“Why do kids cry so much and grownups don’t?” asked my son Elliot. It was Father’s Day and I had taken him to see Inside Out, the new Pixar film, voiced by Amy Poehler and Bill Hader. The movie brought us inside the head of an 11-year-old girl to tell the story of how five anthropomorphized emotions—Anger, Joy, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness—work together to manage her feelings from moment to moment. Joy and Sadness are the main characters, and the plot of the movie revolves around the important role sadness plays in helping the girl get through a tough time.
Never one to pass up a teachable moment, my wife Jess immediately sat down next to our 8-year-old, looked him in the eyes, and explained that grownups don’t cry as often as kids because they’ve experienced a lot more. And over time, adults develop coping mechanisms that help them deal with sad moments so we don’t break into tears in the middle of dentist appointments and important meetings. But we still feel the same things.
It’s not like my wife and I haven’t ever cried in front of our boys. I’ve sat next to Elliot at plenty of other movies (yes, the scene at the end of the The Lego Movie got me) bawling my eyes out at every tender moment shared between all the action figures, fish, and imaginary monsters. My personal Kryptonite is the 5-minute-long lifespan of a marriage montage near the beginning of Up—it crushes me every time. And I welled up watching Elliot play Peter Pan last summer in a local musical production. I couldn’t hold back as I stood alongside the other drama dads in the middle of the theater with our tripods and cameras and my heart grow three sizes out of pride.
But beyond the movie, I knew what my son’s question was really about. Like many parents, my wife and I tend to keep the things that truly sadden us to ourselves. We want to protect our boys, to keep things on an even keel, and to make sure they don’t see the scary things that bring us to our knees. So we reflexively retreat to our bedrooms when we’re sad or we save our tears for the times and places away from our children.
Case in point. I had gotten a little emotional during my run that morning. Since I lost my dad three years ago, I’ve found that I feel his loss most acutely when I’m out on a run or a long bike ride. Maybe that’s because I’m by myself there’s nothing else to distract me from my thoughts. And maybe it’s just that running was always my special one-on-one time with my dad growing up. It was Father’s Day after all. Either way, I felt his absence pretty intensely as I dug deeper into my workout
While there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad or despondent, I know that I, like so many other dads, have a hard time doing so in front of my boys. Yet it’s probably the best way to instill in them a healthy relationship with their own sadness. If they can see first hand how crying helps me to move beyond the moment, then they’ll learn to do the same thing. They’ll learn that crying can make them feel better, too. And that it isn’t something that needs to be done in private.