Monday, 4 May 2015

Big boys don't cry (but little boys do)

Is it just me, or has anybody else noticed that little boys seem to cry much more than little girls?

I mean, all little children cry, boys and girls both; it just seems to me that mostly it's boys, and often for very little clear reason. And they switch quite suddenly from beaming happiness to face-distorting despair. How can this be? I am at a loss to say. When young, I never had any close friends, neither girls nor boys, and never understood what made kids of my own age cry, boys in particular, beyond the very obvious: discomfort, fear, pain, unfairness, and deprivation.

I had a younger brother, four years younger in fact, so that I could observe (while still very young myself) how it was for babies, and how it was for toddlers. Here's a shot of us in 1957, when I was five and Wayne was one:

Wayne seems to be thriving! According to my Auntie Peg (and I learned this only recently) Mum had post-natal depression after having Wayne, and while she got over it I was farmed out to the house of my Uncle Laurie and Auntie Molly in Newport. I also fancy that it was at this time that Dad and I went off to Devon to stay with one of his aunts - and I can just about recall a vast, very lumpy feather bed that I slept in, and sunny walks down rural lanes.

Once she recovered, Mum was far more relaxed with Wayne that she had been with me, because she knew (second time around) exactly what to do. I had been a baby that never stopped crying. Mum always maintained that she had no good advice on how to feed me properly - no grandparents were around, and the local children's clinic was useless. I suppose that because her frantic efforts were unavailing, she panicked, and - picking that up - it made me cry all the more. We must both have become exhausted with frustration. Of course it all got sorted out in the end, and I grew up to enjoy my food very much. So much so that I never became a faddy eater, and would tuck heartily into most things if they looked tasty and wholesome. (No change there)

Mum made a success of mothering Wayne, and was justly proud of him. Her pride is plain in this August 1956 shot, when he was just four months old:

And not long afterwards, in our back garden at Barry - with Wayne, six months old then, looking distinctly chubby:

And one year later, in 1957, taken at the same time as my first picture. Mum and us both:

That's a curious look on my face. I was already turning inward, even at five. I know that. But I can remember precious little else. By then I didn't cry, ever, but I could look very sad. I got even sadder. Two more years down the line, in 1958, and I looked like this:

Mum must have been puzzled. I was very well behaved, and very polite; I was doing well at school, so I was clearly a bright kid; and yet I was solitary and secretive, awkward, and clearly not happy. I never told her that despite the excellent term reports, I loathed school. But I never cried, because big boys don't cry.

These photos are really the only evidence I possess, my only recorded experience, on how little boys feel. I did not know any other children well enough to know how they felt. I never learned to play with other children, and never had a friend, girl or boy, that I ever brought into the house. Indeed, I didn't introduce Mum or Dad to any friend whatever before I was eighteen and had started work. I consider that I suffered very poor socialisation when young, but that it was largely self-inflicted. No doubt in self-defence.

Back to my opening proposition, that little boys cry more than little girls. Do they want more than girls do in the way of attention, and if denied, promptly burst into tears? Do they see more that they would like to have - sweets, toys, bright and interesting things - and if denied, cry in frustrated anguish? In short, do little boys naturally behave as if they are weathercocks turning in the wind, their lives a welter of extreme emotions - whereas girls are (at this point) unaffected by life's storms, naturally inclined to be content, and emotionally placid?

That's an interesting thought, because once children are not so young - and yet well before the onset of puberty - there is a swap in behaviour. Boys now scorn to cry; but girls commence a lifetime career of tears.

I'm guessing that socialisation with their peers conditions boys to keep their emotions in check, and in fact stifle them as much as possible, in order to appear cool and controlled and 'grown up'. Whereas girls - apart from not being able to help themselves as their hormones take control - discover that tears are not only a wonderful release mechanism when things get too much, but can be used to lever things out of parents and boyfriends. But as I say, this is only guesswork on my part.

It's a tragic world, and adults have plenty of reason to cry. Wet eyes and audible signs of sorrow are gradually getting to be more acceptable. The famous British Stiff Upper Lip is undoubtedly on its way out.  Personally, I think it's a good thing to respond naturally to situations, and express grief and sympathy (and overwhelming euphoria or nostalgia) through tears. Artificial restraint and reserve just seem terribly cold and distant. Tears imply honest togetherness when it matters. I will only say that if honest and spontaneous emotional expression is admirable, resolutely sticking to the task in hand despite the tears is even more so. Giving in to distress won't fix it.

Although I'd rather not hear a little boy bawling his heart out in a supermarket, I think it is an error to sharply hush him up with threats and rebukes, which will surely give him a complex about expressing his feelings. I'd want him to be taught instead how to control that impulse to cry, and reserve it for those occasions when he is really distressed - or gloriously happy.

How one does this, I do not know! And I suspect that most young parents don't either. Had I ever been a mother, I would have studied this subject carefully, and worked out some psychological techniques. I'd have found a sure-fire way. A reassuring or consolatory hug or squeeze at the right moment, or finding a trigger to make the child laugh? A look that says to him, 'I love you, I'm on your side' and 'It'll be all right' and 'There are better things than this, you'll see'. Something on those lines might do the trick.

There must be better methods than just shouting at the kid, or bribing him to shut up, or giving in to his demands, or just enduring his noise until it subsides.

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