An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

To Cry or not to Cry – That is the Question by Farah Benhalim

In Healing, parenting on March 10, 2012 at 4:29 am

I have a confession to make. The “agony aunt” is offering up an agony of her own. My ten year old son cries more than the average boy. When he gets utterly frustrated he little chin quivers and his eyes well up to the brim till he can’t contain it anymore. Perhaps I’m to blame because I’ve always encouraged my children to express themselves and to be open about their feelings. But I worry, that this trend of full blown expression is considered unseemly, unsightly, and just plain annoying to most people. My theory is that a show of emotion is irritating to most people because it reminds them of their own pains. Anyway, we’ve been told by relatives and family that we got to stop him from crying, especially because he is a boy. So a few months ago, we started “cracking down” and telling him that the crying has got to stop that he has to “control” himself. As I’m sure you can tell I wasn’t entirely convinced. I found out a lot of things about him because of his crying. I found out that he feels pressurized at school to always get all the answers right because he’s been labeled the “smart boy”. I found out that his heart bleeds for the love of his grandfather who unfortunately we don’t meet anymore. I’m glad that he feels that he can share his pain with us. Crying happens when a person feels like they’re up against the corner and that there’s no way out. The person is essentially in a state of panic and calling out for help. A lot of people say of people who cry, “Oh, s/he just wants attention”. But really, what’s wrong with attention? Aren’t we put here on this planet together to give each other attention, to acknowledge each other’s existence and preciousness? To ignore each other, in my eyes, is pure ignorance.

There are two types of crying; the consolable type and the inconsolable type. I relish the task of helping someone find a solution to a problem they thought was unsolvable. And I love the blessing of discovering one for myself. It’s a beautiful process. I believe that if a person acknowledges that Allah is the Opener and has an open, positive and flexible mind, then about 95% of problems are solvable. The other 5%, it seems to me, are things we just have to learn to carry. The question is, how do we carry? The other day, I was talking to a parent from nursery about our kids having the chicken pox. I was talking about how my daughter at one point, was in a state of pure frustration. She was fed up and screaming in the bath. I didn’t rush to console her, but I instead told her that there was simply nothing left I could do for her, that she would have to find a way to bear it. Needless to say, she was not impressed. Having the chicken pox is usually one of the first major challenges a child has to go through

in terms of learning to bear pain and discomfort and is the first of many “tests” Allah swt puts us through – when we simply have to go without for a period. I suppose it’s in these times that we have to simply be patient, be in gratefulness of all the times we were provided for, and trust that the pain and discomfort will let up at some point. This however, is pretty challenging for adults to do, let alone children. So, I ask, when our children are inconsolable, should we as parents allow them to carry on crying till they see the uselessness of it, or should we tell them to stop and “toughen up”, or should we distract them with something amazing and beautiful so that they forget their sorrows? I suppose I’m asking because I’m not quite sure what to do with those parts of myself which I have a hard time consoling. I trip to the biscuit cabinet usually does the trick, but I feel rather unspiritual with Oreo crumbs all over my lips. While writing this, it’s just dawned on me that perhaps it’s the holding of pain in quietness which in itself is an acknowledgement that Allah knows, Allah understands, Allah witnesses our sacrifices without us even murmuring the slightest of whimpers. You know those times when something horrible has happened to someone and the only thing you can do for them an ear and be a good listener? You haven’t solved any of their problems, but just being there to listen and acknowledge their feelings makes them feel so much better. So, in recognizing that Allah swt the All-Hearer, the All-Seer is comforting to me, and that my silence, calmness and inner stillness in the face of difficulty is in recognition of that. I suppose that is why wailing is one of the most disliked habits and is in a way, tantamount to disbelief.

Basically I’m trying to figure out how to be honest about my feelings without being ungrateful, without being spiritually offensive and the only way I can see doing that is by recognizing that there is no need to say anything, because Allah swt already knows. I guess, I’m currently obsessed by this topic (forgive me) because I was taught as many Muslims are to say, “Alhamdulillah” whenever asked how we are, whatever our actual state is. And I see, in Western society a strong habit of “letting it all out” and having “heart to heart” conversations. And it makes me wonder if there is a middle path between these two extremes. On the one hand, you don’t want to be in denial and pretend and that you’re fine when you’re not and thus inherit a whole host of compulsive and crazy behaviors because of it. At the same time, you don’t want to become the type of person who huff and puffs and vocalizes every hardship. The other day I was in an elevator with a lady who thought she had caught the elevator going down to the ground floor, except it was going all the way up to the tenth and she managed to sigh and huff and puff at every single floor it landed on. I was squirming in the elevator trying not to laugh in anticipation of the next sigh!

So after all this rambling, I’ll throw it back to you. How do we teach our children to be honest and expressive and self-reflecting whilst at the same time understanding where the limits of expression ought to be? Perhaps, it’s just a matter of age of and maturity, but something tells me it’s a lot to do with strength of faith. For example, when the Prophet Muhammad’s infant son passed away in his arms, he wept, but of course, he did not wail. So, there is an acknowledgement of sadness and loss, but it seems that it is shortly cut off by strength of faith. I would be fascinated to know what you all think on the subject, especially when it comes to the subject of men who cry.

  1. Farah,

    Thank you for opening this up. Such an important topic. While I don’t have fixed answers i do have some pointers and look forward to what others have to say.

    Firstly, I think there’s a whole issue about men and being masculine. I’ve currently ordered Iron John by Robert Bly (who started a men’s movement) and a critique of it by Upton. So inshallah, if I find something of value I’ll love to share. As I understand there is a whole debate about boys not spending enough time with their fathers since the rise of the industrial age and as a result have lost a sense of their ‘toughness’ or warrior spirit. Women seem to be better at establishing and defenders of boundaries in the work place – as a generalisation- for example. Some would say the Japanese have put their samurai warrior tradition in their brief cases and are very competitive in the market. It’s a very important topic not just for boys but I feel also for girls. Raising them to be strong ‘princesses’ and strong ‘princes’ has to be done with wisdom and compassion or else it may become counter productive. The warrior spirit has to be cultivated in them not conditioned.

    The Prophet pbuh weeped. He may have wailed when his uncle Hamza was cut open on the battle field- as I’ve heard. When he asked Abu Bakr to lead the prayer, Aisha, said not to because her father would start crying upon listening/reciting the Qur’an. Yet when told how brave he was, Imam Ali ra replied by saying he hadn’t met anybody as brave as Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr, the skinny fair skinned man who was so thin the garb for pilgrims would roll down to his ankles yet when he became khalif, during a conversation with Umar he held him by the beard to rebuke him. I was once told by a spiritual person ‘men dont cry’. For him it was important to be tough and tough meant not crying. I then met Kabir Dede who related a number of times he said he wept. He has a very tender and soft side to him. Yet many can be quite intimidated by the the strength and awesome ‘jalal’ aspect of is love. He himself once said you can be tender and soft outwardly knowing your inner core is unshakable (paraphrasing). The toughest men I’ve met are like that. The weaker men tend to be harder on the surface to hid their vulnerable center. Iqbal, the visionary poet, was said to have started crying whenever somebody would mention Medina to him.

    The pedal of flower can cut open a diamond
    The Book of God is of no effect on the ignorant man.

    So yes, real men do cry where would we be without them? This may be different to being a wimp. But even even that should be met with compassion. My first post on ‘being still’ is what i would do. Just be that space, an unconditional one, for them to be – like a cocoon – hold them with love. May be recite some Rumi “you are a lion’s whelp hidden in a deer’s body: I will
    cause you suddenly to transcend the deer’s veil.”
    As i kid I would cry on being sent to the madrasa – ‘toughen up- be a lion’ my mother would say. May be another way to say it is ‘you are like a lion you just don’t know it… one day you will” because you’re bringing acceptance to what is. It seems there needs to be a deep level of acceptance before we can transform or transcend. Even better ask why is your kid crying in the first place? Is the madrasa really the right place for him? May be in the name of religion it’s doing more harm then good? It sounds like your son is under a lot of pressure with being the ‘smart kid’. I would really be mindful on how I would manage that in the years to come and take clues or signs from his emotional state itself. It could potentially backfire or limit certain areas of his development.

    Real courage isn’t in not crying for me. It’s being honest in the face of falsehood and being able to face your own pain. May be a way to toughen up or cultivate something of the warrior spirit in our children is not to take their pain from them and to close the hand out of love is William Blake put it. Sit with them yes, but let them deal with it – when they’re at the right age of course. I once asked God- to give me all my wife’s sorrows in exchange of my happiness. That prayer seemed to have been fulfilled to some extent that day and I realised I shouldnt have gone down that road. Not so much because it was hard on me, but because, I later realised, I was robbing my wife of the responsibility of managing her inner jewel. Interview with Mike Tyson on Oprah is a good example of how somebody can be so tough physically ‘as a man’ yet totally silenced by pain. I do admire Tyson in that interview for his adab towards his teacher and being totally honest on camera. Many men can’t do that!

    • Wow, wow, wow, Mashallah! There is so much here to reflect on and I’m sure will be very beneficial. Perhaps there can be another post on what it means to be strong and courageous and how we can Inshallah raise resiliant children. I love your suggestion of telling our children, “you are a lion, you just don’t know it, but one day you will” How inspiring. I also like your suggestion that the strong man is not the one with the tough exterior, but the one with a softer outer and a tough inner. It was interesting though, when I was googling pictures of crying men, I was suprised to find myself totally repulsed and irritated by them. I don’t know whether this is just social conditioning or something deeper rooted in biology.

    • Wow, Mashallah there is so much here, which I’m sure will be of much benefit. I really like your suggestion of telling our children that they are lions, to encourage resilence and strength in the face of difficulty. It’s interesting, because when I was googling picture of men crying, I was suprised to be totally repulsed by them. I wonder if this is due to social conditioning or something more deeply rooted in biology. A lot of women are attracted to men with strong exteriors, it makes them feel protected and looked after. However, I think it’s important that men have a place and a time to let their guard down, no?

    • I think that men who are generous and softer on the outside tend to be stronger and confident on the inside and vice versa.

  2. I always think that a good loving hug is the best cure for any upset. It seems to neutralise the problem, distracting them and replacing the horrible feeling with a pleasant one…and yet there is no expense made by the parent, only their time (which is unfortunately of such a premium to us that we have a hard time giving it freely).

    As for men who cry, I’ve always found them rather attractive!

    • Actually, I’ve only seen a man cry once in my life, and it was utterly heartbreaking. Which means, for most of my life I’ve been surrounded by men with hard exteriors. I think the problem with this though, is that men’s anguish, instead of turning out into a good cry, manifests itself into aggression.

  3. From the souls perspective, something to read up on is Martin Lings last book-the biography- I think its called ‘A Sufi saint of the twentieth century’ there is a whole chapter called “The spiritual significance of crying and laughter”. This of course is different to the pain ego suffers.

  4. Farah,

    I can relate; I have a little boy of 7. It’s curious to me that society holds that boys should toughen up and not cry. Children (and adults) cry as a way of communication. I think it’s sad when they’re not given this outlet because it’s irrational or obnoxious to others around. I know the pressures you feel, for I’ve felt that very strong pressure to make him toughen up from family and at school, etc. There’s always something in the tears. It’s his way of saying, “talk to me about it, and give me some consolation with my frustration, anger or confusion”. So many expectations of behavior are placed on boys and children in general. I, myself, choose to stand against the expectations and will comfort him. Thanks so much for writing this.

  5. There’s one other thing I’d like to share. He always comes to me to be comforted, but with his father he seems to take on a different character. He plays different roles with each of us, and this is entirely natural to a boy. He gets so much confidence being with his father, and I find this is vital. He gets comfort from me which is of equal importance. There’s got to be the yin and yang of raising a boy.

    • Thank you so much for both your replies. It makes me feel more comfortable in the approach that I am taking with my son. I also see that he has a different relationship with his father and that he always comes to me for comfort – and I love that. I love that when he’s had a nightmare or is feeling ill, he wants nothing more than to lay in my bed. I remember that as a child myself. Sleeping in my mother’s bed and smelling her scent on the pillow was just as good as heaven itself!

  6. Just a point I would like to make. I have seen a number of examples where pressure at a young age has been counter productive – whatever form it may be from sitting exams early to even being ‘religious’. Kids should be smiling not crying.

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