Helping My Son Navigate 'Boys Don't Cry' Messages Makes Me Cry

My 4-year-old son feels pressure to be tough, masculine ... a little man's man. How did this happen?

Case in point: He recently fell and cut his knee in the mall parking lot. There was blood and floppy skin ... even harsh sand nestled in the crevices of the cut. It was definitely cry-worthy. I expected him to wail, but he visibly restrained himself. A random guy gave my son an appreciative head nod in solidarity and said, "Don't worry, mom. He's a tough guy. He won't cry." And my son responded, "No way. I don't cry!" And then there was a high-five ... and a fist-bump ... and an "Atta boy!"


I was horrified. Disgusted, really.

Of course I told my son it's okay to cry, that it was a huge boo-boo that must really hurt. He begrudgingly acknowledged me, but there was no high-five, no-fist bump. He really didn't listen to one word I said. (I know, shocker for a toddler.) But he did mention the man who thought he was cool for not crying once or twice ... or six times, to several people. His words resonated with my son.

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The parking lot incident kept me up that night, as all the times my son sucked it up to be tough replayed in my mind. One time a boy scratched his face at school -- maimed is more like it -- and he refused to cry. My son's teachers made a big deal about how he was a "brave little boy." Another time he had a bunch of immunization shots at one of his milestone doctor's appointments. I was prepared for tears galore -- maybe even hyperventilating that would require an ice cream fix -- but he prided himself on holding back. He said, "I don't want Bridget to see me cry, mommy." (Bridget is his favorite nurse.)

I can't believe how much my son wants to be macho. To take his hits "like a man." He's a toddler! A few years ago he was just a dream I had. He hasn't been alive long enough to be badass.

Since the parking lot incident, I've noticed he only cries when we're alone, sometimes over little things: Not getting his way, feeling overtired, saying goodbye to his dad, stubbing his toe. All of the everyday things in life can trigger tears. But he keeps himself in check in front of people. He has this brave face, this expression no one would notice but his mom. And my heart breaks every time I see it.

Has he watched too many superhero shows? Even the royal-themed programs he likes feature kings and young princes who are fearless ... they're not crying in a corner or shying away from danger. Did we do too much roughhousing? Not show him enough of the other side, the softer side, of male role-models in his life? Did we fail in some way to teach our boy that he should feel his emotions, not pack them away? Does he think girls are princesses and boys are supposed to save them ... not be saved?

I don't know.

What I do know is this: Kids respond to positive praise, and no one will give him an "Atta boy" for losing it over a scraped knee in the mall parking lot. He won't get extra stickers and a special lollipop tucked away in his doctor's pocket only for the "bravest boys" if he cries through his shots. His teachers will console him, not high-five him, if he bawls over an injury on the playground. The only one he wants consolation from is me. He wants everyone else to think he's cool. He's picked up on the societal consensus that crying is just not cool for boys.

The comments that are made by strangers, the implied messages on television, the encouragement they get to be tough from male role-models ... they all work their way into our boys' psyches effortlessly, so early on ... and that makes me want to cry. The only solace I have is that my little boy feels safe to well up about the little things, to show his true self to me, his mom. And that makes me think I am doing something right.

Do you think there's too much pressure on little boys to be tough guys?

Image via © Odilon Dimier/PhotoAlto/Corbis

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