We hadn’t even reached the end of my parents’ driveway when a tiny sound interrupted the silence in the car.
“Mommy, I’m going to try not to cry this time,” my 6-year-old son said, his voice breaking.
We had spent almost a week in Ohio for Christmas, surrounded by my family. My son particularly enjoyed spending days with my nephew, who is the same age and shares the same passion for things that boys that age love. Every time we leave Ohio, my son cries. (As do I.)
“Well, my eyes are a little wet, but I’m still trying not to cry,” my son said again moments later.
He looked out the window, biting his lip.
“I just really miss my cousin and my grandma,” he said, finally letting the tears flow.
My eyes welled up, too. I was sad to leave my family behind, because I knew it would be at least a few months until I would see any of them again.
I may have been even more sad because my son felt that he had to hide what he was feeling. I have always encouraged him to have feelings, and he has very big feelings.
My son is one of those people who feels things deeply. He cannot stand to see people upset. When I picked up my little Monster-Man from summer camp one day, his instructor said my son had spent a few hours that day simply trying to console a little boy who felt homesick.
My son remembers every moment he has ever hurt anyone. He will recall them months, even years later, saying, “Mommy, remember that time I accidentally ran into that little girl and she cried? That still makes me so sad.”
My son loves fiercely. At 6, he loves playing basketball, dressing up as a superhero and building Lego creations. But he really loves cuddling with his momma and making sure his little sister is OK.
That’s my child. He is tender-hearted, and no amount of “boys should be tough” will ever change that.
Unfortunately, it appears he already thinks he is failing in his duty as a man to put on a brave face. The instance in the car – “Mommy, I’m going to try not to cry this time” – is not the first time he tried to stifle his emotions.
Kids pick up on these ridiculous notions much sooner than we would think or hope. They see it on TV or hear it in school. My son is learning that the world is going to expect certain things of him because he is a man, just as the world will set certain expectations for my daughter.
There is so much unfairness in these assumptions. My son’s big heart is what will make him great. It is what will make our world better. My son’s ability to feel and express emotion is what will build lasting relationships.
Sadly, I know that my son’s tender heart is also what will lead to terrible pain. I rue the day a love interest rejects him or a friend shuns him. His sweet heart is also what could lead to him being bullied. I know that sensitive boys get teased. I know the names they get called.
That is what scares me about having a tender-hearted child: It isn’t that he won’t be capable of taking on the world; it is that the world is a cruel place. As a parent, I’m not supposed to simply tell my child to toughen up. My role will be to teach him to stay true to who he is without falling victim to people who take advantage of sensitive souls.
My son’s big heart is my favorite thing about him. I’m going to do my best to make sure that sensitivity translates into good: how empathy for others turns to kindness, how love conquers hate.