My son is a crier. He comes by it honestly. I'm the type of person who enjoys crying. I find it to be a great release when I'm stressed or upset. And I'm pretty sensitive, so crying is my first instinct. There have been times I couldn't control it. I remember crying at my office job until I was in my 30s. At some point I realized it looked unprofessional and I found ways to stop.
I'd either go to the washroom and cry quickly and privately. I'd save it until I got home. If you press your tongue against the roof of your mouth it can also help — I didn't learn this until recently. I've also tried to develop a thicker skin, to not let things bother me as much as they might have once.
But as much as society has progressed, for some reason, it seems more permissible for a girl to cry than a boy. If you're a boy, it seems crying is not OK. We tell our boys to be tough, to hold it in, to channel their feelings into anger or swallow them altogether. I don't see how any of these strategies are necessarily healthier, but it just seems to be the protocol when you have boys.
I realized how unfair this is on the weekend when I found myself guilty of telling my son not to cry. He was playing in an intense, high-stakes baseball tournament. He and his team were really feeling the pressure to win the provincial baseball championships.
I'll admit even I was stressed. My stomach was clenched as though in a tight fist. My shoulders were tense. I found myself either screaming with triumph or on the verge of tears. If I was having trouble coping, my son was faring worse. At eight years old, he'd never been under this much pressure to perform and, unlike me, he hasn't had a lifetime of experiences to teach him how to manage.
There were times he could keep it together, but other times he'd be catching fly balls in left field and swiping at his eyes. He was completely overwhelmed at various points throughout the weekend. At night, mid-way through the tournament as he was going to bed, he propped his head up on his pillow. "I'm feeling pressure," he whispered to me in the dark.
"It's OK," I reassured him. "There is no pressure. Just try your best and have fun. I love you no matter what."
His head sunk back down onto the pillow and he went to bed.
Why isn't that an acceptable way for boys to react toward pressure or other feelings?
The next day during the championship game, the tears returned. I felt upset that he was crying again. I was embarrassed that he couldn't control the tears in front of his teammates. What would his buddies say? How would it look to the coaches? Would they cut him from next season's team for crying? I became even more stressed thinking about how his crying might impact his life in future.
I approached another dad from the team whose son also has a tendency to cry. "How do you handle it when your kid cries?" I asked.
"I tell my son to let it out if he wants to cry," he told me. "The coaches know to leave him alone until he's ready to pull himself together."
I was taken aback by his approach.
"I tried to tell my son to take a few practice swings until he feels better," I told him. "If he cries the whole team gets upset."
This dad seemed to disagre.
"My parents never let me cry and I turned my tears into anger," he said. "I wouldn't recommend that approach."
Suddenly I felt ridiculous for being a mom trying to dam my son's tears. Maybe this dad was right. Why shouldn't a boy cry? Why isn't that an acceptable way for boys to react toward pressure or other feelings? Why do we tell them to toughen up? Act embarrassed on their behalf? Worry that crying will make them look incapable? Was I allowed to cry more than my brothers? Would I let a daughter cry more than a son? Am I a part of society that comes down harder on boys from being emotional?
The boys won the tournament this weekend. Only I cried a single tear of happiness on their behalf. And I have to admit, I'm rather ashamed myself for how I handled the situation. Yes, it would be great if my son could learn to cope without tears, but not because it's an unacceptable expression of feelings. Rather, it seems to hurt the team morale. If he cries, it becomes contagious and everyone on the team thinks the game is lost. If I had a daughter in the same situation, I wouldn't want her to cry for the same reason.
But right now, my son and his teammates are learning. They are developing the skills they need to handle things differently in future. They are gaining life experience, one stressful baseball game at a time. Next season the pressure will feel more familiar and even comfortable.
Hopefully, I'll be the only one to cry.
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