Boys don’t cry. Any boy-mama knows this isn’t true. My 5-year-old son cries with the best of them. And I’m cool with that.
But does it stop being OK for your boy to cry as he gets older? And if it does, when does that happen and why?
Radio 4’s Soul Music programme yesterday focused on The Cure’s pop-punk masterpiece Boys Don’t Cry.
I have loved this song since I was 12 when my two best friends introduced me to the band. Memories of dancing around our bedrooms come flooding back. All three of us dressed in the early-90s uniform of brightly-coloured Benetton crew-neck jumpers tucked into black Levi 501s; big-buckled leather belts completing the look. Long-haired, Rimmel concealer covering up our spots, on the cusp of innocence lost, and all supremely confident in our ability to change the world.
The programme played this song, talked about the lyrics and looked at men, and their (in)ability to express their emotions.
But the very last segment concluded with a story. A pretty good yarn about a Boys Don’t Cry poster, and about love found and lost. Anyway, the guy telling the story talked about having the poster of the song in his home and how it relates to his young son:
“… when Wolfgang cries or is having a fussy moment, I point to that poster and I say: ‘See, boys don’t cry.’”
The programme ends on this weirdly paradoxical note.
The poster for a song which talks about male repression is used as a way to reinforce that same, frankly, f*cked up, notion?
But it got me thinking about my son. About how we’re bringing him up. About the kind of young man I want him to grow into.
I like his tears at the moment. I respect them. I react to them. They help me gauge just what’s going on in his head and his heart.
He’s 5, almost 6, and has always been very emotionally expressive. This, in my mind, bodes well for the future. If he carries on like this, he shouldn’t end up a repressed, depressed adult.
But he still might.
Because our culture doesn’t like to see men crying. Not in the way that women are allowed to.
My husband cries. Easily. He’ll shed a single tear when he sees something really sad on TV. He’ll cry when he watches a really beautiful film. And I know when it’s coming. I have a built-in husband-cry-ometer. I just have to give him a sneaky glance and that tear is there. And we laugh about it. And I love him for it. I love that he feels so deeply. That life, art, film can get to him.
But have I seen him really going for it? Really blubbing? I’m not sure. I asked him this morning over breakfast and we couldn’t remember a time that he’d really let it all go in front of me. Possibly when he lost his wonderful grandad. But it’s not something I can recall.
Generally, when my husband cries, he does it in a beautiful, silent, brief, and even – dare I say it? – manly way.
It’s acceptable because it doesn’t shock.
What if he fell apart during an argument or after a terrible day, like I always do?
I know I’m quick to tears. Too quick. And I can’t hold back once something has set me off.
What if he did the same?
I KNOW I wouldn’t like it.
Women cry five times more often than men do and when they cry, they do so for longer
There’s a theory that the difference is hormonal: women’s higher levels of (breast-feeding) hormone prolactin makes us more prone to tears, while higher testosterone in men may inhibit tears.
And this theory could explain why boys start to cry less than girls from puberty onwards.
But it’s not the only explanation.
We actively teach teenage boys to hold their emotions in as they get older.
To ‘man’ up.
To ‘act like a man’.
While tearful boy teens are branded: ‘cry baby’, or ‘girl’.
And that hurts our young men. Which in turn hurts everyone in our society.
If emotions can’t be expressed through tears, they fester inside until they burst out as anger.
“So, for boys, who grow up into men, events that might cause sadness cause anger instead, and we end up with adult gender differences in which women can show sadness and cry and men blow their tops.” (Christina S Brown, psychologist)
Now, here’s a very short video that I’d urge you all to watch. Warning: whether you’re male or female. It will make you cry. It’s by the American Psychological Association, it’s called Boys Don’t Cry and describes the problems that teaching this kind of cultural masculinity creates for our boys and young men.
Tears wiped away?
Let’s commit to making a difference.
Like it or not, I know I have been conditioned to support the ‘boys don’t cry’ myth.
So, perhaps the best course will be to follow the guidance in the APA film. To encourage my son to express himself freely when he feels safe to do so. At home. With us. In the security of our love.
Because, frankly, soon it’s not going to be safe for him to cry in public. He might have even worked this out already.
But as long as he can cry here, with us, he’ll be OK.
Boys do cry.
Boys should cry.
We need to start letting them.