Ask Amma

“Don’t Cry.” What does it mean?

In Why on 19 June 2015 at 1:37 pm

How-Tears-Work-2What does it mean when people say “Don’t Cry!”

Are they supporting you?  Dismissing you?  Or possibly, threatening you?

As an expression of sympathy, “don’t cry,” is meant to reassure a person that things will get better and that they are not alone in their sorrow.  It would be more supportive if one simply said, “It will be all right,” or “We’ll get through this,” but a comforting tone and open arms can override the hardness denoted by the imperative, “don’t cry.”

More often though, it expresses anything but sympathy.   I shudder when I hear “don’t cry.”

To listen and comfort children when they cry would, we are warned, make them “too soft.”  “Don’t cry” is thus said with an intent to harden children.  Another version of this is “Be brave!”  “Don’t be a crybaby!”  There are cruder epithets as well.  A brisk, “don’t cry” means, “get on with it!”  In this case the “it” always refers to something other than crying, considered pointless, a waste of time and energy.

“Don’t cry” can also mean, “don’t bother me.”  Then there’s “You wanna cry?  I will give you something to cry about!”   Someone who says this means that as a punishment for expressing pain and sorrow, they will inflict greater pain and sorrow, so that what you are currently experiencing will pale in comparison and next time, go unremarked.  “Don’t cry” serves as a combo of “get on with it” and “don’t bother me,” and fundamentally an expression of power.  I tell you “don’t cry” because I can.    And if in defiance of my command, you cry, then in place of comfort, you may face further dismissal or even punishment.

And yet, many of those who go cold and hard on crying do so believing it will help their child survive.  Because the world is not a place where it is safe to cry.

Benjamin Fine acknowledged that on September 4, 1957, when he counseled Elizabeth Eckford, “don’t let them see you cry.”  Present along with many other journalists when angry white protesters, with the support of the Arkansas National Guard, prevented her from attending Little Rock Central High School where she was among the first African-American students to be admitted in the fall of that year, Fine stepped out of his professional role and expressed solidarity towards the lonely, frightened teenage girl.  When he sat next to her, he did not say, “don’t cry.”

He said, “don’t let them see you cry.” [emphasis added]

With these comforting words, Fine told her that she was not alone, that there was someone on her side who would not disparage or threaten her if she allowed him to see her cry.

What if there were more of us who reassured one another and fewer of them from whom one had to hide?  When I hear “don’t cry,” I see the crowds of people standing, jeering, watching with satisfaction, and even smiling as a courageous young girl turns away in defeat.  People enjoying their power and denying another person not only her civil rights, but even the right to express her sorrow.  It is to them, and the thousands, perhaps millions like them who would watch the news and read the papers, that Fine referred when he said to Elizabeth Eckford, “don’t let them see you cry.”


Today we may consider ourselves much more decent than the people who in 1957 banded together to enforce racial segregation and those who stood idly by as it happened.  Sixty years from now people may find some aspect of our society shameful by their more progressive standards.   To raise our standards, some of us will have to challenge convention and stand on principle.  How much stronger will be our stand if we know that we can speak and that we will not be silenced even if we cry?  That there will be fewer of “them” who must never be allowed to see us cry.  How much more courageous will be our society if, in place of one solitary voice cautioning us “don’t let them see you cry” we can heed the call of Grey Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn:  “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind — even if your voice shakes.”

“Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.” Maggie Kuhn.

And when we can speak our mind, our fear will be calm, and our mind will be free.

When we say “don’t cry” it does not take away the sorrow but makes us “them,” the people who should not see “you” cry.  As we progress in the struggle towards freedom and justice for all, we should honor pain and sorrow as emotions with equal right to freedom of expression.

In short, we should not say, “don’t cry.”

I owe a debt of gratitude to Alfie Kohn who wrote “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”  It’s not a phrase I grew up hearing, but prevalent as it is today, I could have easily caught on to it or something similarly positioning myself as judge or appraiser.   In fact I most appreciated Alfie Kohn’s plea one day when my daughter was just 20 months old.  She drew something on a piece of paper and it took all my effort to keep quiet.  “బలే గీతాలు గీసవే” (What nice lines!) I wanted to say, was itching to say, but did not say, gritting my teeth at Alfie Kohn.  A moment later, she turned to me and said కొండలు (mountains).  So glad was I that I had said nothing.  I was sold.  Alfie Kohn opened my mind to the kind of listening that we risk missing when we cap off interactions with “Good Job.”

But where is the article urging us to stop saying “Don’t Cry?”

Please read Part 2:  What to say instead of “Don’t Cry”

Further Reading

Vimla McClure, Listening to Babies.

One of the Little Rock Nine Looks Back.

(Maggie Kuhn Quote Image Courtesy Online Success Motivation)

  1. Nice write-up. Inspiring. And I like the Maggy Kuhn quote. 👍


  2. Nice write-up. Inspiring. I like the Maggie Kuhn quote. 👍


  3. […] Continued from Part 1:  “Don’t Cry: What does it mean?” […]


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