My son didn’t cry on his first day of preschool; he cried on his thirtieth.
The school was a tiny, progressive place that took a surprisingly stern approach to drop offs: Say goodbye and leave. No looking back or lingering. This was fine by me. I hate to cry in public, and I knew I might, which would scare my three year old and make him cry.
So, that first day, I watched him cautiously pile blocks for a few minutes, then I told him I’d pick him up later, kissed him, and left for work. He barely glanced up. He was absorbed in the newness of everything: new kids, new toys, new sights and sounds and smells.
Every day that month, I repeated the routine. I’d briefly watch him play, kiss his cheek, and leave. Every day, I breathed easier. “He loves his new school,” I told people. How well adjusted he is! How happy! Yay him! Yay me! I thought.
Then, on the thirtieth day, he raced to me with outstretched arms. “Mommy, stay!” he sobbed. I gathered him up, buried my face in the talc of his hair. “I’ll be back, honey, don’t worry,” I whispered before his teacher gestured to hand him over. He cried and reached for me, struggling to extricate himself from the teacher’s grasp. “Just go,” she mouthed over his head. I nodded and walked out, my own tears streaming as he sobbed behind me.
My son cries easily. He gets it from me. I cry over life insurance commercials, sappy movies, real and imagined slights. I usually hide my tears, even from him. When I was growing up, our family motto was, “If you want to play with the big dogs, don’t piss like a puppy.” Girls were puppies by default. They showed the world when they hurt. They cried. To play with the big dogs, girls had to be tough. Which meant no crying. So I learned not to cry. At least, not in public.
Still, I try not to discourage my son from crying. I love his sensitivity. I love that he cries when a friend is hurting, that he cries when he feels he’s being treated unjustly, that he cries at all.
But our culture doesn’t raise boys to cry. We expect them to be tough, stay cool, stay strong, buck up, buckle up, keep that stiff upper lip. Which can make them fear, or even disdain, sensitivity, empathy, and emotion in general. Big boys don’t cry. Brave boys don’t cry. Boys. Don’t. Cry.
My boy didn’t wait a month to cry when he started kindergarten. Unlike at his laid-back, intimate preschool, where I could park and walk him inside, at his new, bigger, stricter elementary school, I had to drop him off outside the building, where he was to line up with the other kindergarteners in a sea of older kids until school started.
The first morning, he was near tears when he climbed out of the car. By the time I parked and ran back to him, he shook with sobs. I was shocked. He loved school. In almost three years of preschool, he’d only cried that one day during the first month. Maybe that incident made him think he shouldn’t cry at school, until now, when he simply couldn’t be stoic in this foreign, frightening new place. This time I wouldn’t leave; I would stay and soothe him.
I started waiting with him before school whenever I could. When the teacher walked up to lead his class inside, I’d kiss him goodbye and assure him everything would be fine. He’d cry harder. One day, another boy warned him if he didn’t stop crying, he would be sent to the principal’s office. Of course, this wasn’t true.
His teacher was as concerned as I was. After a few weeks, she sent me a lovely note explaining that when I didn’t wait, my son cried less. Maybe I should just drop him off and let him acclimate without me? She was right. Soon after I took her suggestion, he stopped crying at drop offs and looked forward to school again. But he didn’t stop crying for good.
Over the years, my son—who is still in elementary school—has cried at school several times. He cried over arguments about dodgeball including being assigned to a team opposite his best friend, and losing a conduct point for something he said he didn’t do. He was teased for crying, and berated by a teacher.
And I worry. Not that he’s crying—his sensitivity makes him a child who stands up for his convictions, even if it means confronting a friend; a child with a strong sense of fairness and kindness, and community. I worry that the older he gets, the more he’ll be judged or teased for his tears. Like by the boy who said he’d be sent to the principal. Or the boys who made fun of him for crying about not being on his friend’s team. Or the teacher who told him if he couldn’t stop crying over losing a conduct point, she’d send him back to preschool where he could relearn to follow rules.
“Why would she treat me that way, Mommy?” he asked me later. He looked at me with his long, wet lashes, his eyes wide and anxious. “She’s a teacher. She’s not supposed to make me feel bad for crying.”
My son. His tears. His empathy. They’re traits I long for him to retain. I don’t want the world to beat them out of him. I want him to keep putting himself in others’ shoes, to be motivated to help because he understands what it feels like to need, to ache. But how do I make it okay for him to cry when so many around him think it’s not? When even the nicest kids look at him funny if he wells up over something small?
The older he gets, the more I worry, and the more I worry, the more I tense I become when he cries. I try to fix whatever’s wrong instead of listening to what’s making him sad or fearful. Sometimes if he starts crying when we’re arguing, I yell louder. “No way,” I yell, “this is nothing to cry about.”
Stop pissing like a puppy. Stop it, stop it, stop it!
Afterward, I’m ashamed, and afraid, no certain, that I’ve reinforced the very stereotype I despise. But I’m also afraid that if he doesn’t learn to control his tears, someday someone mean, who doesn’t love him ferociously, will point at my boy and will label him forever. “Crybaby,” I can hear that person sneer. “Crybaby, crybaby, crybaby!”
My son. His tears. His empathy. They scare me. They shouldn’t.
“What a gift,” a friend once said, “this huge heart your son has. We don’t want him to lose it. He just needs to develop some protective callouses.”
She’s right. He’ll toughen up. The process has already begun. These days, he sucks in his breath to keep the tears from brimming over when he gets hurt in a basketball game. Sometimes when we fight, he yells mean things instead of crying. The way I do.
So yes, he’s developing callouses. But please, don’t let those callouses harden and calcify. Please let his heart stay open, his eyes stay stripped and ready to identify injustice, need, and yearning. Please, let my boy stay kind. Let him understand that tears don’t signal weakness. Tears take courage.
[bctt tweet=”Tears take courage.”]
For that to happen, I need to do better and make it okay for him to cry. When we argue, I need to show restraint instead of anger, acceptance instead of impatience. I need to stop thinking that tears are for puppies and let myself cry in front of him. And when he can’t hold back his own tears, I need to remind myself that tears take courage, and strength. Then I need to put my arms around him and say, “Cry, baby. Cry. It’s always okay to cry.”
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