Ask Dr. Gurian: Is it always wrong to tell a child, "Stop crying!" Or to put this another way: Because I said this to my son when I was raising him, did I ruin his life?
Answer: “Stop crying" can be used too harshly and too often, but many times, this parenting strategy builds resilience, strength, and social adaptation.
When I was serving on a conference panel to discuss fatherhood recently, I heard another panel member tell the audience that a boy’s health depends on his crying and expressing feelings constantly—it was a flaw in masculinity, masculine training, and fathering, he said, to tell a child to stop crying.
This is a view we hear quite often, and my research agrees with this panelist’s opinion to a point: constant repression of a child’s emotional life is harmful. Crying and expressing one’s feelings are important social-emotional skills. But the panelist, and the popular view of this issue, oversimplify this issue, missing one of the important gifts of paternal nurturance.
Think for a moment about your own parenting. Haven’t you at some point watched a child whining and crying and thought, “There is no way that is functional.” Haven’t you quite naturally told a child: “Okay, stop crying, that’s enough, it’s time to do something about your problems.” I think we all have done something like that.
According to studies from four different continents, males, in general, tend to get to the point of ending a child’s tears more quickly than females. One reason is a less active male insula (the part of the brain that creates mirror neurons for empathetic response). The female insula tends to create more mirror neurons and retains its mirror neurons longer than the male, so it is not uncommon to hear more moms spending more time listening to and crying with a child than dads (though, obviously, a father can spend more time listening/crying with a child at any given moment, and a mother can spend less).
In the context of this male/female difference across cultures, Patricia Hawley, at the University of Missouri (featured in Saving Our Sons) has studied the subtleties of bi-strategic parenting—the application in child-rearing of both maternal and paternal (female and male) nurturing styles. They find that bi-strategic parenting has protected child development for millions of years, and even more subtle—and despite the public psychological narrative, especially regarding boys, that the more coercive and masculine approach is always dangerous to a child’s development—it is, in fact, essential to good, collaborative parenting.
To help us explore all this, let’s look at four scenarios.
Scenario 1: A father (or mother) says to a child, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” He or she is wielding a belt across the child’s behind.
Scenario 2: A mother (or father) says to a crying child, “Crying just makes you weak, I’m ashamed of you,” and walks away from the child.
Scenario 3: A father (or mother) says to a crying child, “That’s enough crying, it’s not helping anything,” and gives the child other emotional expression strategies.
Scenario 4: A mother (or father) says to a crying child, “If you see a problem, do something about it,” and helps the child stop crying so that s/he can problem solve, and take good action.
In the first two scenarios, brain-based psychological science would agree with the conference panelist that parents will likely cause social-emotional harm to their children, especially if the abuse or disrespect for tears is repeated constantly throughout childhood. In both 3 and 4, however, the parent who tells the child to stop crying, actually assists the child in building resilience, thus helping the child become a mature, self-regulating, problem-solving adult.
Children themselves need and want this kind of direction: a boy’s initial crying, for instance, is often his brain’s hyper-stimulated amygdala, tear glands, and other functions pleading for adults to help him answer his internal question, “How do I get stronger, more adult, more mature, more emotionally independent?” Just as much as he needs to cry, he may often need to stop crying and act.
In my own fathering of my children, I never hit of abuse them, but I did make the mistake of Scenario 2 at various times, ordering them to stop crying but not giving them new assets to replace the tears. I regret these moments. At the same time, there were many moments in their childhoods when I knew my children were crying, ventilating, and “feeling” too much. Maturity and resilience, I knew, would come if I did my part to help my children end their tears and initiate changes in their lives.
In these times, it was healthy for me as a father to tell my child, “Stop crying, get control of yourself, work on solving your problems.” My sub-text, in these situations, was “Crying and constantly talking about feelings is not necessarily the best thing in the world.” In this kind of nurturance, my insula finished quickly with its mirror neurons, and my brain saw “healthy parenting” from that perspective.
Brad Bushman, at Ohio State University, has completed research that helps us see wisdom in this other part of bi-strategic parenting. As he and his colleagues prepared to study emotional expression of young adults on social media, they assumed, like the panelist, that the more a child or adult expressed feelings (ventilating, talking, crying, asserting “how I feel”) the more functional and successful the adults would be.
Bushman and colleagues found something else: the young people, both males and females, who spent the most time in ventilating/expressive/ruminating behaviors were more depressed and less emotionally successful than the people who did not. Bushman reported his study and conclusions in Personality and Social Psychology. “The students in the rumination group were angrier and most aggressive while the students in the control group, who did nothing to vent their feelings, were the least angry or aggressive.”
Bushman is not contending that crying or expressing feelings is a bad thing—it is a good thing—but it can also be counterproductive. Dr. Bushman’s studies have been replicated by neuro-
psychiatrist Daniel Amen who tracks rumination and feeling-expression in brain scans. Dr. Amen told me: “The more extended and chronic the rumination we experience in the brain, the more at risk our brains are of ANTS (Anxious Negative Thoughts), which just continue the stress cycle of more emotional distress and more likelihood of anxiety and depression.”
Dr. Amen, author of Sex in the Brain and Unleashing the Power of the Female Brain, pointed out the male/female aspects of this. Males and fathers, he noted, tend to use fewer tears and fewer words-for-feelings than females and mothers. The anterior cingulate cortex of females is up to four times more active than the male’s; male tear glands are smaller than female tear glands after puberty comes; and the male cerebellum (the "doing" center of the brain) is larger and generally more active than in the female brain. Thus, in general, fathers are more likely than moms to try to end a child’s feeling-expression and move to problem-solving and “doing.”
In fathering my own children, I’m not proud of the mistakes I made, but my children, now grown, have told me they are glad I was “more masculine” in the way I parented them than their mom was. They loved how Gail parented, don’t get me wrong. What they were talking about was my attention to resilience over emotion; maturation over long drawn-out emotional expressions.
Parenting is messy and there is no single best way to parent. Our public psychological discourse generally wants parenting to be pure, orderly—and, especially, “not masculine.” But adulthood is a time when strength and resilience are as important as anything else, so we do need both maternal and paternal resources even despite the fact that we all agree on a broad and wide spectrum of what is male/female and maternal/paternal.
And from a larger social context, I believe we need to challenge panelists like the one I heard. When they say, “We want fathers more involved with kids,” but, simultaneously, take an incomplete or even a denigrating view of the gifts fathers bring, we must challenge them to think more deeply and see things more clearly.
And so, when you see dads (and moms and mentors) doing the sorts of things featured in scenarios 3 and 4, please congratulate them for telling their child it is okay to stop crying. Their basic approach is desperately needed by millennials and younger kids who often lack, today, the motivation, resilience, and follow through that strong, active, paternal nurturers can help develop in their growing children.