During one of our phone conversations from his college dorm room, my oldest grandson asked me how I managed to remain upbeat during these covidious times. I responded, “I laugh and cry almost every day.”
With some surprise, he asked, “You cry, Gramps?!”
I reminded him, as I had years earlier when he first heard me cry, that sometimes, when a moment of selfless generosity or sadness and pride collide, my emotions are triggered. And then tears flow, just as they had when he shaved his head in solidarity with his closest friend, who while undergoing chemo for brain cancer had lost his hair.
For me, crying is a sign of strength.
Of course, I realize this is in opposition to the generally accepted view of “manliness”—against the stereotype we perpetuate when our culture tells our sons, “Boys don’t cry.” I also realize that I would have responded with similar consternation if my grandfather had responded that way when I was a college student, a time when the armor males wear is approaching its thickest.
Although I see many signs that gender expectations, roles, and behaviors are in flux, and have been since the dawn of the women’s movement, we’ve still got a long way to go for boys and men not to feel that crying is a sign of weakness. I believe the “manly” gender armor we tend to saddle our boys with from their earliest days, shields them from the opportunity to develop more compassion.
As a student of child development, an educator, a dad, and for many years a granddad, I have observed that girls and boys come into this world with their emotional suitcases filled with a similar array of emotional clothes to dress themselves in. But longestablished social mores tell both genders to unpack different emotional clothes, so they’ll look “right” and conform to prevailing expectations. Boys are more apt to be encouraged to unpack those items that cover up what are considered “softer” feelings.
Although not steady or dramatic, there are signs that a shift has been occurring in men’s willingness to shed some of their emotional armor. We have seen male sports stars shed tears during both sad and happy times. And we now have a president who has cried publicly on a variety of occasions.
Quantitative/clinical research on the biology of fatherhood, and my own qualitative research interviews with dads and granddads from 20 countries over the last quarter century, have taught me that the instant of the birth of one’s first child often provides the chink that breaks through the masculine armor that has formed throughout a boy’s life right up to the moment he becomes a father. Once that emotional armor is pierced, it tends to fall away. For some men, it shatters and comes crashing down, with accompanying tears that carry such unexpected force that they can feel disoriented. For others it is subtler but the emotion is always present.
Some men embrace emotional emancipation, and some are so surprised that they just don’t know how to handle it. Regardless of how it manifests, with their armor down, there is room for vulnerability, empathy, and compassion to enter, freeing up a direct route to a more open heart—a place where tears may flow unencumbered.
During 192 individual, in-depth interviews with fathers and grandfathers 16 to 104 years old, 100 percent of the men shared that becoming a dad enriched their lives—some sharing that with fatherhood came a kind of love they had never before experienced. For all the men, a tenderness was revealed that had a humanizing impact that—unbeknownst to most—had been there from the very beginning. If only they had been encouraged to unpack it from the emotional suitcase they had arrived with as infants.
Allan Shedlin has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, he founded and led the National Elementary School Center. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group and in 2018 launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He is father of three, grandfather of five, and “bonus” father/grandfather to many.
Learn more at dadvocacyconsultinggroup.com. A version of this commentary first appeared in their weekly Daddying Blog, dadvocacyconsultinggroup.com/daddyingblog
Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked by Paul Raeburn, 2014.