Have you ever seen your dad cry?
I’ll never forget my first time, watching the schmaltz-fest that is My Girl.
It was a shock to me that he could be so vulnerable (especially from watching My Girl) – surely he was meant to be the ‘strong one’ in the family? If he could cry, what hope did the rest of us have?
That was 20 years ago, shortly after Paul Gascoigne stunned the nation by freely crying when Germany knocked England out of the 1990 World Cup.
And in the two decades since, there’s been a literal outpouring of male emotion.
In fact, new research by the Royal Mail shows the younger generation of men are more comfortable than ever expressing their feelings, with 40% of 18-24-year-olds admitting to crying just last week.
“It’s a bit like being gay in our culture. In the past our emotions were all in the closet, but now we have role models and changes in attitudes, so it’s OK,” says neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, who designed the research.
It’s dads in particular who are letting the tears flow. More than two thirds (64%) confessed they were surprised by the emotion they felt when their child was born, and, in an experiment conducted by Mindlab for the Royal Mail, dads reacted twice as strongly as mums to heartwarming videos, like a clip of a soldier being reunited with his daughter.
So what’s going on? Do men’s hearts melt when they become fathers?
“Fathers are obviously more emotional about children,” says Dr Lewis. “One way of measuring interest in something is by the dilation of the pupils, so if you show a picture of young babies and children to dads, their pupils widen quite a lot and if you show those images to single men, their pupils widen to a much lesser extent.
“Having a child yourself creates a very special bond with children in general.”
Added to this is the basic fact that babies are genetically designed to trigger a caring response.
“Babies have evolved to produce signals called biological releasers – they’re disproportionate, large head and large eyes, just like kittens, puppies and Disney heroes. Rearing a child fine-tunes your nervous system.”
Emotional sensitivity isn’t restricted purely to dads though.
A tear for Bambi
In a previous study, Dr Lewis asked single men whether they cried at ‘that’ scene in Bambi where the baby deer’s mum gets shot.
“They all denied it, but in fact their bodies were telling a different story.”
It’s an age-old problem too – the older generation “were brought up to believe ‘big boys don’t cry’,” says Dr Lewis. “That we don’t want other people to see we’re feeling these emotions”.
But the good news is that shame of shedding a tear is vanishing. Thanks to Gazza and other sportsmen - Andy Murray choking back tears in the 2012 Wimbledon final and Wayne Rooney admitting in his autobiography that he’d cried when sent off in a World Cup quarter final against Portugal - men are finally realising tears don’t mean weakness.
“Role models are hugely important in our culture,” says Dr Lewis. “Men think, ‘If this great ace of a football player can cry in public, then it’s OK for me to do so’.”
That said, there are obviously some situations when it’s unwise to cry – you don’t want a policeman sobbing when he’s pulling you from a burning car or a doctor bursting into tears when he’s operating.
“Put a professional barrier between you and what’s happening, but do express emotions when it’s OK to do so,” Dr Lewis advises.