Big Boys Don’t Cry: What Not To Say To a Crying Child

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Lately I’ve spent a fair amount of time out and about with my daughter.  But with visiting public places comes the problem of hearing things parents say to their children that I’d much rather not hear.  And most of the time it pertains to children who are crying.  Somehow parents these days (or in our culture) seem to believe children shouldn’t cry.  Or that crying should be reserved for really huge things.  Like maybe death.  Or the cancellation of Firefly.  Otherwise, many parents seem to think it’s just not something you do.

My experiences led to my husband and I discussing things we’ve heard either while out as parents or as kids and I thought I’d share them here with my own take as to why they are not things I plan on ever saying to my daughter and why I hope you won’t either.

“That’s nothing worth crying over!”

I realize parents saying this are probably trying to calm their child down, but somehow that doesn’t seem like the right way to do it.  First, you’re telling your child that whatever has them upset is nothing.  Any time I’ve been told that as an adult, I feel defensive because it doesn’t feel like nothing.  If it felt like nothing, I wouldn’t be crying, would I?  And I should add that I’m a crier, especially over sports.  It’s bad, but when my Sens get knocked out of the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how prepared I am for it or how much they deserved it, I cry.  And I do realize in hindsight that it’s “nothing” – my overall well-being has very little to do with the Sens winning the Stanley Cup (in fact, as I would probably celebrate with copious amounts of booze, it’s probably better for my health that they not win), but it feels like hell when it happens.  And when I see a child who’s crying because he fell, or because someone took her ball or shovel or pail, I imagine that those are far better reasons to cry than my own.  Especially for one so young.

In a similar vein, I sometimes here “That doesn’t hurt” when it’s a child that’s fallen.  Really?  You know this how?  Even if you are 100% certain there’s no physical pain involved, sometimes there’s also the whole psychological aspect of falling, or anticipation of pain that comes into play.  Children (and adults) cry when we get embarrassed, which can happen when you’re playing with friends and you’re the one that falls during the game of tag.  Or you have to face something that you truly, honestly believe will hurt (hello, dentist!) and so you cry in anticipation.  Perhaps the physical pain isn’t there, but you can bet that psychological pain is there and at the forefront of that child’s mind.

“Big boys/girls don’t cry.”

I spent years working at an after-school care program and heard this far too many times from both parents and teachers.  I’m not quite sure when we, as a society, decided that only younger individuals are allowed to cry and that being able to repress your emotions is a mature thing to do.  I realize it’s definitely something we do as adults, much to our detriment, but I would hope we’d realize it’s a mistake and try to allow our children to express the things we don’t and that eat away at us.  I mean, do I want my daughter to be as repressed as I was for years?  Never expressing anything until it would manifest physically?  No thank you.  One of the joys I’ve experienced in recent years (thanks to my darling husband) is the ability to cry over anything and express everything in a safe environment.  Even when I’m being irrational, he lets me let it out and then I know enough to say sorry or explain where the crazy came from.  I want my daughter to feel the same – that no matter what it is, she can express it to us and we’ll support her.

The other problem with this one is that it puts a negative spin on crying and being a baby.  Yes, crying can suck to listen to, but it’s important we don’t dismiss it as something “bad”.  It’s a form of communication for young infants that deserves respect.  It’s also a form of communication for children, teenagers, and even us adults.  And with this negativity comes an implicit negativity about being a baby and that’s also very unfair.  Babies rock.  Unfortunately society has taken to the view that they are intentionally manipulative, difficult, and interfering with our lives.  Not true.  So let’s not put them down, even indirectly.

“Only sissies cry.”
(Aimed at boys)

I’m not sure I even need to state anything here as I feel this is so self-explanatory.  We’ll start with the very sexist view that crying is a female thing only… I dunno about you, but last I checked crying was a physiological reaction.  Here’s a summary of emotional tears:

Emotional tears:  It all starts in the cerebrum where sadness is registered. The endocrine system is then triggered to release hormones to the ocular area, which then causes tears to form.

If I’m not missing some major scientific news, males have a cerebrum where they are capable of registering sadness.  They also have an endocrine system that also releases hormones.  They have an ocular area which causes tears to form.  And lastly, they have faces where these tears fall.  Did I miss something?  How can crying be a female thing when it’s physiologically something all humans can do?  Of course I’m aware this refers to the societal view that males be stoic and not show their emotions, but let’s return to the point above about how unhealthy it is to keep our feelings bottled up.  In short, not at all.

But then we also get the lovely put down of “sissies” to refer to any boy who dares show his emotion.  Because being like a girl is also bad.  Even if it’s just physiologically responding to an event that has caused sadness, pain, or both.  I honestly can’t help but believe that the higher rates of aggression we see in many young boys today is driven by repressed feelings.  The inability to express how one feels would inevitably lead to feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anger.  Is that really “manly”?  Isn’t it funny how places like Sweden have men who are put down here in North America as being too feminine, yet they have lower rates of violence, mental health problems, suicide, etc.?  So can we please cut the crap and stop with the sexist and derogatory statements to our kids and just let them feel what they need to feel?

And the absolute worst in my opinion:
“If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Although sexism sucks, I think threatening your child qualifies as worse.  I admit I’m very lucky to have never heard this uttered to a child because I don’t know what I’d do if I did.  However, my husband heard this regularly in his town growing up.  I can’t even fathom how a parent could choose to say this.  Is crying really so terrible?  So awful that you have to make your child stop by making them terrified that something even worse is going to happen to them?  And are you really going to follow-through on this?  How?  Beat your child because he cried?

I honestly don’t know what to say here except I’d like to give parents who utter this intentionally and regularly something to cry about.  You should NEVER utter this to your child.  If you plan and intent on using this to try and scare your children into not crying, I don’t think this site is for you.

*   *   *   *   *

Crying is normal.  Crying is a part of life.  No matter what age you are, no matter what sex you are, no matter how insignificant the event may be in hindsight.  While mastery of emotions is something that can be good, it’s only good if we still allow ourselves to acknowledge, accept, and process these emotions.  In fact, I would argue we don’t master the emotions, but rather the expression of them.  When we tell children to not cry when they’re upset, we aren’t teaching them how to master the expression of emotion, but rather to ignore or suppress it.  And it doesn’t help them in the moment and it certainly doesn’t help them long-term.  So please, when your child’s upset, take a moment and comfort them.  It doesn’t matter why they’re sad, but that they need you to be there for them.  If their expression seems too extreme or inappropriate, you can always work on ways to express emotions after they’ve calmed down which is when that type of intervention is most effective.  At the end of the day, you are a parent and none of these sayings are actually parenting.  So please don’t use them.

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    • says

      I will say that I was referring to what I and my hubby have witnessed to CRYING :( Not tantrums (which is why I focused on the end about learning to properly express emotions as being key to something we DO teach our children). My point here is that I believe you can teach appropriate responses without belittling the child for crying. I never said we allow whatever expression the child has to continue to come out, but that we teach them exactly what you spoke of without threats or belittlement. But *crying* over something is not anything we should treat kids poorly for.

      • Kath says

        Even if it were about tantrums, or “having a fit”, this post still makes sense and is reasonable. I think that you’ve given a great range of examples of poor responses to any emotional outpouring. If you want to carry on with this “well my parents did blah blah to me, and I’m fine” attitude, then fine, but I personally want better for my own kids and the ones I teach.

        Great post EP!

  1. Jespren says

    Oh, just a short aside. That last one is hardly synonomous with a parent ‘beat’ing a child. Even if we ignore the vast difference between a spanking and a beating, I’ve heard that from people who were refering to everything from ‘time out’ to a skipped desert. All it means is ‘something you don’t want’, there isn’t a universal definition for ‘something’.

    • Joe says

      Doesn’t matter what it is. You’re teaching them that your love is conditional based on how they’re behaving. You’re also teaching them that crying, a normal, human emotion and reaction to something is somehow wrong and bad. You’re threatening them, thus breaking your bond with them. And you’re teaching them to fear you, and to hide their emotions, which is not a healthy way for them to live.

      As I’m at work, I don’t have time to write a huge diatribe response like you did, but most of what you wrote is not backed by science, just by your personal feeling. Read Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, which uses actual scientific studies to show how what this article is about is true. Your job as a parent is not to be a jerk, or to control your child, but to work with your child to learn and grow. Threats of any kind do not work, statistically they’re actually quite detrimental. There is a very heavily referenced study, Stayton, Donelda J, Robert Hogan and Mary D Salter Ainworth “Infant Obedience and Maternal Behavior” – in short: the less controlling and threatening a parent is, the more likely their young children are to do what is asked of them.

      Your children are not your enemy; don’t treat them as such. Work with them, don’t threaten to do things TO them.

  2. Charlotte says

    Wow, both my parents have told me that they’d give me something to cry about, and it was always understood to be a spanking. It did teach me to go cry in my bedroom, where I do my crying to this day. I agree with you that the emotions never go away, we just change how we handle them.

    I struggle with how to raise my son. I don’t have a problem with him crying, but I know that others will. Certainly having the vocabulary to express his feelings will help, but there will be times where he will cry and I’m not there to give him a safe space. Am I not failing him as a parent if I don’t help him learn that others will belittle him for one particular display of emotion? Which is worse? I don’t know.

    • says

      I don’t think you’re wrong to warn him and help him gain the strength to handle whatever criticisms may come his way. Being realistic about what to expect is a healthy part of parenting! Forcing him to not cry because others will possibly make fun of him would not be the way to go, in my opinion!

    • Aimee says

      I think that it’s a good idea, as our kids grow older, to teach them the unfortunate truth of how they will be perceived if they cry. We are currently going through a very difficult transition into middle school with my oldest son, and he has already been identified as a target by his classmates after an incident that led to his visible tears. This has lead to more teasing and threats.

      Yesterday, when he got off the bus I could tell that something was up. We went into the bedroom and talked about it. Yet another child was teasing him and threatening to beat him up. I asked how he reacted and when he told me that he’d kept his eyes forward and face blank I gave him a “high five” and a huge hug. This released the tears, so he DID get it out, but in a safe place, one where he was not going to be judged or stigmatized.

      I believe that crying is a healthy part of life, and I certainly don’t believe in holding in the tears forever, but life often expects even us adults to hold it together until we’re at a time and place where it’s safe.

  3. Luna says

    “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”

    My mom used to say this to me all the time. It was usually followed by a smack in the face when I didn’t stop quickly enough (and I never did because I am a crier) pretty much all my emotions are hardwired into my tear ducts. While some parents may say it as just meaning something you don’t want to happen is going to happen, it is usually physically threatening. The threat of immediate physical pain to frighten the child into stopping. At least, in my home that’s always what it meant anywhere else that ever heard it (and I heard it quite a few places). If a parent was just going to give them no dessert as a punishment for showing their emotions the more logical train of thought would be “If you don’t stop crying you’re not going to get ice cream tonight” etc. The whole point of “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” is to sound immediately threatening. In my home there was always a follow through, too.

  4. Kc says

    In college I babysat a little boy who was stuck in a constant crying phase during his toddlerhood. One day I sat him down and explained to him that it was okay if he cried, but if he were able, he should try to use his words to tell me what was wrong so that I could try to help him. This BLEW HIS MIND. He just wasn’t used to the idea that he had this other method for expressing his needs and emotions. He was about 3 years old, and after that, he was so much easier to deal with. I’ve never forgotten how grateful he was for that little bit of advice. Children are so much smarter than we give them credit for.

  5. Jessica says

    Shame… This is we have more crime and teenage gang bangers running around! My mom disciplined my tantrums and ive never been arrested in my life. I respect authority and believe children need to be taught to do so!

    • Tracy says

      I’m totally unclear as to how these statements would curb crime or gangs. If you cry and you’re treated poorly for it (note: CRYING), how is being belittled going to prevent crime? And how are these statements actually discipline?

      • Courtney says

        Tracy, I agree. I think that teaching children to handle their feelings constructively, then maybe THAT would reduce crime. Too many parents these days are so harsh, I have to believe it is contributing to our increasing crime rate. Now, that’s a shame.

  6. Jennifer says

    I heard a comment which rankled directed at my 17-month-old daughter just yesterday. She was crying a bit and her aunt exclaimed, “oh, your life is so hard!” Her aunt loves her deeply but is probably used to saying something like that to her dog. It sounded belittling to me. To that 17-month-old, life IS hard! She’s learning how to deal with disappointments!

  7. Stephanie says

    Hi Tracy,
    Great article once again. While I understand that social media means many people may be directed to your blog who haven’t perhaps sought it out themselves, I will never understand why people with a completely different opinion feel the need to give their opinion, without backing it up with references as you do. Or why they feel the need to link their own blog or website which gives an opposing view. Perhaps I just have a naïve view of blogs. So thankyou for your blog. I found it as I was consciously looking for gentle / attachment parenting advice, research and opinions and I certainly wouldn’t belittle what you write, based on my own personal experiences, just because I don’t agree with what you write. If I had a blog, I would of course use it to voice my own opinions. But I would hope my readers understood that what I wrote wasn’t subjective fact.
    Thanks again.

  8. Rachel says

    Hi Tracey,
    While i don’t disagree with any of the points you make, i have a bit of a problem with Don’t posts. At least, don’t posts that aren’t peppered with ideas and suggestions for do’s. I followed this link because, like all parents in the whole world, i at times have difficulty managing my toddler’s and pre schooler’s break downs. Most of the time, i try and hold them close and tell them i understand how they feel and that sadness always passes. I know i have on regrettable occasion told them its not worth crying about. Gently, with respect and any attempt to belittle, i don’t like to but it pops out sometimes. I was hoping to get some fresh insights and strategies from your experience. This time, i didn’t. I understand that is not your responsibility to help me parent my children and you are free to write whatever you like in your little corner of the internet but your sites byline does say “But most importantly is to provide information so parents can make informed decisions about the ways in which they raise their children”. – This one didn’t.
    -i was disappointed by this post.

  9. Sarah says

    In my opinion, this is exactly where the negative stigma about mental illness begins. Instead of teaching children to recognize their feelings, understand them, and how to properly cope with them, we are teaching them to suppress them. This can lead to a lifetime of problems, and unfortunately, sometimes lead them to suicide as an only viable option, instead of seeking treatment.

  10. says

    My nearly three year old daughter cries. She cries all the time. Over everything. She is highly sensitive. And crying can become screaming at a wrong look. I try so, so, so hard to remain calm. I ask her, “Why are you Crying, Ruby?” And never get a response. “What do you need, Ruby?” Rarely a response. I can go down the list, “Are you hungry? Do you need a nap? Shall we cuddle?”

    Inevitably I start to get frustrated – as I’m sure she does too. I have finally learned that “TELLING” her to stop crying doesn’t work. I ask nicely, “I can’t help you if you don’t use your words.” “I can’t understand you while you are crying.” And eventually, “if you can’t stop crying, I will have to leave you until you are calm enough to talk.” I have even started singing a loud ditty at her, as being silly seems to head off the building anger.

    I don’t ever feel like I’m handling it the right way. I don’t know how to help her calm. The reasons can be as varied as needing to poop, not wearing the right color pants, being unable to find her other shoe…

    I would love some coping techniques if you have any suggestions. My husband and I have come through some very difficult years of learning to express all of our feelings and we want to fully encourage that in our children. And thank you for posting this!

    • says

      My daughter can sometimes be like that (much less now though) and I would jut hold her. Not say anything at all. My hypothesis is that the highly sensitive children are overwhelmed when crying and *any* input is overwhelming them even more, even nice input. Just holding them and letting them get some crying out to “level” themselves off and THEN talking can do wonders.

  11. says

    I walked past a family in town the other day and heard a mother tell her child “oh just fuckin shutup fuckin crying you little shit!”
    I’m sure she’d had a very bad day… but even in my most sympathetic, understanding mood, I want to punch her.

  12. Marina says

    Hey, I just wanted to give you kudos for the Firefly reference and generally everything after that! I am not a parent, but if I do have a kid, you nailed exactly how I feel about raising him or her. Emotions are nothing to be ashamed of, and suppression has messed up so many people I know, including myself, that I just cannot let that be part of their life.

  13. Elizabeth says

    Of similar note, it really bothers me when kids fall or bump themselves and all the adults in the room quickly say “you’re fine/okay” to prevent him from crying. It tells them that whatever emotion they were having (pain, scare, embarrassment) is wrong and they’re just “fine”. We tell our son what happened “oh, you tripped and bumped your knee”, what emotion he’s displaying “that’s not what you expected/I bet your knee hurts a little”, and offer cuddles until he calms or gets over it.

  14. rachel says

    when my son cries I say to him “I see you are emotional (being sure not to name the emotion as there is no reason to label; it seems labeling causes identification with the emotion and it is a temporary state of being so it seems self-defeating to label). and that is ok. the most wonderful part about what you are experiencing is that it is impermanent. sensations like this will come and go forever. we must learn to observe them and watch them fade away. do you want help from your mom?” sometimes a hug, sometimes he wants to be left alone. 30 seconds to 1 minute of crying no matter if he has hurt himself or is just feeling emotions. he is 2.5 years old. rarely happens and has never had any type of tantrum.

  15. ZFoxy says

    Just want to add from reading this blog. I agree with most of these, but I do understand the need to tell a child that they are fine when they are crying. I’m surprised by people putting such a negative connotation to it when I’m sure the parents themselves mean it in the best possible way. I have found myself saying it to some children when they’ve fallen.

    True, sometimes when a child falls it is not the physical pain but the psychological shock which is causing the tears. Usually this is evidence by the child falling, standing back up in surprise and then bursting into tears a second later. I think in these instances its more a reassurance that what just happened may be traumatizing but not debilitating. You are still okay, there’s nothing wrong with you.

    Firefighters say it to injured people even in the worse of circumstances. Even as an adult, when I myself have been hurt whether by someone doing something to me or experiencing pain I still hear those words from friends and family, “You’re going to be just fine, it’s not that bad.”

    I never felt that it meant they were belittling me in any way. I find it more as words to focus on and something to help your brain linger on instead of the pain you are experiencing. Also, at least when I myself have said it to a child, it’s a reassurance to the person tending to the injuries as well. Crying doesn’t just affect the individual but those around that person as well. It’s proven that hearing someone cry and seeing tears causes most people a severe reaction, for myself it makes me want to cry as well. Saying that the person is alright isn’t just a reassurance for that other person but for yourself as well.

    Of course there is a right time and a right place for anything but I just don’t believe words such as that should be condemn in the same category as someone threatening to ‘give a child something to cry about.”

  16. says

    I may be guilty of saying there is nothing to cry about- but it is always accompanied with an acknowledgement of what I think is the issue- “I know you feel sad about not having that thing right now, but we don’t need to cry about that. We can have that thing in a minute when we are done with this activity. That is not something to cry about right now. ” Or “you don’t have to cry for milk, I hear you and I am getting it for you. You can SEE me getting it” etc.
    I don’t make light of the tears, just let her know I am attempting to fix the issue… I would never demean her.
    I am guilty of trying to keep her from crying- but not to spoil her as many think I am.. but more to make sure her needs are met…

  17. Stein says

    Are you sure you’re not actually an abusive maniac? You seem really uptight what with your *don’t come back to this site if you utter these words* statement. I think that shaming parents for their slight actions in a pinch of desperation is one of the worst things you can do for their children. Perhaps offering unbiased suggestions that relate to the daily frustration rather than nay saying would help to inspire a mother who is more “at ease” and confident, which is better for the child. Letting a mother feel like she messed up so bad shes an outcast is just counteracting the feelings of wellbeing that promote the openness needed to help a child who cries a lot. It’s frustrating and to eliminate human frustration is impractical. I think we all say and do things that we aren’t very proud of. Understanding that is half the battle. Then, you choose your words more carefully in the future. I think you’re expecting people to be perfect, and they are not. So, TO ALL YOU MOMS WHO HAVE SAID “I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT, LAUGH A LITTLE, CAUSE DAMNIT, WHATEVER. Just be careful to avoid it in the future. :) that is all.

    • says

      Honestly – I didn’t say if you’d used them, but if you PLAN TO use them. In which case, a site like this isn’t really for you. That’s not dealing with a pinch of desperation or anything like that. It’s about planned, thought out behaviour towards a child. It’s being aware AHEAD of time of what you think is an appropriate response to a child who is in distress. If that is you – especially after reading that – likely the site ain’t for you. It may still be and I’m pretty sure there are parents who read it, said, “Ha ha, whatever.” and moved on to the next piece.

      I really struggle with the idea that we can’t write anything these days because it *might* shame someone.

  18. jeff thompson says

    It’s people like the one who wrote this article why our kids are growing up to be the biggest p***y’s on the planet.

  19. Vulcannicus says

    My parents are exactly like this except that they extended it to all negative emotions. What I learned was that expressing negative emotions in the presence of others is simply not permitted. You will either be punished, mocked, or invalidated (or all of the above). And it most certainly will be held against you in the future if it is noteworthy. So am I ever honest with my parents if something is wrong even now? Of course not, that would be stupid based on their pattern of behaviour. And really, as the world is no different than my parents as far as I can see – perhaps not as extreme, but little better – so why should I ever trust anyone?

  20. Bjorn Arnesen says

    “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” is usually a post spanking threat to a child crying from being spanked, the threat being an additional spanking. I had this a lot as a kid.


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