Hey Dads: Real Men Can (and Should) Cry

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

“Man up.”

There is perhaps no other phrase I despise more. It’s so loaded with implications and sexism that it’s hard to think of a single situation when it might be appropriate to say — especially to my kids.

But I know it’s still out there, those words that many otherwise well-intentioned parents say to their crying kids. Man up. Be a man. Don’t be a girl. (Sigh.)

So, dads, let’s turn the tables a bit here … when was the last time you cried? It’s OK, you don’t need to say anything out loud. Just think about it. I won’t tell anyone.

Now, here’s a harder one: When was the last time you cried in front of your kids? Unless the answer is “never,” that one might be a little harder to nail down. But my money’s on “never” being the most popular answer.

Historically, fatherhood has been equated with a notion of “manhood.” Likewise, manhood has been variously defined (at least in popular culture) by several features—none of which really mesh well with public displays of emotion or (heaven forbid) actual real-life tears.

In other words, real men don’t cry. Except they do. And they should.

Listen, we’re the only species on the planet that cries and sheds tears. It’s a trait that has survived millions of years of evolution for a reason. There’s absolutely no harm in letting your kids see you cry, and in fact it probably does them quite a bit of good.

As dads, we don’t have any trouble showing joy or happiness in public, do we? We laugh, we cheer, we joke. No problem. We also don’t have any trouble showing excitement. Personally, I start bouncing up and down whenever Star Wars comes up in casual conversation. Granted, I’m a huge nerd, but I’d wager there’s something similar that gets most dads excited.

“But Jamie!” I hear you saying, “Surely these positive emotions are different. Most people keep their negative emotions inside. It’s only natural.” Well, yeah. Showing happiness and excitement is definitely more accepted in society. However, I’m willing to wager you don’t have any trouble showing anger to your kids. I know I don’t.

Maybe I raise my voice because the kids did something incredibly dumb, or maybe I yell at a terrible driver who cuts me off in 70 mph traffic. Trust me, my kids know when I’m angry, and yours know when you are too.

Sadness, however, opens us up when we’re most vulnerable and reveals our squishy underbelly. Many people get happy, excited, and angry at somewhat similar things. But, for the most part, our personal experiences shape what each of us finds sad or depressing. It’s an intensely personal emotion. (There’s a reason Pixar went with those five emotions in Inside Out. They’re essential to who we are as humans.) It also makes sense why most adults tend to hold those feelings inside and not share that side of themselves publicly.

Let me clarify: I’m not suggesting that we all need to walk around wearing every emotion on our sleeves, but it does no one any good to keep everything bottled up. In fact, it’s been shown that, unless your reason for crying is completely out of your control, suppressing your emotions can actually be psychologically harmful.

So why is it so taboo for men to share their sadness with their kids? Empathy is incredibly important. It’s hardly hyperbole to say that without it, we would never have survived as a species. Therefore, as parents, it’s one of the most critical traits we try to instill in our kids. It also happens to be one of the trickiest to teach.

We want our kids to think about and care for others, understand how other people think, and see the world from different perspectives. We want them to have a strong sense of altruism and empathy at their core, and essential to both of those traits is a strong connection to one’s emotions.

Crying and the associated emotional release have been shown to almost universally improve one’s mood. It’s a healing and coping mechanism used by babies and toddlers with incredible efficiency. Ironically, even though our need to vent emotions and feel better doesn’t end at puberty or adulthood, our ability to manage those emotions basically drops off a cliff as we get older.

Our kids look to us for guidance, and there’s no better way to inspire than by example. I think it would be a colossal failure of fatherhood to subscribe to some misguided notion of manhood/masculinity and simply “suck it up” when emotions take over.

Cards on the table time. I cry when I remember my grandparents. I cry when I see pictures of my cat (currently buried in the backyard). I cry at the end of Big Fish. And I don’t hide those emotions from my kids. Why should I?

Seeing me cry might be an all-important piece of the puzzle my kids need to recognize that no one — not even Dad — is immune to overwhelming pressure or painful memories. It helps them understand that everyone has feelings, everyone gets sad, and it’s perfectly normal to cry when you look at a photo of a loved one who has passed, or when someone you care about is in pain, or at a sad movie, or even when you hit your thumb with a hammer.

You’re not less of a man for crying. You’re just more human.

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