I Think I Might Have Tears

My little boy is seven years old, his name is Ben. He’s a great guy. In many ways he is all the things you’d expect a little boy to be, and in many ways he isn’t. I try to parent both of my children in ways that do not hold expectations nor limitations based on their gender. They are free to be their own person. The only expectation I hold for Ben is that he be himself and be the best Ben he can be. Society, though, has different expectations for our boys. I see a lot of stereotypes come his way about how a boy should act, think, feel.

We don’t give boys the space to think and feel very often. We tell them to toughen up, “man up”, don’t cry. And certainly, never show that you are scared or insecure.

That doesn’t work for my son.

Ben has social anxiety, which means he hates school, being on teams, and doesn’t like to be in big groups or do things in front of people. This makes life hard. Seemingly everyday regular things that all the other kids can do with normal effort, mine can’t. Joining a birthday party. Having fun playing a baseball game. Finishing first grade.

My kids freeze. They have panic attacks. They drop out of first grade in favor of homeschooling. They can walk up to a group of new kids at the park to make friends and start a game of play, but they cry over things that seem really little or insignificant and I don’t get it. I’m more like a Golden Retriever: everything’s a party and everyone is my best friend. Ben makes me pause, reframe, and see situations the way his little heart see them.

Swimming BoyLike today at the first day of swim lessons, when he was hiding in the boys’ locker room because he was overwhelmed. He was stressed by the number of parents watching and the first day of anything can be hard and scary. I found him pressed up against the wall, his small fists pressed into his eyes. I could tell by the way his tiny chest was heaving he was fighting tears.

“Hey Beeze. Can I do something for you? What are you feeling right now?” I ask him.

“I think I might have tears.” 

That’s what he says when he is trying to be brave and pull himself together. When he is trying to get on with it, suck it up, stuff his feelings down.

“Well, go ahead and have tears if it will help you feel better. Sometimes crying lets us get out our big feelings and helps us find our words.” He crumples into me after I say this to him, and he cries. I try hard not to.

In so many ways, I just want him to be “normal”. I want to say, “Buddy just get over it and get in the water. You know how to swim so what’s your deal?” But I don’t say those things.

I don’t want him to be one of those boys who grow into men who don’t know how to have feelings. Who are too scared to cry or reveal vulnerability. Who put so much effort into being “masculine” they cease being human. I want my son to know that everyone gets nervous or scared about all kinds of things. I want him to know that bravery is not the absence of fear, bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway.

I let him cry. And then I tell him we are walking out to the pool deck together. He is allowed to cry. He is not allowed to give up on himself.

We walked out of the boys’ locker room holding hands and we choose to sit against the wall near the shallow end. We sat off to the side, in front of dozens of people. He was the only child in the whole place acting like this. I made no apologies for it. It takes a lot of guts to be authentic in front of people. My guy does it like a champ.

While we sat I continued to see where he was at and what he was feeling. He said he’d take his turn doing the initial swim test once everyone left and it was just me and his teacher.

That was fine with me. Ben was acknowledging his limits and asking to do what he needed to do within the framework he needed to feel safe. Not bad for a seven year old. Some adults pay tens of thousands of dollars in therapy to learn how to do that.

We’ve worked really hard to get to this point, as just a few months ago he would have screamed and stormed off, or gotten angry and embarrassed and hit me. A lot of parents make excuses when their sons act that way. Boys will be boys, you know…..

Boys grow into men. As a parent it is my responsibility to raise my son into a man, not just sit back and watch him grow into one. Not to excuse away unacceptable behavior because of his gender. It is my responsibility to teach my son how to respect his body, which includes his heart and feelings. In teaching him how to respect himself I am teaching him how to respect others, another parental responsibility. He cannot, may not, absolutely not lash out in anger or violence when he has feelings that trouble him. We problem solve, compromise, and find a way to things the best way he can.

Boys get scared. And boys cry. Boys have feelings and boys feel pushed into things because their parents don’t want to be embarrassed or let down or have a kid who doesn’t fit in. Who doesn’t act like all the other boys.

The only expectation I have of my son is that he be Ben. Some days, doing so makes him the bravest boy in the room.

 

*Posted with Ben’s permission.*

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Comments

  1. this reminded me of what we went through when my 6 year old started preschool. He had seemed like a laid back outgoing kid but had a couple experiences that I believed triggered his anxiety. That was a tough time! He was so scared that people might make fun of him. He sat out of taekwondo for 4 months (that were paid for). It was so hard to need to go somewhere or be looking forward to doing something (especially with another kid in tow) – one time it would be fine and the next he wouldn’t get out of the car. But we talked a lot through and he had some positive experiences. Now his social anxiety had disappeared but he needs to know where are cats are at all times. My 8 year old starts therapy today for separation anxiety (he actually is pretty ok with me leaving but when we are home he calls out for me to know where I am a couple hundred times a day). Hopefully our family will learn some skills and learn to deal better. But the social anxiety was heartbreaking.

  2. Becky Booher says:

    Blessings upon you, for sharing this story. I have walked in those shoes and would have loved to have known someone understood and wasn’t judging.

  3. Thank you for showing me a different way to look at a difficult situation. Many times I thought in my head “geez, what’s the big deal. Just do it, see all the other kids are and they are having fun–you are missing out on the fun”. But you showed me that the fact that my daughter chooses not to roller skate at the party, she chooses to observe the kids roller skating-that’s how she participates. And when the kids stop skating and tell her to come skating with them and she says “no thanks, I’ll just watch” shows me she is confident enough to show them who she is, and she’s happy with who she is. Thank you for this.

    • Hi Linda –
      It took me a really long time to learn this with my kids, they are the complete opposite of my personality. I’ve learned they need about 45 minutes of warming up time before they are ready to jump in. When I give them the time and space to move at their own pace life is MUCH better for all of us. 🙂

  4. Jay L. Gischer says:

    I am not a young man, and my own mother is long gone. When I was young, she mocked me for my tears. She said things like, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms”, “you’re spoiled”, and I knew she didn’t want me to be such a “mama’s boy”.

    Likewise, my 3rd grade teacher, who had promised me something (putting my desk in a special place) for an achievement, withdrew the reward after I captured it several weeks in a row. I cried about it, and she mocked me by saying, “Look at those crocodile tears”.

    There was more space for tears in my father’s presence than in my mothers. I don’t expect this was normal, but it was my life. I strongly endorse trying to do something different.

    I co-teach a martial arts class for kids. For every child, male or female, there comes a time in the class where they cry about something. Sometimes it’s kind of appropriate (they got smacked kind of hard) and sometimes it isn’t. Neither I nor the other teachers will mock them for it, regardless of the reason.

    This takes a kind of faith. Feelings come back to center, to neutral, on their own accord. You just have to trust this.

  5. Based on what you’re saying, are you willing to at least entertain the possibility what you are doing is not working for your children?
    What’s more important to you- creating a world in your image? Or preparing your children to live in reality?
    Are you really acting with you child’s best interest in mind? Or demonstrating just how progressive and enlightened you are?
    Anecdotally – I coach baseball and hockey at the U8 level. I’ve worked with several kids who match your son’s description. As it turned out, those boys all turned out to be pretty normal and ended up having great fun on my team. It was there moms that seemed to be giving them a ‘complex’.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Read this beautiful story here. […]

  2. […] The gender stereotypes throughout children’s media present bigger problems for boys, several have long reaching consequences. Characters like The Strong Silent Type, The Big Shot, and The Action Hero rarely show emotions and traits beyond arrogance, stoicism, and aggression. That fails to give boys a buffet of human experience to draw from. Those messages about masculinity and suppressed emotion carry over into real life when boys are told to “man up” or that “boys don’t cry” or to “stop being a p*ssy” (read: feminine). Society emasculates boys who dare to have feelings. […]

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