“Your son cries a lot,” read the note my son’s first-grade teacher sent home last year.
I skimmed ahead looking for the part about my kid failing all his classes including lunch, or the section about how he’d instigated dance parties during math class. You know, the bad news. None of that was there, because he hadn’t made any of those choices. The only choice my then 6-year-old had made was to be emotional.
I thought about all the times I’d reassured him that all his feelings had value. Now, his teacher was sending the opposite message.
Like learning his new math, I’ve been trying to work out this problem ever since: Can my son, as a boy, be supported in feeling all his feelings?
Whether my little guy is laughing or crying, he feels his feels fully. In his toddler days, while watching “The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh,” he cried in earnest when Rabbit was separated from the rest of the 100 Acre Wood crew. Then there are the moments where he laughs so long he throws up, stops for a minute, and laughs some more. My kid is not afraid to feel all his feelings at home, in the grocery store or even at school — for now.
When I noticed my son’s emotional palette included as many colors as his ginormous Lego sets, I wanted to support him in learning to use them all. We talked through why it was OK to feel sad about Rabbit being lost and explained that laughter created connection. I never thought to discourage specific emotions for my son simply because of his gender ― or that other people might do it for me.
So, I didn’t set boundaries based on emotional stereotypes or use limiting phrases like “boys don’t cry” in my parenting. I could sense how those words would strip him of the confidence he was only just starting to build in his emotional self. I wanted to support his emotional needs.
With my husband and immediate family on board, we made the choice to reiterate over and over (and over) that there’s nothing inherently weird or wrong in expressing how you feel. Yep, in our house we are Free To Be You And Me.
I thought others besides my own inner circle would easily hop on board and help me out in my quest to encourage my son in his healthy emotional expression. Instead, when my son’s emotions fall outside the traditional male stereotype, he’s often met with confusion, gawking stares and occasionally even scolding, because he’s not “acting like a man.”
I’ve been surprised that over the years, kids in his class have commented on the fact that he’s quick to cry if he’s sad. My heart sank at the start of remote learning this year when he told me he was most nervous about “accidentally” crying during a Zoom class. Then there are the adults who don’t even know my kid but still choose to comment.
“Boys don’t cry,” the stranger in the coffee shop said to my son, who was super sad that he wasn’t getting a chocolate chip cookie.
I had been kneeling next to him while he cried, doing my best to validate his feelings when the man decided to weigh in. My son stared at him and so did I. I could feel every part of my body, including my eyelashes grow hot with anger.
I wished we could somehow unhear that limiting phrase, but it was too late because I could see my kid processing what it was supposed to mean. Was this one of those key moments that would change him forever? Hoping I could wield some sort of magical mom power to safeguard his open heart, I said firmly, “Well this boy does and I think it’s great.”
I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. My son is 7 years old now, and he’s at the age where external influences are becoming more impactful. Traditional masculine stereotypes are everywhere, and he’s looking to those images for inspiration, instead of finding it within himself like he’s always done. Where were the heroes for him to look up to and emulate as his sensitive heart grew? I wasn’t sure where to look anymore.
Then, I found one.
When my husband and I first watched CNN anchor Van Jones cry on-air after Joe Biden was announced the president-elect, we were moved to tears along with him. His raw moment of honesty grabbed our hearts and we held our breath listening to him speak his truth. Watching this adult man be confident enough to feel his feelings in front of the world made me think of my little guy. I wanted that for him.
That’s when it occurred to me there might actually be a hero here to show him how it’s done.
“Would you come with me and watch this man on the TV?” I asked my son in the middle of his Lego playing.
He must have detected a seriousness in my voice because without hesitation, he said “sure” and grabbed my hand. I explained gently that he didn’t have to watch the whole thing, but that I’d like him to see this news anchor’s response to all that had been going on today. He nodded.
I had no idea what to expect. I thought maybe my kid would politely watch 30 seconds, decide this show was for adults, and run back to finish his Lego project. I was wrong.
He stood transfixed. He watched Jones partner strength with vulnerability, be true to his feelings, and cry it out. My kid didn’t understand the political rhetoric or every subject Mr. Jones touched upon, but he caught the emotion behind it all.
I leaned over and said the phrase I’d said more times than I’d tucked him in to bed at night: “You see, it’s always all right to cry.” He nodded — his eyes never leaving the television.
Later that night, my 7-year-old asked me why that man had been crying. His question opened the door to a positive conversation about feeling feelings, working through them, and, of course, why it’s totally fine to cry. After we were done talking, he said, “Got it,” and I realized he did.
I may have to look a little harder for nontraditional male role models for my kid, but they’re out there. Trying to teach my son how to live a full emotional life at this age is important in shaping his adulthood, and I’m not going to stop in my quest to support that.
I’m so very thankful to men like Van Jones for being the emotionally available role models my son needs.