Boys who cry and other thoughts on sensitivity
When I was in elementary and middle school, one of my fellow classmates was a boy I will call Sebastian. He was teased relentlessly because he cried. Often.
At the time, it seemed as if he cried because of anything and everything – he got a B on a test, he didn’t win a computer game, a student or teacher disagreed with him. It got to the point that the rest of us could anticipate the tears. I’m sure there were some who purposefully agitated Sebastian, trying to bring on the waterworks. I hope I wasn’t one of those people.
I look back now, with my adult eyes, and feel such compassion for Sebastian. He was obviously a super sensitive soul. His emotions were valid even if the rest of us didn’t understand or empathize. And I have to wonder, if the class crier had been a girl, would the tears have made her a target for teasing?
I think about Sebastian now because I am mama to a 7-year-old boy who cries often. At least from my viewpoint, he seems to cry over things that, I admit, I sometimes deem “not worth the tears.” But who am I to determine what warrants his tears? Who am I to declare his feelings valid or invalid?
Part of me says, “He’s only 7! He’s still so young.” The other part of me responds with, “He is 7 years old. He should have better self-control.” Ultimately, I think a little bit of both is true.
My dear friend and fellow mommy blogger Betsy wrote an excellent, relevant post a few months ago. Titled “Listen to your children,” the piece mentioned some of the unhelpful phrases we tend to say to our children – phrases that might make youngsters feel as if their emotions are invalid. They include, “It’s OK” and “You’re fine.” What we mean is something like, “I know you’re upset right now because you fell and scratched your knee, but everything is going to be OK.”
I commonly say “You’re OK” or “No biggie” because it is difficult – in the chaos of life as a work-outside-the-home mom with two children – to stop freaking out about every little thing and think through the situation at hand. I’ve been working on this, though, because I want my children to know that all of their emotions are valid. Always. No matter how small or trivial the scenario might seem to surrounding grown-ups, including me. What appears to be “no biggie” to me could be a huge catastrophe in my children’s minds.
What I don’t condone is crying – or whining – for the sake of manipulation, a strategy to which Elliot sometimes resorts. For example, if I say, “It’s time to put away the Rainbow Loom and get your shoes on because we’re leaving in five minutes,” he might start crying because, clearly, making rubber band masterpieces is the most important activity in the history of the world. Is he sad, upset or angry that he has to stop what he’s doing and get ready to leave the house? Yes. Are those feelings valid? Yes, they are. Here’s what I’m having trouble with: Is he crying because he’s genuinely sad and that feels like the only way to express his emotions? Or is he crying because he thinks doing so will persuade me to let him play for a few more minutes? I believe it’s the latter. Elliot’s trying his hand at manipulation.
In an interesting twist, Elliot told me just a few days ago that one of his peers sometimes cries because “she thinks if she does, she’ll get what she wants.” I asked, “Do you ever do that?” He said he did, so I am glad he has admitted his use of this tactic and can recognize when others do it as well.
But back to crying because it feels like the only option. I would like to think the stigma of boys and men crying has diminished since I was in elementary or middle school. I think back to Sebastian, though, and I worry about Elliot being teased. I want Elliot to know that being strong is not always best. It is OK to be weak at times. In fact, it is beautiful to be weak – to say, “I need help” or “My heart hurts.” And if he feels like crying, then I want him to let the tears flow.
I also want to teach him how to respond if someone does tease him, to try and instill in him the confidence to say, “I feel sad, and that is OK. My feelings are valid.” Or something like that. I don’t know. I’m not sure what the “right” response is, or if there even is one. I also don’t want him to feel like he has to justify his feelings to anyone. I mean, he can if he wants to.
What I do know is that there have been times as an adult that I’ve felt as though I need to hide in order to cry – mostly in the workplace. I have sensed that working women who shed tears in the office are labeled as weak, overly emotional, cry babies. Why is sensitivity perceived as weakness? I happen to think sensitivity is a strength.
But of course we all have weaknesses. And there is nothing wrong with that. Like I said, weakness can be beautiful.
In case you don’t know, Jesus is my favorite. He was a storyteller, and he often told stories in a mixed-up, backwards kind of way. He said crazy things like, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) and “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Well, the apostle Paul sorted out some backwards-isms, too. In 2 Corinthians 12, he writes that he pleaded with the Lord to take away the thorn in his side. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (verses 9-10, emphasis mine).
I love Jesus. Weak is strong. Cry on, girls and boys. (Except for manipulation purposes.)