The Joy of Crying : Go ahead, have a bawl. Researchers say tears are good for you--even though cultural mores discourage us from shedding any.


Yesterday, my 4-year-old stopped crying.

He fell off his bike, held his breath and gritted his teeth. “I’m not gonna cry, Mom,” he said. “I’m really not.”

Where did this pint-size stoicism come from? Batman videos? Preschool name-callers? Maybe the neighbors who tell their kid, “Crying will get you nowhere.” You hear it everywhere: You’d better not pout, you’d better not cry. Big girls don’t cry. Grin and bear it, hide it, stifle it, but whatever you do, don’t cry, please , don’t cry. I’ll give you a cookie if you stop.

Sniffle .

So why am I upset? Because on some level I know that it’s healthful to cry. It is, in the words of biochemist William H. Frey II, “a natural mechanism for adapting to emotional stress”--a way of equalizing sadness, anger, fear, surprise, frustration or joy.

Frey, who has studied crying for 20 years, directs the Ramsey Clinic’s Dry Eye and Tear Research Center in St. Paul, Minn. If he has found anything, it’s that the chemistry of crying sets us right. Not doing it can literally make us sick. And my kid has just joined the roughly 25% of America that’s not doing it.


I feel like running after bike and child, yelling: “Go ahead and cryyyyyy!” Years from now, will my son end up in therapy, 12-Step meetings, encounter weekends or spiritual journeys, trying to crack open the reservoir?

Says Frey: “I get hundreds of letters from people who say, ‘I wish I could learn to cry again.’ ”


As a nation, we’re all mixed up about crying. Our children come into the world and--slap, WAAAaaaa !--it’s the only thing they know how to do. It ensures survival. Cry and get fed. Cry and get held. Cry and get loved. But then, the most basic of human utterances gets roped in by rules and prohibitions:

Sniffle at weddings and funerals, but don’t wail. Cry at movies, but only silently, in the dark, facing forward, and be sure to stop before you hit the popcorn counter. If you cry at work, make sure it isn’t in front of the boss or a client. Don’t cry in front of a man if you’re a woman, or a woman if you’re a man, or a man if you’re a man. No matter who or where you are, keep the runny nose in check. If you really want to make a good impression, don’t cry at all.

It’s a classic case of nature versus culture.

Sure, if we were all like Robinson Crusoe, beyond the reach of civilization, we could wail at will and be healthier for it. But we’re not.

“When someone’s crying, what do you do? Comfort them? Pity them? Avoid them?” asks Sonoma State University psychologist Carolyn Saarni, an expert in socialization of emotions. “It’s uncomfortable. The impact on other people is huge.” So we devise all sorts of ways for damming the emotional Mississippi.


“I kept holding on and telling myself, telling myself, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry,’ ” says a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, recalling an episode at her workplace. “We were deposing this woman who was a witness for the other side. I was technically the enemy. She was talking about this wonderful family with the mother who died of cancer. Finally, I sort of squeaked, ‘No further questions.’ I stared straight ahead, got in the elevator, into my car and drove off. As soon as I got to a stoplight, I cried like a baby.”


My 4-year-old is playing with a friend who wags his finger when my son sheds tears over a lost new toy.

“You shouldn’t cry,” the friend says. “There are germs in your tears and they’ll get on your face. They’ll make you sick.”

“They will not!” my son says, standing up to his challenger.

I ask the friend where he heard about the germs. “From my mom.”

So it begins. My child’s natural urge is bent by others, what families, institutions and playground survival tactics dictate. Which wins out? How can you teach your kid to do the natural thing if it goes against the currents of the culture? Germs in the tears, boys who cry are sissies, girls who cry are manipulative, parents can’t cry unless they want everyone to lose confidence in them, our leaders shouldn’t unless they want a close-up on the nightly news.

Says behaviorist Saarni: “In our society, a person’s identity is often defined by his or her dominant emotional state--you are what you feel. We say, ‘Oh, he’s a very happy person’ or ‘She’s cheerful. Or stoic.’ Your emotional state gets turned into a personality trait.”

Someone who cries, then, is weak. Not a trooper. Not the kind of Puritan who made it over on the Mayflower, colonized the wilderness and tamed the West.


“We idealize the stoic,” says Peg Crepeau, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who has revealed a connection between not crying and such stress diseases as ulcers and colitis. “We made a goddess out of Jackie Kennedy, this immovable object who never showed any emotion, who never once cried. We thought it was elegant and wonderful.”

One woman in Crepeau’s crying study, a psychiatrist in her 50s, kept a box of Kleenex in her office so her own patients could wipe their tears, but she hadn’t cried herself since she was 13. The first time she remembers really crying, she was at the dentist. Her father told her that if she didn’t stop, he’d yank every tooth out of her head. The next time, she was at the funeral of a grandfather she adored. Her father told her that if she didn’t stop embarrassing the family like that, she’d have to leave.

“She never cried again,” Crepeau says. By the time she was 50, she had ulcerative colitis. And maybe more.

People who can’t cry “lose their connections to what they feel--to intimate relationships, to nature and the environment, the healthy part of the self and the world,” says Don Elium, a Contra Costa County family counselor who has developed a way to help people with post-traumatic stress learn to cry. Holding back becomes a force unto itself.

Says biochemist Frey: “The James Bond image of having to be in control all the time has serious consequences for the individual and the society.”


Yet crying has always kept people healthy, behaviorists say. The original ability to vocalize distress helped early mammals protect their young and to communicate danger, fear and helplessness.


“They were social signals . . . with tremendous survival value,” says Columbia University psychiatrist Myron Hofer, who has studied vocalizations in rats. Survival favored the fittest: the criers. Evolution gave people tears to help cleanse the distress, a function Frey believes separates humans from other animals.

But by the time American culture came along, social evolution brought a new recipe for survival. If you want to do the dinner party, learn to use the crab fork. If you want to be a trooper, get back in the saddle with a wound to the chest, hurting, but heroic. Like my kid on his bike. So should he cry or not cry? The question evokes two warring veins of thought predating the time the New Testament told us that Jesus wept: the ethic of self-expressiveness and the ethic of self-control.

The first gave us Athens. Aristotle. Thomas Jefferson. Compassion. The flow. Keening at the wake. Wringing out the highs and lows through the tears--like my son’s Irish grandfather, who weeps over a dead beetle in the weed patch. The second brought us Sparta. Plato. Alexander Hamilton. Order. The emotional dam. Stiffening the upper lip. Holding it in for social tidiness--like the mother of the kid with the germs in the tears.

“There’s evidence that crying isn’t voluntary,” Frey says. “A few people can turn it on and off at will. But for most people, it’s, ‘Uh-oh, I’m crying.’ ” Which is just fine if you live in a culture where crying is not only OK, but encouraged.

“In many cultures, crying is a way of showing cohesion,” psychologist Saarni says. “With Mediterranean peoples, for example, it isn’t a sign of weakness or dependency. It is met with admiration. If there’s some big disaster in a Greek village, everyone, the men included, is out there crying and carrying on. It’s a collective catharsis.”

Psychotherapist Crepeau points out that Irish, Jewish and African American cultures--”peoples who historically have suffered grievously”--tend to embrace crying and, at the same time, are celebrated for their humor.


But in mainstream America, the “Uh-oh, I’m crying” sets off the alarm. Here we go. If the floodgates open, the unsightly gulping and sobbing can’t be far behind, and then, sin of cultural sins, you’re out of control.

“I spend a lot of energy trying not to cry,” says one woman who several years ago wept for weeks when her mother was dying. “It’s like a Pandora’s box. Once you open it up, you can never close it. Once it happens, you’re no longer crying tears--they’re crying you.”

What happens to the tears when they don’t get cried?

“An important part of us literally goes underground,” says Bruce Silverman, a Berkeley men’s group counselor. “You can’t believe what’s it like to see a very successful middle-aged man who doesn’t know how to cry, sitting there, struggling to be human.”

But there’s evidence that our 400-year Puritan dry spell may be coming to an end.

“Our attitude is improving, but only slowly,” Frey says. Small signs: the current wave of tear-jerker movies. The maturing thirtysomething generation, raised on therapy and human potential. The President of the United States, who cried and didn’t try to hide it. Norman Schwarzkopf, who said he wouldn’t trust a man who couldn’t cry at the battlefront. Even Clint Eastwood, who won an Academy Award for showing that gunslingers had emotions. The shift is subtle, but inexorable.

And the kid with the germs in the tears? This morning his bike went off the sidewalk and spilled him onto the road. He wailed. My son ran to his friend’s rescue, held his breath and gritted his teeth. His lip quivered. His eyes brimmed. The dam burst.