“If you cry again I am going to take you back home!”
That is what I told my almost 4 year old son on Wednesday night around 8:00pm. We were riding bikes and he was in that overtired state where he could hardly contain his emotions.
He was crying.
He was whining at his sister.
It had been a long day at work for me.
I wasn’t handling my emotions very well either.
And actually, as the parent, I wasn’t being responsible to help him get to bed at a decent time since I know he was at the end of his rope. He actually is asleep by 8pm almost every night.
I tell you this because sometimes as parents we expect our kids to be adults and handle their emotions better, when often we are the ones being irresponsible with their schedules. And unfortunately, I am not always the adult I should be in my parenting. So I have to look honestly at myself.
We have all been there…right?
I tell you this story because what happened next reminded me just how vulnerable our little boys are to cultural messages that can have emotional damage on them later, especially as it relates to anger, violence and depression.
About 2-3 minutes after I told my son I would take him home if he cried again he crashed on his bike.
And before I could get to him or before he could pull himself out from under the bike he looked up at me with tears in his eyes, skinned hands and knees…and while crying said, “Are you taking me home now?”
And instantly my heart sunk.
He assumed that because he had crashed his bike and was crying, I was not going to take him home.
I rushed over to him, helped him and put my arms around him as he sobbed into my neck. And this is what I told him.
“It is always okay for you to cry. When you get hurt, when you are sad, when you are having a hard day…it’s always okay to cry. It is always okay for you to express your emotions.”
And then I tried to explain to him that it was his incessant whining at his sister that I didn’t like. Not the fact that he cried. That was my fault for using that word. Words matter, and I need to be more careful as a parent. In fact, my wife and I had a discussion that night about how we need to stop saying “stop crying” to him or our daughter. We never want to send the message that crying is wrong, or that expressing emotions is wrong.
Later that night as he and I connected more on the rest of the bike ride, at bedtime stories, and as I lay in bed with him…I reminded him again. “Hudson, I want you to know that it is always okay for you to cry. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Why is this message so important to communicate to our boys?
In Chapter 4 of my book What it Means to be a Man, I write about the connection between depression and anger…and really the messages that young boys hear. I write the following:
“In I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Real uncovers why we hide our depression. We begin life with as many feelings and emotions as girls, but as we age we begin hearing a different message. Our fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches, and friends tell us think like, “Stop crying!” and “Don’t be a wuss!” and “You’re okay … pick yourself up! Be a man!” In other words, it’s no longer safe to be emotional. If we want to test this, pay attention to the messages you give your son versus the messages you give your daughter. Or if we’re a coach, mentor, or youth pastor, think about the messages we convey to boys that encourage them to just “suck it up.”
‘One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives.’
I have worked thousands of boys and men in my work as a pastor and therapist. And I am never shocked to be sitting across from a man who can relay to me the story of the moment he first heard words like “stop crying”, “be a man”, “suck it up.” I’ve had men in their 60’s and 70’s tell me how their father said those words to them when they were 4 or 5 years old and that was the day they learned it was not safe to talk about how they felt or to feel emotions.
So boys begin to stuff emotions and an early age because we as parents, grandparents, coaches, teachers, pastors and culture…tell them to “suck it up.” To “stop crying.” To not be a “wuss.” And those are just some of the things I can actually print on my blog.
Over time, if a boy hears that message enough you eventually have a man who is unable to identify his own feelings, or express them in a relationship. You have a man who has to find other outlets to let those emotions out, and sometimes they aren’t always positive — drugs, alcohol, anger, violence and pornography — just to name a few.
There is a connection between the messages you send your boys from a very, very, very early age, and their ability to have a healthy emotional life interpersonally and relationally.
So watch what you say.
The incident above was a reminder to me to be more thoughtful about how I communicate to my son and the messages I send to him. I want him to have a healthy masculinity, one in which he is free to feel and express his emotions. Not only will he be better off. But so will his future wife and kids. So will his friends. So will his community.