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The Problem with Telling Our Sons That “Big Boys Don’t Cry”

“What Do You Mean Big Boys Don’t Cry?” originally appeared on The Good Men Project, and was reprinted with permission.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Growing up, I remember people getting hurt in PE class and Coach Baker saying in a loud firm voice, “Shake it off!” or “C’mon, Billy! What are you a little girl? You need to toughen up little man. Oh no. Don’t tell me — are you kidding me? You aren’t crying are you?” All of us would watch that scene and realize what it meant to act “like a man.”

As a kid, I heard many examples of those kinds of comments that signaled that boys are not allowed to express emotion. These comments were shared by adults and by other kids. If boys expressed emotions they were made fun of, chastised, bullied, and made to feel they were being feminine. Being feminine was not acceptable in the 1960s when I grew up. Boys could express positive emotion but were definitely not allowed to express sad emotion. They had to be strong. I heard statements like:

“Big boys don’t cry.”

“Suck it up.”

“Act like a man.”

“Be the man.”

“Be tough.”

“Keep your chin up.”

“Don’t act like a girl.”

“Be strong.”

Now I’m a grown man, and I have a wife and a daughter. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to show emotion. Something I think about is — are men allowed to express emotion even today? Sometimes I think we’ve made progress, but other times I think there’s still a stigma abut men being able to express a range of emotions. A few of the examples I’ve seen:

In a business meeting when I was coaching a man, he started crying because obviously I touched a nerve in our discussion. The two other men at the meeting acted very uncomfortable, and suggested we “take a break.” They told me they thought it was weird that he cried during the meeting.

When my wife died four years ago, many times people complimented me for “being strong” and “keeping it together” and “not losing it.” So the implication is it would not be OK (read: not really manly) to lose it. So people as a society were rewarding me for not showing emotion.

Even the descriptions of a man crying are negative depictions. Crying is described as “losing it,” implying that by crying a man has lost something. It is also described as falling apart. When a man is not crying he is “keeping it together.” He is incentivized by society to not show emotions.

I’ve seen men get choked up while watching an emotional movie and when someone asks them about it, they’ll say (in a statement of denial), “I am NOT choked up.”

Now it’s 2016, and I hope we live in a new world. It’s time for us to change this ridiculous idea that men can’t express a range of emotions. Let’s change the ideas of what it means to be a man.

But here is the question — how can we change it? What can you do? Here are a few ideas …

Be a role model to our children

As a father (or a mother) we need to teach our sons (and daughters) that it’s being human to express emotion and it’s good for their health. Holding in all that emotion is killing us as men. It’s giving us cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. We also need to be willing to express emotions ourselves, to show that there is nothing wrong or “unmanly” about showing emotion.

Change your language

Don’t use negative descriptions of men expressing emotions; instead use positive ones. Encourage other men to express themselves. When I talk on the phone to my dad, he always ends the call with “I love you, son.” In our society men don’t express love openly enough and they should. Tell other men you love, “I love you.”

Change your actions

I’ve noticed when men hug, they’ll often do the “bro hug” or as I call it “the safe hug” that always has the arm bar between the men so their bodies can’t possibly touch (that might just be unmanly). Just be willing to give any men you love a regular hug and don’t feel uncomfortable doing it.

Support men in society who express emotion

After 9/11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani would openly cry during press conferences and most people admired and respected him for it. Since then any politician who has shown emotion has been chastised for it. Let’s celebrate and honor men who express their emotion honestly and openly.

The only way we are going to change the world is to change it one man and one boy at a time. Start with your family, your friends, and your local community. Think of this — we can be the evangelists and we can change the world one day and one person at a time.

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