In more than a decade of research with thousands of men and boys over the years, one thing that has stood out is the power of a mom’s words to build her son up – or (accidentally) tear him down. Whether your son is five or fifteen, several phrases are a big, big deal. Here are three:
1. “I’m so proud of you.” All males are powerfully moved by hearing these words, but perhaps none more so than the young, testosterone-laden male humanoids who may at times act first, think later, and thus are more used to hearing (as they are stitched up in the Emergency Room) “What were you thinking?” If you make a point of finding and saying those things worth praising whenever they happen, it tells a young man that this is truly who he is — not that buffoon who occasionally gets dinged for doing something dumb.
2. “Sure, you can try it.” I hesitate to put this phrase so soon after the act-first-think-later-then-require-stitches example used above, but this truly is powerful in a young man’s life – especially when he hears it from “Cautious Mom” rather than “Adventure Dad.” Dads, having been young men themselves, know how vital it is that a boy try to do something on his own. Yes, he might try and fail (see Emergency Room example above), but he might do OK. Better yet, he might actually shine! It is hard for us to let our boy take this risk – no matter how big and husky, these are our babies! – but it is essential for his confidence for the future that he be able to try and try again. Which leads to the last phrase.
3. “It was just a mistake, you’ll do better next time.” We women sometimes think that we have to make a point of holding up a mistake so our son recognizes that he failed and doesn’t do something that way again. (“See what happens when you don’t study long enough?” “You forgot your equipment for practice again? That’s why you kept getting benched last year.” ) But the research with men and boys is clear: your son does recognize he failed at something. For a guy, a mistake or a way he didn’t succeed at what he tried to do, is a huge, huge deal. It looms large in a boy’s mind, condemning him oh, every five minutes or so. He needs to hear you say you believe in him and you know he’ll do it right next time. “I know you’ll be studying hard this next few weeks before exams, and you’ll do great.” And if you say it, it builds him up to believe he can do it.
A boy will never be perfect at what he does. After all, we aren’t either, right? But approaching his actions in these I-believe-in-you ways makes it far more likely that he actually will do it right over time. In other words: by your words of affirmation, you are helping him to actually become that great young man you know he can be.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage, and her newest book, Through A Man’s Eyes. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.