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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Jeana... JeanaJaybird

I find this hilarious because my son is 6 years old and he still cries about damn near everything -- only if I am in his presence, he doesn't do it at school, sports, or his dads. Now, my 17 month old daughter is braver than ever. She runs and climbs and jumps all day long, as a matter of fact she is sporting a goose egg on her forehead now. She NEVER cries over getting hurt EVER. It's so crazy, I know. I think it boils down to the environment the child is exposed to .. with my son, it was just me and him. With my daughter, its me, my son, my husband, and his three hyperactive sons that we have full custody of. Lol..

Jeana... JeanaJaybird

May I add, there is nothing wrong with a sensitive little boy!!

nonmember avatar Michael

There is nothing wrong with not crying for physical pain either, and in the long run he will be looked at far more favorably by most males of the species if he can take a little pain. Why exactly would anyone want waterworks with a skinned knee anyway?

nonmember avatar Natalie

I have two sons, ages 8 and 10 now; my 8 year old won't cry around friends or peers, but he will cry at home and around me. I don't have strangers (or myself) telling him not to cry, he just doesn't want to cry in front of other kids, presumably because the kids say mean things. My older son will cry anywhere, he doesn't care who sees, but he's the one who hardly ever cries. Weird how that works..

Happy... Happydad73

You are a mom. A woman. You will never understand how a male brain works. We are wired differently. Men who cry over little things are not really men. There is a reason they are referred to as sissies. You may not like this, but you go into any culture (besides the gay community) and cry baby men who can't suck it up and hold it together are not held in any form of positive regard. Your son innately understands this. He is wired that way. You should stop wanting him to be a woman and let him grow up to be a man.

nonmember avatar christy

Wow happydad seriously?? You know nothing. A little boy is NOT innately wired to "suck it up." Men who cry over little things are not rreally men? First of all, we're talking about babies! Second, my husband can and does get emotional and so does my father but theyre the epitome of men. I have a 2 year old son and a 4 year old son..and the 2 year old cries less and "sucks it up" way more than my 4 year old. Theyre different. Nothing wrong with a little boy crying if hes hurt. I hope youre not a "happydad" of a luttle boy teaching him that. And a man with some sensitivity and emotions is way better than a "macho man" huding his feelings. We arent talking about a man constantly walking around in tears. Sheesh.

Dolce... Dolcepsle

Some kids are totally sensitive and others aren't.

When my kids (boy and girl) fall and get hurt and I know it's not that painful (we've all fallen), I tell them "woah that was a big fall, let's check it out." If you don't act terrified then they don't, no need to teach them how to be anxious. Cool and calm is not a bad lesson. It teaches them to take a breath, assess the situation, address the situation and move on. If there are a couple tears then so be it, but there is no reason to encourage crying or being overly macho.

Erin Adrian Granrud

Here is a thought.......turn off the darn superheros, it is an unrealistic goal for all men to be macho. Yes, YOU have created this problem by allowing him to watch too many superhero shows. YOU need to sit and watch what you are allowing him to watch WITHOUT him and determine if it is something you even approve of before you throw the kid in front of the boobysitter..........He is FOUR, he should be watching Octonauts, Mickey Mouse Club House, Little Einstein, stuff like that. How does our society NOT understand that PG-13 means the watcher should be AT LEAST 13 to understand and comprehend all that is happening in the show? EVEN TV shows have ratings and they show them when the show starts. Y7? Good for kids 7 and up. T14, viewers should be at least 14. Don't forget good old G, GENERAL AUDIENCE!! Stop plopping the kid in front of the tv or monitor what he is watching more. Just because it is a cartoon does NOT mean they are acceptable for children. Case in point ANYTHING produced by Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane (ie: The Simpsons and Family Guy), these men create shows for ADULTS.

tansy... tansyflower

i tell both my boys that everyone cries, mommies, daddies and little kids.  that being said, i also try to downplay it when they get hurt...why?  because half the time they are feeding off my reaction to the situation.  is i gasp, go running over and start screaming "are you okay?!?!?!" they tend to freak out.  if i calmly walk over and say "aww, that looks alright, go try that again!" then they pull themselves up by their boot straps and dont hesitate.  i treat my niece the same way when she comes here.  kids are a lot tougher than we give them credit for and i dont feel the need to coddle my kids over ever bump and bruise.


nonmember avatar Aingean

I have an almost five year old and a 7 month old both are boys and i have an 8 year old nephew. I have noticed a big differnce between the oldest boys. My son will cry for a minute tops if he gets hurt then he wants a kiss and he is fine. My nephew is different he crys over little stuff not getting his way things like that. I think thats because my sister and i raised our boys differently. Dont get me wrong I worry when my boys get hurt but I do my best not to make a big deal out of it so they dont get more upset. My sister tends to over react and coddle. While I dont have the mentallity that " real men dont cry " I dont coddle my boys my nephews or my nieces over little things. My sister if one gets hurt she panics.

Everyone cries sometime or another. Be it fear, pain, or happiness we all cey at one point and thats ok. Teaching or kids it will get better it more important than teaching them sexist views on emotion.

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