‘Man Up’ & Other Things I Hope I Never Say to My Boys

When people see my three kids together, they often think they’re triplets, though they are not. Eight years ago, I gave birth to twin boys and when they were just four months old, I found myself with another little surprise! My second pregnancy produced a girl and thus it was that in just fourteen months my husband and I became an instant family of five.

My kids are older now, navigating the jungle of elementary school, and I find myself with different concerns for my sons and my daughter. I want them all to be healthy, confident, compassionate, the usual list of things. For my daughter, I worry about issues like body image, positive friendships, and so on. That’s not to say I don’t worry about those things for my sons, but the issue I struggle with most is how to raise them to be both tender and tough enough to survive whatever the world throws at them.

In second grade, the issue of “toughness” has begun to loom over the boys. They feel pressure to be “cool” and often that translates into being tough. What I envision for my sons is a beautiful blend of sensitivity, steadiness, and strength… kind of like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. But how do we, as a society, define “strength” and is it the same as toughness? That question forced me to take a good look at myself recently… and I didn’t like what I saw.

One of my sons has a tendency to get angry and frustrated to the point that he cries—in public and loudly. It can happen when his brother antagonizes, when his team isn’t winning, or when a schoolmate cheats at kickball. He has trouble processing frustration, something we’ve talked about many times. What upsets me most about these episodes, though, is how often I’ve wanted to tell him to stop crying because it’s embarrassing. I’ve come soooo close to telling him he’s too old for it, that he’s eight and has to be able to handle minor setbacks, challenges, and the occasional jerk. Each time he has a public meltdown, I struggle. I want him to process his emotions, but for his own sake I don’t want him labeled as a “crybaby.”

Then, several weeks ago I came across this video on Upworthy and was blown away. What struck me most was hearing boys vocalize the pressure they feel to “man up”—and how devastating and alienating that is. As I watched it, I became so angry with myself I was ready to cry.

It’s natural to want our boys to grow into good, strong men, but we have to be careful how we present the idea of strength to them. As I watch my boys struggle to be cool, I realize I have to get over my own need to be the “cool” parent. Who cares if my kid is crying? Teaching him to be ashamed of it won’t make him strong, so I’m not going to tell him to stop the tears. I’m going to help him work through it in a way that is thoughtful, safe, and fair.

He will cry when he needs to and stop when he is ready. In his own time, in his own way, my son will become the incredible man I know he is meant to be. In the meantime, when he has crying fits in public, I need to get over my own issues and deal with it. In other words, I need to “mom up.”

Photo: Getty

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