“Are you going to walk in there crying like a little girl?”

I was on a high after a nice run in the park when I heard it. The family was dressed up, walking by Riverside Church, where I assume they were headed to some event: father, mother, 4-ish year old boy holding her hand, and another -6 years old or so- walking about 5 feet behind. My headphones were on but luckily only one side was working, so I had the pleasure of hearing this little gem of parenting happening in the middle of a public sidewalk:

The little boy was lagging behind, tears running down his cheeks. His mom turned around and yelled at him, “Stop crying! What, are you going to walk in there crying like a little girl?” The words stumbled out of her mouth like a half-mistake, and I’ll never know if she felt they were a mistake once they came out for everyone to hear. The boy stopped for a second, shoulders heavy, overcome with shame. They kept walking, and I kept walking, wondering, what does it do to a 6 year old boy’s psyche when his mother tells him tells him to stop ‘crying like a little girl’?

The boy was crying because he was sad. Clearly, his mother was upset and wanted him to stop crying before they went to their event. She probably had a long day and was exhausted, and clearly her husband wasn’t doing anything to resolve the situation (he was detached, offering no support of any sort). She didn’t have the patience (or maybe the tools) to kneel down and talk her son out of crying before they went into the event. So she took out weapons she knew would work. “Are you going to go in there crying like a little girl?” And the Patriarchal lesson is learned: Girls are weak. Crying is weak. Don’t be weak. Like a girl.

It happens all the time in our society; shaming little boys into a masculinity that rejects emotion. It’s called Patriarchy; where sexism becomes systematic. Like in this case, Patriarchy isn’t only enforced by men. It is often enforced by women who have simply been taught that “this is they way boys must act”. This family was a perfect vision of the cycle of Patriarchy, and how it’s passed on through generations: the detached father leaving his wife to do the parenting, and the mother, tired, yelling at her kid not to cry “like a little girl”. The teaching of Patriarchy begins with simple phrases, and women use them without noticing the paradox of doing so. The mother was once, herself, a little girl.

Chances are, the kid was upset because he didn’t get what he wanted. If she had just knelt down to his level and said to him,

“I’m sorry, but you can’t have ____ today. I know you’re upset and that’s okay. Do you need a hug to make you feel better? I want you to take a deep breath and try to stop crying because we’re going to have a fun time [insert wherever they’re going]. Come on, it’s okay.”

Or even,

“I’m upset with you and it’s okay to be upset, too. You can cry if you feel like crying, but we’re going to [insert event] and I want you to try to calm down before we go inside.”

It would have been especially wonderful if the father would have offered his half of parenting and done that work. It’s just as wrong to expect the mother to do the parenting and the nurturing as it is for her to tell her son to stop “crying like a little girl”. While families enact Patriarchy, they teach it to their children. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken because it’s hurting children. I see it all the time, and I saw it in this little boy.

Children are most vulnerable in these moments. These are the teaching moments. These are the moments they could remember the rest of their life. I walked away from that moment knowing that it could be one of those random moments that little boy remembers for the rest of his life. Or it could be one of many moments that build his wall around his emotions. For me, it’s just like telling your kid he can’t like pink, or ‘girl things’, or ‘do girly things’. Or it’s like telling your girl that she’s not being gentle enough or she’s being too loud, or she’s not being polite enough, or she’s being too aggressive when if she were a boy, you’d never say these things.

If you don’t want your kid 35 and in therapy because he’s buried his emotions, or worse, to turn to violence because he doesn’t have linguistic tools/comfortable spaces to express himself, please don’t say this phrase (or anything like it) to your child. Over and over again, boys who aren’t given these tools and spaces grow up to be really uncomfortable men who then enforce the same behaviors in their own children. Give your boy a safe space to explore his emotions and find ways to verbalize them. It’s the best gift you could ever give to your little boy because once he enters school and the shaming begins, the burying begins too. But if he’s well prepared he’ll have a much better sense of self and will be able to navigate his way through the inevitable flood of Patriarchy.

(Cross-posted at kidsandgender.tumblr.com)

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

EKB is doctoral student in clinical psych in NYC. She is a white, cis anti-racist, queer feminist whose research focuses on the neoliberalisms of reproductive technoscientific medicine, and aims to expand the possibilities of human subjectivity.

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