book to someone, they’ve always found it interesting, so it also makes for a great present. In this book, Lewis Howes talks about how different men wear different masks to hide their sadness, worries, and fears. One of the things that struck me as I read his book is that we all [fathers, mothers, wives, girlfriends, brothers, daughters, sisters, neighbours, teachers, mentors, grandparents – the list goes on] have a role to play in helping boys and men feel safe to cry.
The question is: What will it take for our homes and schools to become places where boys feel safe to cry and develop their Emotional Intelligence (…mask-free)?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleni Vardaki is a certified and accredited EFT Practitioner who specializes in stress, anxiety, and academic achievement. She loves working with parents, students and educators who are ready to release unhelpful levels of stress and overwhelm in her online private support sessions and programs. Learn more.