Sunday, February 01, 2009

When Grownups Cry

There are many wonderful things about reading to children. The attentiveness of the child, the physical contact, and the sharing of images, characters, and stories. But children also sometimes learn about their parents during this time spent together. If the story is well written and if there are sad or poignant events on the way to the conclusion, the reader may become emotional, momentarily unable to go on. Or the parent’s voice may change, taking on a plaintive, half-crying tone. Not every reader responds this way, but some do—often the same ones who cry at movies.

When children see their parents become emotional in this way, they often respond with surprise and concern. “What are you doing, Mommy?” “What’s wrong, Dad?” The child is listening to the same words, but may not experience the same feelings. Adults have a longer history of emotional experiences. The events of the story are combined with others in the past to evoke powerful feelings. In some cases, the emotion comes from a level of understanding that the child does not yet possess.

Normally the child is not greatly alarmed, but kids know they are supposed to be the ones who cry, not parents. Parents are the soothers. When children get upset, parents are counted upon to remain calm and gently coax them back to steadiness.

I have always been a crier, and now that my kids are older, it has become a source of great amusement. They don’t need me to read to them anymore, but we still watch movies together. And I still cry. At a recent showing of Slumdog Millionaire, I got emotional at the very end, and my college-aged son was highly entertained. Filing out from our seats we ran into two friends, and he was quick to seize the opportunity to make fun: “He’s sobbing again.” Happy to extend the joke, one woman said, “it’s good he has you to hold him up.” The parent-child role reversal was complete.

Adults who cry are vulnerable to ridicule, yet despite the social risks, I think it is valuable for children to see their parents become emotional in this way. When we cry in response to a happy or sad story about someone else, it is a purely empathetic response, and an inclination to empathy is something we should want to pass on. Now that presidents have been photographed crying in public, even the old stigma against male tears is fading.

I once worked with someone who could be overcome by emotion at the a drop of a hat. She was Dean of the Faculty at the college where I teach, and almost daily she would begin to snuffle and tears would roll down her cheeks. All it would take was for someone to recount a kindness done for a member of the college community or an unfortunate event that had befallen a faculty member, and she would be overtaken with emotion.

This behavior was the object of much teasing, but more than anything else, it seemed to endear the Dean to those around her. Her job required making difficult decisions, many of which unavoidably created unhappiness for some. Nonetheless, she had a reputation for fair and compassionate leadership.

I think there may have been a connection between the Dean’s easy tears and her administrative style. She always kept the larger goals of the college in mind, but her sensitivity to others undoubtedly helped her imagine the consequences of her policies and anticipate their effects.

It was a formula that worked quite well, and when the Dean retired from the college, her colleagues threw her a party and celebrated her achievements with many warm expressions of gratitude. Of course, they also teased her about crying.

I suppose I might have tried to cover up my emotions while reading to my children. I could have hidden my tears at the movies. But if there is a chance that by crying openly I can demonstrate for my children a sense of compassion for others, it is worth suffering a little ridicule.