Teaching Our Children the Gift of Their Tears

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Maybe you’ve heard – or said – the following:

I’m sorry, I didn’t think I would cry. 

I don’t know why I’m crying.

I just don’t want him to see me cry.

There is no crying in baseball…  band auditions… calculus class…

Please don’t cry.

On the one hand, it’s absurd to say that we need to teach our children how to cry. After all, they enter the world wailing, and parents spend the better part of their first weeks (months, years) trying to stop the crying.

In His mercy, God gave us other ways to express ourselves. As humans grow, we progress into smiles, laughter, and eventually words. Yet somewhere along the way we lose sight of the value of tears. Something in us and in our culture makes us want to suppress prickling tears and swallow lumpy throats. We applaud the bravery of a child who is dry-eyed while his broken arm is set. We tell the widow who remains stoic at her husband’s funeral that she is strong. We apologize for crying when we watch a child walk across the stage at a hard-won graduation. We have equated tears with weakness and assumed that even in the face of great pain, weakness is a liability to be avoided at all costs.

Our kids need to understand that when we are in Christ, weeping becomes a sign of courage. To surrender to tears is to accept the suffering and acknowledge the pain caused by our sin and this broken world. To cry is to yield to mourning, because the only honest response to death and heartbreak is weeping. Our Savior was (and is!) such a realist. When He saw the brokenness of His creation, His mourning found its natural expression in tears.

Standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem as He entered the city a week before His death, Jesus wept for the people who would reject the salvation He would die to offer them. Standing at the tomb of Lazarus with Mary and Martha, Jesus wept.

If there was ever a time where one person had reasons to cajole another out of their tears – please don’t cry! – this would have been it. But in the raw and bleeding moment, Jesus didn’t hurry to the miracle. He didn’t talk about the glorious resurrection of all believers. He didn’t tell Mary and Martha that Lazarus was in a better place, free from suffering and with God. He didn’t tell them He was going to undo their brother’s death right then and there. Even though He could and would fix everything, both temporarily and permanently, He stopped and wept with them. By crying with Mary and Martha, Jesus gave sacred weight to our tears.

As parents, we want to teach our children to steward their tears well.

Don’t talk your child out of crying. This goes against every urge a parent has to fix things for a child, but follow the example of Jesus and let your kid bawl it out. Life in this world hurts. You won’t do your child any favors if you short-circuit his or her need to express painful emotions. Tears strengthen a breaking heart; when we are weak in Him, then we are strong. (2 Cor 12:10)

Pray for wisdom about why your child is crying.To be sure, the reasons our teens cry are often not as pure as the reasons Jesus cried. Human tears often come when we don’t get our way, or when idols fail to deliver. Sometimes we cry in repentance and sometimes we cry when we are really, really sorry we got caught. Our tears are clues as to what matters most to us and this can help a parent gain valuable insight into what’s going on inside their child, particularly if the child is willing to talk about it later.

Let them see you cry. So often we don’t cry in front of other people because we fear vulnerability or losing control. But if we want our kids to be vulnerable with us, we have to open up to them. Don’t apologize, don’t be ashamed, and don’t be afraid of weakness. Letting them see you cry gives them permission to cry, and sharing the reason for your weeping – sadness, exhaustion, frustration, whatever – will help your kids to see that they too can move through tears and in fact be helped by them.

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning…” (Ps. 30:5). This the pattern of the gospel itself. We must mourn for what Jesus went through, and for our sin that put Him through it, before we can really understand just how good the good news is. In the same way, if we teach our children to deny how bad their pain is, we are also teaching them to deny how good our God is. If we don’t allow ourselves to weep, joy may not come with the same breathtaking and holy intensity that it comes after tears. An honest and full expression of grief leads us into an honest and full experience of worship (which, by the way, may also include tears). In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen describes the truly joyful person:

He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor he is blind and deaf to the agonizing sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates toward the light in the darkness and the prayers in the midst of cries of despair… There is nothing sentimental about him. He is a realist, but his deep faith allows him to know that hope is more real than despair, faith more real than distrust, and love more real than fear. It is this spiritual realism that makes him such a joyful man.

The joy of the Lord – which comes to us comes at times through tears – is our strength. Help your child find the hidden strength God gives us when we are willing to cry.

Ultimately, tears are a good gift we need in this world, but they won’t be necessary in the next. “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, nor mourning…” (Rev. 21:4). When our hope becomes sight and His glory becomes our all-encompassing reality, Jesus will dry our eyes once and for all time. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh!” (Luke 6: 21-23 NIV)

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