As both a social researcher who has interviewed and surveyed thousands of boys and a mom of a son, I’ve seen three common – and very harmful –things boys tend to believe about themselves. Mom and Dad, keep an eye out, so you can knock down this nonsense whenever it rears its ugly head!
1. “I’m stupid.”
They may not say it out loud, but this thought is very common among boys. There’s a sneaky reason that boys are far more likely than girls to drop out of high school and avoid college today: without ever intending to, our educational system disproportionately discourages boys.
Boys are much less likely to thrive in today’s “sit still and listen” school environment, in part because boy brains often need movement to learn. So when wiggly little boys are required by well-intentioned (and mostly female) teachers to sit still, their brains often have a bit more difficulty grasping and retaining information. Not surprisingly, since they miss things, they then often begin to feel stupid. And a boy who feels stupid is less likely to continue to try, year after year. He’s far more likely to let go of the academics that cause that painful feeling, and embrace areas he feels competent or special (sports, video games, being the class clown…).
Yet that process can be stopped and reversed at any point by a determined parent. When I was doing the For Parents Only research and talking to hundreds of teenage boys, I heard story after story of boys whose parents confronted that toxic “I’m stupid” belief early and often. When parents emphasized ways they knew their sons were smart, the boys began to believe those things for themselves. (Dr. Kathy Koch’s new book 8 Great Smarts equips parents with ways to do that.)
2. “I can’t do anything right”.
You may think this isn’t as big of a deal as a boy thinking he’s stupid. In fact, the two thoughts infect and reinforce each other, and we have to confront both in order to shoot down either.
One thing many women don’t see is a hidden worry that burdens many most men: guys desperately want to be competent at what they do, but they also doubt themselves. The heart cry of a guy– whether he is fifteen or fifty—is “Do I measure up?” And your son (like your husband or boyfriend) is looking to the people around him for clues to the answer to that question.
When you applaud the positive, say “I’m proud of you,” and focus on what he’s done well (for example, the good grade after he studied hard) it soothes his real and painful worry that he is inadequate. But when you make your disappointment clear (perhaps you sigh in exasperation at a bad grade, or immediately jump to what was wrong about how he washed the dishes rather than praising what was done right), it confirms the painful notion that he doesn’t measure up. And as the “I’m stupid” example above shows, a boy who regularly feels that way will often simply stop trying. Because it is far less painful to not try, than to try and feel like a failure. As one boy described that inner thought, “If I don’t expect too much, I won’t be disappointed.”
Sure, you have to be able to address things that need improvement, but always find things to praise first and foremost. “Thanks so much for washing the dishes. That is such a help. Sometime, I need to show you how certain dishes need to be soaked first, to get everything off.”
3. “People are always watching and critiquing me”.
It is human nature to think people are thinking and talking about us, when they probably aren’t nearly as focused on us as we think they are. Yet because guys are so attuned to how they do, they are also highly attuned to what people think of how they do. Many of the boys in my research told me they felt like they were under a microscope of judgment all the time – which led them to be even more hair-trigger sensitive about how they were doing.
Parents can do a great service for any child, but especially a boy, by helping them put things in perspective: the average person is probably far more attuned to their own life than to yours. You can try things –new activities, different outfits – without worrying so much.
By teaching them this, your sons learn the incredibly important skill of perseverance; to be okay with learning through failure rather than running from failure. And then hopefully they’ll experience the rewards – and the confidence – that come from that perseverance.
Many boys do not need this sort of help from a parent, but most do. By confronting toxic thoughts you’ll be setting them up for a very real and very important confidence for their future.
Wish Shaunti could speak at an event in your area? You can help! Forward this piece or others to a leader at your organization or church, with a note of recommendation. They can reach Shaunti at NDuncan@shaunti.com.
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.