A couple of weeks ago I was doing some work in the yard and my five year old son Seth was out there helping me as he often does. He’s a helper by nature but has a particular interest in any project that I’m working on.
I think a big reason for his interest is that he spends a lot of time with his Grandpa Doug (my dad) who is a real handy man and almost always has some sort of project he’s working on. Seth loves to help Grandpa Doug.
My dad retired when Seth was about two years old so he and Seth have spent more time together than my older two boys who have been in school full-time since he stopped working. They share a special bond that is extra meaningful because Seth’s middle name is Douglas after my dad.
That day outside I asked Seth if he wanted to be handy man like Grandpa Doug when he grows up. He enthusiastically replied, “Yes!”
At that moment I realized I wasn’t sure I’d ever shared with him that he is named after his grandpa and decided it was about time. I also told him that when we informed Grandpa he was so moved and honored that he cried.
Seth thought it was pretty cool to be named after Grandpa Doug, but what really stuck with him was that grandpa had cried.
He looked at me somewhat confused and asked, “Dads cry?”
The question stopped me in my tracks. Somehow, my oh-so-young and innocent son had already gotten the impression that men don’t cry. The unfortunate truth is I have probably modeled this for him to some degree. I just don’t cry that often. I’m actually a very emotional guy, but for whatever reason I’m not frequently moved to tears.
I think Seth’s realization is one that most American boys come to at some point as society nurtures them to believe that men don’t show emotions (other than anger perhaps) and they especially don’t cry.
In some cases it is overt and someone outright tells them crying isn’t ok, that they should “toughen up” or “stop being a baby.” In other cases more like Seth’s, it is demonstrated over time by the men in their lives and at some point they learn to bottle up their feelings.
I want something different for my sons. I want them to know it is ok and even healthy to be vulnerable, to open and up and share how they are feeling. I don’t want them to walk through life emotionally stifled and isolated like so many American men.
My answer to Seth’s question was “of course dad’s cry.” Even though he hasn’t seen me cry often I want him to know it is ok.
As with so many other aspects of life, I feel like parenting is often a make-it-up-as-you-go situation and many times I don’t get it right. But even though I don’t often cry I’m trying to show my boys that it is ok to be emotional sometimes.
The best thing I know to do is, while they are still young and freely showing emotion, support them in that and not shame them for it while also helping them learn healthy and productive ways to deal with their feelings.
I realized after my conversation with Seth that I can also probably do a better job modeling this behavior by letting my sons know when I’m feeling sad or emotional and sharing with them how I try to get through it in a positive way. Obviously that is a work in progress.
Question – How do other dads out there address this issue and try to help your son(s) learn to embrace their emotions and express them in positive and productive ways?