Why The Phrase “Man Up” Misses The Point When Raising Our Sons

We’ve all heard the expressions “Be a man!” and “Man up!” (usually when a guy is dealing with something difficult), and I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been a fan. Somehow these phrases always seem to imply that boys and young men should be strong, stoic, and fearless – that they shouldn’t share their feelings, have feelings, and certainly, not talk about their feelings. Boys are expected to quickly get over whatever situation has them down.

You never hear someone say “Be a woman!” (I’m not even sure what that would imply) so why do we implore our sons to be to “men” when they are struggling or dealing with something difficult?

We’ve all seen men who have never been allowed to express their feelings and consequently don’t know how and it’s not pretty. When you stuff emotions down and pretend they mean nothing, those feelings will always come back up and mean everything, eventually. The feelings come out in unhealthy ways because these men have not been taught how to work through deep feelings or how to express their sadness, anger and frustration in healthy ways.

"Man up" is a phrase this mom never uses with her sons

I’m the only female in a house of males  and they have seen me express all range of emotions. I feel deeply and don’t hide my feelings. That might be expected, but they’ve also seen the same from their dad. My husband didn’t have the benefit of learning how to express his emotions in a healthy way from his father. Far from it, in fact.

His father had a long, simmering fuse that could blow at any moment. Growing up, my husband was always walking on eggshells or wondering if he was going to set off an explosion with the smallest infraction. He was expected to be “seen but not heard.” He was constantly on “red alert” in his own house and was determined that it would be different for his kids.

I have seen my husband be silly, a behavior that wasn’t allowed in his childhood home. I have seen him be so ridiculous that our boys were bent over laughing. As our boys grew older, I have watched him coax our boys into talking about something that was troubling them. I have seen tenderness so kind between father and son that it made my heart ache. And both our boys and I have seen my husband cry and no one was embarrassed or made apologies.

I only saw my own father cry twice that I can remember. A military man and the son of a judge, my father was brought up in a strict household where he was told to “be a man” very early on and often. My dad was entertaining and an epic storyteller who would laugh loudly and unapologetically (it was infectious). This man, my father, who easily showed his positive feelings hardly ever showed his sadness, his disappointment, or his tears. I didn’t find out until near the end of his life that he struggled with the exact same kind of anxiety I’ve dealt with. Knowing that made us closer – I only wish I’d known sooner.

We associate tears with weakness and expressions of struggle as something to look away from. How are our sons supposed to deal with the ups and downs of life if they haven’t seen it modeled for them? How are they supposed to know it’s okay to be sad if they’ve only seen their fathers cry at funerals? If they only associate deep feelings with their mothers, then we’ve somehow feminized the expression of feelings.

We should let boys and young men express the wide range of emotions we all feel, openly and without judgement. “Being a man” should imply “being human” and all the emotions that come with trying to live your life.

College is a time for our children to learn and practice independence. Our teens need to leave our homes armed with the capacity to handle whatever life throws at them. Especially since we won’t be right there to pick up the pieces and put them back together.

For our teens to be self-sufficient, they need to be able to process and deal with any situation. If they don’t know how to express how they feel, they may become isolated and feel alone leading to depression. Mental health issues tend to be more prevalent in high school and college age kids and they need strong coping mechanisms long before they leave the comfort of our homes.

When we stifle our children’s feelings they will find ways to express them in inappropriate ways. Or, they will swallow those feelings whole and those stifled emotions will eat away at them from the inside. We’ve all seen people “eating their feelings” or drinking in excess to self-medicate until they are numb and feel nothing. Our sons, just like our daughters, have struggles, heartbreaks, disappointments, losses and the men in their lives need to show them it’s okay to feel.

It’s okay to express those feelings. In fact, it’s not only okay, it’s necessary. Boys must be able to process what they are feeling so they can move on from the situation.

The roles of mothers and fathers used to be very much defined – how wonderful that we’ve evolved and we pretty much share everything.  We all do what needs to be done and don’t worry about whose “job” it is. Nothing makes me happier than to see my husband hug his sons, hear them tell each other “I love you,” see them comfort one another, encourage one another, laugh, talk, tell stories, share all the ups and downs of live together. And reuniting after they’ve been away at college makes these times even sweeter!

They may do it differently than I would because“that really sucks” will never be my way of saying, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you” but it accomplishes the same thing – comfort, compassion, support. How sad it would be if I was the only one they can come to when they’re feeling down – if they thought their dad wouldn’t understand or was going to tell them to “Man up!”

This parenting thing – we need to all be “in it together.” We need to encourage our husbands, our dads, our sons, all the men in our lives, to talk openly about what is going on in their lives and not just the accomplishments, the wins, and the happy parts. You may have to be subtle at first as it’s hard to change a learned behavior but the benefits are worth the effort.

Let’s retire “Be a man” and “Man up” as something we said when we didn’t know any better.

Here’s to all the fearless men who show up and aren’t afraid to express themselves fully – we need more of you and so do your sons.


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About Tracy Hargen

Through her writing and work as a mental health advocate, Tracy Hargen shows people the importance of talking openly about difficult issues and getting help. Her family’s very personal journey with depression can be found on CBS This Morning. Look for her work on Grown and Flown and in the book Grown and Flown: How To Support Your Teen, Stay Close As A Family and Raise Independent Adults.

Read more posts by Tracy

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