The goal of every parent is to raise children who are strong, kind and capable of taking care of themselves when they leave the proverbial nest.
It’s universally recognized that there is a chasm of difference between raising boys and girls. Having one of each, I can personally attest to the truth of that matter.
Regardless of whether your son is rough-and-tumble or buried in video games all day, there are three generally recognized phrases that can do damage to his self-esteem and possibly impact how he reacts to situations throughout his life.
1. “You’ll never amount to anything.” Now, this one may seem self-evident, but you’d be amazed at how many parents I hear using this and attaching it to a speech regarding grades, applying himself and just generally acting lazy.
As the mother of a teenage boy I, too, find it frustrating to see the lack of action that results from my repeated requests, begging and threatening – asking him simply to get up and engage in an activity, whether that be homework or mowing the lawn. As tempting as it is to escalate the future consequences of inaction on your son’s part, I urge you to dial it down a notch and avoid using this phrase.
Equating his failure to mow the lawn with a life empty of promise or value is a tad extreme. In his mind, you’ve taken a task – homework, the trash, mowing the lawn – and attached it to a personal attack. Watching our little cookie cutter lying on the sofa after our fifth request to come to dinner makes us want to launch into a speech on whether this is a passing phase or a terrifying habit that he will repeat with bosses, spouses, and his children.
Again, before you add the catch phrase above onto the lecture de jour, stop and realize that it may not stick in your mind – but it likely will in the back of his.
2. “Stop being such a wimp!” Watching my son play sports as a small boy, I wish I had a dime for every time I heard a father (or mother) say this to their little angel. We’re programmed to believe that boys are supposed to be tough, not cry, be able to take a hit and shake it off.
Amazingly, many boys just aren’t wired that way. My son played t-ball until he was eight. At one point, he stood in the outfield for an entire inning chasing a butterfly. He then tried football, which resulted in getting hit by a ball and getting a bloody nose. He cried as if the world had come to an end. In fact, pretty much all of our attempts at sports resulted in roughly the same results.
Although he’s 15 now, I’ve come to love the fact that my son will always have a softer side than most boys his age. He has more female friends than male, and he rationalizes this by telling me it’s simply because he likes to listen to them.
If you’ve ever watched the face of a boy who’s just been told to “toughen up” or “take it like a man,” then you know there’s a struggle there between what’s expected of them and what their desired reaction would be – sans society. Even if your son is a “tough kid,” there’s nothing wrong if he sheds some tears when he’s hurt (whether physically or emotionally) or runs away from a fight.
About two years ago my son asked me if he could take boxing lessons and, reluctantly, I agreed. About three lessons later, I was driving him home when he told me he didn’t want to go anymore. I asked him why and he replied, “Mom, I don’t need to hit anyone to prove I’m tough.”
3. “You’re just like your…” This can, unfortunately, be the most damaging phrase ever to our sons’ (or daughter’s) self-esteem, depending on whom you’re comparing them to. When we compare our sons to someone we know or someone they are related to, while we may be thinking of one trait, they may be thinking entirely of another.
We may say they are just like Uncle Johnny and mean it as a compliment, but they may remember only that Uncle Johnny drank rum and Coke all summer long – and not recall that he was a kind philanthropist. This rule is especially true if you are divorced and it was not an amicable split or your feelings toward your spouse are less than positive. Making that comparison to their parent could have negative connotations, regardless of how it was meant.
Depending on the context in which it’s said, be careful to specify exactly what trait you’re comparing so nothing gets lost in translation. If little Timmy reminds you of your father because of his soft mannerisms, tell him that, because his memory of his granddad may be of a quiet curmudgeon who spoke little. My son will tilt his head to the side when he reads – a trait my brother had as a child. It endears him to me all the more. It’s not that we can’t compare our sons to others; moreover it is how it’s done that matters.
Certain phrases can stay with us long after a conversation is over. How we mean something may be different than it is intended, and we may allow norms to dictate some of the things we say. But what we say will shape our sons, their thoughts, and their ideas about themselves. Speak with love, kindness and be mindful – not just of how it’s intended but how it will be received. Your son will remember that, appreciate it and hopefully one day model it to his children as well.
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