If Boys Could Cry. . .
We were at a park one day that had a carousel on site. One of my sons usually passes up the opportunity for rides. He’s scared and gets motion sick easily. But on this particular day, he said he wanted to give the merry-go-round a try.
We hopped on the carousel, all three of us, and the boys picked out their horses. Just after the bell rang and we started to move, my tentative son reached out for my hand. He was scared. I asked him a minute later how he was doing.
“I’m scared, but I’m trying not to cry,” he said.
And then tears welled up in my own eyes, heartbroken for him that he was scared but didn’t think he could show it.
Psychologist that I am, I’ve been using emotion words with my boys since the time they could talk. In early preschool, they were already able to verbalize sadness, happiness, fear, and anger. We talk a lot about our feelings and normalize the expression of emotions in various forms.
So it made me so sad to think that despite my best efforts at home, my five-year-old son had already been indoctrinated by a culture that tells him he’s not allowed to cry, that a cacophony of voices, much louder than my own, have convinced him that tears are weak and wrong.
I so wanted him to be able to cry freely in that moment. But not yet in kindergarten, he’s learned that she shouldn’t – that boys don’t cry when they’re sad or scared or frustrated, that they have to hold it in or risk ridicule and shame. Later , when I asked him why he was trying not to cry, he said, “Because I didn’t want the people to see.”
My heart breaks for him. . . and for all boys who can’t contact their fears and insecurities, their letdowns and frustrations publicly for risk of humiliation, ostracization, or both.
What would our world be like if boys could cry and girls could get angry?
All kids have all feelings, but when we disallow the expression of some of them, by gender, we damp down a significant portion of the child’s experience, set them up to suppress or distract from their feelings (which can have life-threatening consequences, such as substance misuse), and tear them apart from themselves.
In the book “Why Boy’s Don’t Talk — and Why It Matters” , Susan Morris Shaffer and Linda Perlman Gordon talk about how, when boys don’t talk, we don’t get a sense of what they’re feeling, and “we shortchange their emotional growth; as a result, parts of boys remain hidden.”
Boys get sad and scared. Unexpressed emotions don’t just dissolve into the ether. They’re internalized and aren’t worked through and show up later in other forms. It’s not surprising teen boys die by suicide at such alarming rates. Or that they turn to rage and aggression, more acceptable forms of emotional expression for boys and men.
If boys could cry, if they were allowed to express openly their fear and disappointment, hurt and sadness, would they aggress upon others the same way? Would we see the same level of violence at the hands of young men if they were allowed to show the full spectrum of emotion? What if men, more often, and in varying situations, modeled for boys that crying was, in fact, okay?
If Girls Could Get Angry. . .
Of course, crying is acceptable for girls. Girls are generally socialized to have and express many emotions, with the exception of anger. Anger is off-limits for girls. We teach girls early on that their beliefs and boundaries aren’t important, that asking for what they want and saying no to what they don’t isn’t becoming to them. In Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, the author states, “We are so busy teaching girls to be likable that we often forget to teach them, as we do boys, that they should be respected.” Chemaly goes on to write, “A society that does not respect women’s anger is one that does not respect women.”
Girls quickly learn to stifle or minimize their anger because the adults in their lives reinforce them for doing so. I often hear adult women tell me that they “don’t really get angry.” But anger is a cross-cultural part of the human experience. If you tell me you don’t get angry, I wonder who squashed your anger and when.
We live in a world where boys aren’t allowed to be vulnerable and girls aren’t granted respect. These norms control us, suffocate us, and do us long-term harm. It’s time to call them out.
Allowing our boys to cry and our girls to get angry would have a significant impact on their individual psychologies and growth – and a collective, positive impact on our world at large. Just watch.