When I found out I was having a son, I admit that I was worried. Not just because I had heard that boys were so much harder, louder, and more difficult to parent than girls (they aren't, by the way), but because I have seen firsthand how harmful boys and men can be. So what if my son grew up to be some dude bro, an abuser, or a rapist? It's a terrifying thought. Then my son was born, and I learned there is actually one thing you can do for your baby son to help him navigate this world full of harmful gender roles and toxic masculinity: let him cry.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you make your baby boy cry on purpose, or that you leave them to cry when they need your comfort, food, or a diaper change. According to Kid's Health, babies cry for a variety of reasons, including signifying that they're hungry, wet, cold, tired, or need to be held. So you should, absolutely, listen to your baby's cries and respond when you know they're asking something of you.
My sons have taught me how gentle and expressive boys can be, if we allow them to.
But when your baby boy is sad, frustrated, or mad, it's OK for him to cry. As he grows up, he deserves to be able to cry without being told to "suck it up" or "be a man," whatever that means. Unfortunately, so many people in our culture think that boys shouldn't cry or show emotion, from infancy to adulthood. Far too many people still believe males and females are conditioned to experience and respond to emotions very differently. Continually telling boys to stop crying, or associating crying with being weak or being feminine, (as if being a girl is bad thing) is not only unfair, and can actually negatively impact their emotional development.
Researchers at Yale University found that baby boys are more emotional and expressive than baby girls. They startle more easily, excite more quickly, are less tolerant of tension and frustration, are distressed more quickly, and cry sooner and more often. However, from age 2 onward, boys start to become less expressive and less emotionally mature than girls. By middle of grade school, boys are less aware of their emotions, less expressive of their emotions, and less empathic toward others and themselves.
So, how does this happen? According to gender schema theory, the development of gender roles is impacted by a variety of social and cultural factors and interactions, which create a filter through which you see your place in the world. When it comes to emotional expression, the filters for boys and girls look so different because of their interactions with a gender role-driven world. How do parents respond to their cries? Do they rush to comfort a female child who is crying, while telling a male child to shake it off, be tough, or be a man? How do peers respond when they cry? How do other adults — teachers, coaches — respond to emotional expression? What do they learn from the media and observing people in their families and community about how they should feel and express emotions?
Maybe if more boys were taught they can be gentle, emotional, and empathic, masculinity would be less toxic and harmful.
Gender roles are learned, and when it comes to boys, we condition emotions — except for anger and aggression — right out of them. Boys and girls learn from a young age through a variety of contexts, responses, and inputs about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. What results is a society based on a hierarchy where masculinity is good and femininity is bad. If you are pretty much anything other than a white, cisgender, straight male, you are marginalized, whether you recognize it or not. If you are a boy or man who doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles? You suffer, too, because the patriarchy hurts damn near everyone.
My sons have taught me how gentle and expressive boys can be, if we allow them to. Maybe if more boys were taught they can be gentle, emotional, and empathic, masculinity would be less toxic and harmful. Our sons exist in a culture that tells them "boys don't cry." But my sons show me, nearly every day, how important it is to give children of all gender identities space to feel and express emotion, and from the time they are babies when crying is really the only way they can communicate. Kids, like adults, do better when we validate their emotions. We can support them in being who they are, rather then molding them into a gendered box marked "boy." It's time we let our sons cry without shame, comfort them without making gendered comments, and let boys everywhere know that it's OK to cry. Because it absolutely is.
Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:
Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.