I recently went to a park playground with my friend’s 7-year-old daughter, who I’ll call Grace. We were having a great time, me keeping an eye to make sure she wasn’t getting bored, her making sure I was watching her dancing, pirouetting and singing about being a cd and a record, as she spun around. There were two fathers (I assumed they were the fathers) in the playground, with their little boys who both looked to be about 1 year -18 months old. In the middle of the performance, I heard both little boys start to cry, it seems that they had bumped into each other on the apparatus and both were hurt and upset.
I watched as both the fathers seemed to hang back from going to comfort their children. One of the little boys looks so forlorn as he cried and looked around for comfort. I was nearest to him so, acting on instinct, I knelt and held my arms out to see if he would accept comfort from a stranger. To my surprise, he toddled over to me and allowed me to cuddle him, laying his head on my shoulder and sobbing into my neck. The other dad had by then, picked his little boy up and was cuddling him and wiping away his tears. My little guy’s dad watched as cuddled the little boy and said, “He’s a boy. He’s a boy.” I looked over at him and saw that he wasn’t going to make any kind of move to come over and offer the child comfort, himself. A few thoughts went through my mind when he said this:
- What difference does his gender make? He’s upset and needs comforting
- I don’t want to presume to tell anyone how to parent their child.
- I don’t want to upset this little boy any more by making his dad angry by challenging his ludicrous example of parenting.
- This is how boys and men are taught to deny their feelings.
- What will Grace make of this?
When searching the internet for a picture of a crying child to use in this article, I was struck by how many of the images were of little girls crying, and even more by how many of the images were of little white girls crying. This led me to wonder how much this correlates with how our society gives and views “permission” to express feelings.
As I’ve said before, I think that parenting is perhaps the most difficult job in the world. A parent is, after all, tasked with preparing their child(ren) to make a valid contribution to the world. There are plenty of criticisms of parenting that does not fit our own values and views of what parenting is and isn’t. There are also vast cultural differences in how to parent. It seems that the days where “children should be seen and not heard” are behind us, but it seems that gender roles are still pretty deeply rooted in the idea that it’s more acceptable for girls to show emotion, than it is for boys. Where do we learn our parenting skills? From our own parents? From films, TV and books? Do some men see their sons as extensions of their own egos? I’ve heard lots of men describe their daughters as their little princesses, but never of their sons being called their little princes! Are we still subtly telling our little girls it’s OK to cry, but teaching our little boys that it’s not OK?
A recent article by mental health charity, Safeline, says that, ….Mental health in men continues to be a taboo subject, with many men suffering in silence when they experience feelings of sadness, loneliness or anxiety.
The societal gender norms that men should be “tough” and “fearless” further complicates this issue as many men feel they are not a “man” if they show any sign of weakness. Men may fail to recognise or act on warning signs and may be unwilling or unable to seek help. It’s important to recognise the signs and encourage each other to speak about how we are feeling – there’s no shame in feeling vulnerable, lost or sad; everyone experiences these emotions.
The Safeline article goes on to give these mental health facts and statistics:
• 76% of suicides are committed by men and suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35 in the UK
• 12.5% of men in the UK are suffering from one of the common mental health disorders
• Men are a lot less likely to access psychological therapies than women, with only 36% of referrals being men, reflecting the suffering in silence
Back in the playground the man has finally come over to his son and picked him up. But instead of cuddling him as I expected him to, he held him up high in the air and, looking up at him told him repeatedly that he was alright. The little boy was still visibly upset so I told the guy to just cuddle his child. He did so, briefly and wiped the tears from his son’s face before setting down on his feet again and telling him to go and play.
Grace and I looked at each other, and she whispered to me, so the man couldn’t hear, “He might be a boy, but he still needs cuddles, doesn’t he?” I agreed with her, then we continued our game of me spinning her around while she sang about being a cd and a record. Her comment seemed to illustrate the fact that as a girl, she was much more emotionally intelligent than the guy was being at that time, perhaps because she has been allowed to be. She saw that his child needed comfort and reassurance, while he seemed to be under the impression that his child needed to toughen up if he was going to make it as a man. This could also be an indication of the kind of parenting he himself received.
Showing vulnerability seems to be a source of embarrassment or shame for some men. Shame is often confused with feelings of guilt. When discussing shame with clients, I try to help them to understand that guilt is about your actions, about something you do, which is one thing, while shame is more about who you are as a person. For a man especially, to feel shame about who he is, to feel inadequate is linked to not being strong enough, or clever enough, or tough enough all of which means that he may feel less of a man.
Psychology Today has this to say about shame:
Shame is commonly triggered by the following:
• Basic expectations or hopes frustrated or blocked
• Disappointment or perceived failure in relationships or work
• In relationships, any event that weakens the bond, or indicates rejection or lack of interest from the
I can imagine that if this parent continues to parent his child in this way, this little boy may suffer chronic shame or feelings of inadequacy in later life and may find it difficult to express and understand his own emotions and to relate to others in a healthy way.