I was the tallest kid in my middle school. I got good grades. I was athletic enough that I was never among the last picked for a team. These were enough to insulate my young and sensitive ego from most of the shame, embarrassment, and ridicule that define middle school for so many. But it wasn’t enough.
I did everything I could to protect myself from any hint of humiliation. My drive for good grades was fueled at least in part by the need to adorn my desk with more stickers (earned for A’s) than anyone else. I wrote in tiny letters, not so that my classmates couldn’t copy my work, but for fear they might see my wrong answers. I found a way to win almost every argument I had, no matter how frivolous, even if I knew I was wrong. I avoided things I wasn’t good at. The longer I kept this up, the more important it became to maintain the image I’d created. I was strong, smart, a winner.
I vividly remember the day I realized I wanted something different. A few friends and I were shooting hoops and discussing one of life’s pressing mysteries—whether or not there really was an old sewer tank under that slab of concrete by our school. One friend, without a hint of embarrassment, asked, “What’s a sewer?”
My first thought was “How does he not know what a sewer is?” My second thought was “Why would he admit to not knowing?” When I didn’t know something in that pre-internet age, I played it cool until I could get to a dictionary or encyclopedia. But here he was, admitting ignorance, unashamed. I was jealous that he got to experience openness and honesty in his friendships. He got to learn from and with his community. I on the other hand was a prisoner behind the façade of strength I’d built.
I realized that façade was costing me closeness with my best friends. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I longed to be vulnerable.
Men and vulnerability
To an extent, things like this are just part of growing up. But I think especially for boys and men, they’re more than that. Countless men share a common wound—an acute awareness of our failure to “be a man.” When we fear admitting our so-called failures, the wound festers and infects our entire being, harming not just men but those around us. Men and boys account for the vast majority of US suicides (3.5 times the rate of women), fatal heroin overdoses, and mass shootings. They are also less likely than women to seek mental health support when they need it. Experts routinely name the “boys don’t cry” culture as a major factor.
Research shows that boys are actually more emotive than girls from infancy through age four or five. And through childhood, boys often have meaningful friendships with other boys, just as girls do with each other. However, by age fifteen or sixteen, vulnerability starts to be socialized out of them. Teen boys still express a desire for vulnerable friendships, but they become increasingly distant from their friends and those friendships become less vulnerable. Romantic partnerships become many men’s primary source of emotional intimacy. At the same time, those same men may lack the emotional and relational skills for a healthy romantic partnership. While women often maintain emotional intimacy with friends and family over the years, men become lonelier. In fact, research suggests that loneliness is at least as big a health risk as smoking for middle-aged men. Social isolation and low emotional IQ also harm men’s families and communities, contributing to problems from neglect to violence and abuse.
The church has compounded the problem by claiming a biblical mandate for cultural views of masculinity. So-called “biblical manhood” fixates on leadership, strength, provision, and reason. Things like emotion, vulnerability, relationships, and nurture are designated “feminine.” Some pastors fret about the church becoming “too feminine,” but could it be that the church is simply reflecting our emotional, vulnerable, and nurturing savior? In our weakness we experience God’s love, and in our vulnerability we are free to love as Jesus loves.
It is wrong that we label as “feminine” things God designed all humans to experience, then pressure boys not to be feminine. When we tell boys that a man’s exclusive “role” is to be strong, to protect, to provide, and to lead, we teach them that vulnerability is not for them. In doing so, we cripple their emotional and spiritual growth even as we give them power over their churches and families.
We follow a Jesus who cried in front of his friends, who got overwhelmed and hid from crowds, and who depended on the money of women. It’s time we think critically about what our culture (especially our evangelical subculture) is teaching boys and men about emotion and relationships. We need to raise men who find their identity in Christ, not in gendered stereotypes.
Where do we start?
1. Encourage boys to tell and hear stories. Tell them the stories of men and especially women from the Bible. Encourage them to talk about what happened during their day and how it made them feel. Don’t let them tune out stories about other people’s experiences. Teach them to understand the interaction between their own personality, experiences, and emotions. Teach them to respect and sympathize with those around them. Stories connect, heal, and humble us.
2. Boys are emotional. Make that okay. Don’t discourage emotion, but coach them on how to handle those emotions well. When boys are taught not to cry or be vulnerable, anger can become their main form of emotional expression. That leaves those around them (especially women) trying to manage the environment and insulate others from those displays of emotion. Our focus shouldn’t be on telling our sons not to cry, but on building emotional intelligence. Research suggests that emotional intelligence is twice as strong a predictor of later success as IQ scores.
3. Help boys name their emotions. According to APA president Ronald Levant, because boys are taught suppress their emotional responses, some men genuinely don’t know what they’re feeling or how to express it. Words are powerful, and the ability to name your feelings gives you the strength to channel them well. This is a key part of building emotional intelligence. From conversation guidance to flashcards and posters, there are a lot of great tools out there to help build this skill in your kids.
4. Be honest about your own emotional journey. The best way to teach emotional intelligence is to model it. When you are honest about your emotions, it shows your sons that when they face grief, anxiety, or disappointment, they don’t have to hide it. When you apologize for your mistakes, it shows them that they can, too. Of course, it’s important to be responsible in this. There are emotional burdens your children should not have to carry—things like marital frustrations, for instance. Model honesty and responsibility.
5. Think critically about the theology and Christian role models your kids are exposed to. Talk to them about what they see and hear so they learn to think critically, too. A lot of popular theology paints “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood” as the key to Christian life and relationships. These definitions of manhood and womanhood are typically little more than traditional cultural norms and “roles” given divine sanction by a few Bible verses taken out of context. By attempting to force men, women, and families into particular (and culturally-informed) boxes, they stifle God-given gifts, and they can threaten relationships. Inconsistent and contradictory expectations for boys also set them up for confusion, shame, and isolation as they grow into men.
We can do better than this. These norms and roles are based on a power structure (with men at the top), while the Bible points us to an entirely new way of being, where power is replaced by humility and service. Jesus freed us from barriers and hierarchies that divide people by race, sex, class, and more. To live in this freedom, we need to free boys and men (and girls and women) from the bondage of harmful forms of masculinity. That starts with letting boys cry. Jesus himself wept, after all.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared as the editorial in the print edition of the Autumn 2018 issue of Mutuality, under the title “Let Them Cry: It’s Good for Everyone When Boys Can Be Vulnerable.”