Take a Closer Look
Crying is often seen as weakness, especially in men. Many cultures encourage men to never show vulnerability — never express hurt or sadness or fear — and most of all, never cry. Some children, particularly boys, are raised to deny or hide their tears. “There’s no crying in baseball” famously said the coach in the 1992 American film, A League of Their Own. It captures well the message boys receive throughout childhood. In Accepting Tears, a wise father senses that his son is holding back tears. He wants the boy to understand that crying is a natural process, that suppressing tears is unhealthy for the body. Here are key moments in the scene:
Offer Gentle Curiosity
“I can tell something’s bothering you,” dad says when his son comes into the room looking sad and forlorn. “Do you want to tell me about it?” The father’s approach is soft and gentle so the boy feels no pressure to disclose before he’s ready.
Observe Body Language
Dad pays close attention to his son’s face and overall posture, reading the signs telling him that the boy seems on the brink of tears. Naming what he sees allows the son to feel seen, and is also a gentle way of continuing to invite the son’s expression of emotion.
Many parents say “don’t cry” when their children are on the brink or have already begun to cry. For parents who themselves are uncomfortable crying or believe it to be a sign of weakness, “don’t cry” can be delivered as a scolding. More often parents mean “don’t let yourself get this upset” or “it’s not worth crying about.” Regardless of a parent’s intention, what kids hear is “don’t accept your emotions…don’t express your pain through tears.” The wise father in Accepting Tears wants to help his son feel free enough to let the tears flow, and so he talks about his own struggle with crying. At that moment, the boy looks up and into his father’s face for the first time in the scene, finding support and encouragement from his dad’s words. It’s the turning point that allows the boy to push past his resistance to crying. This normalizes for his son how hard it can be for any of us to let ourselves cry.
It can break our hearts to see our children crying, to witness them in distress. Many of us say “don’t cry” as a way of nudging kids to a brighter place so that we, too, can feel better. This father doesn’t indulge that impulse, despite the pain visible on his face. He knows it would be wrong to ask his son to sacrifice the healthy expression of emotion in order to help him feel better? (see When Kids Cry).
Read Tips of the Month for Families
Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.