Many boys these days go through challenging times that are not of their making, and yet they affect how our sons view themselves. Every day, boys experience challenges at school that make them feel stupid, especially since our sit-still-and-listen school processes are not necessarily optimally designed for how boys’ brains learn! Perhaps even more toxic to how our sons view themselves is the fact that for some reason it has become acceptable to engage in casual male bashing. (“Yeah, I’ve got two kids – 3 if you count my husband.”) With every roll of the eyes or teasing comment about men boys hear and internalize that too.
As the mom of a son, all this drives me a little crazy and has caused me to do some additional research on how to boost the self-esteem of our boys and young men in a culture that often seems to be working against them.
I have identified at least two practical solutions that work very broadly, across many types of situations, although I should also note that since every boy – and every family – is different, you’ll need to adapt it to your individual circumstances:
- Give them as many opportunities as possible to succeed. All male humanoids need to feel that they are good at what they do. It is an integral part of what it means to be a man – or a boy. The problem is, that especially when you are a younger man or boy, opportunities for success are limited and opportunities to mess up are everywhere. With each mess up – the bad grade, the dropped pass, the choice that disappoints your parents – the boy thinks less and less of himself. As I did the research for For Parents Only, I heard the heart of the teenage boys who said over and over “I wish my mom would let me just TRY this!” Or “I wish she would just let me do it MY way!” That comment might sound innocuous but it a huge signal. Whether it was wanting to mow the lawn, do the dishes, or install the new television set, boys wanted to try to do things without their moms and dads looking over their shoulders. Will they get it right every time without our help? Of course not. Is it worth it for the dishes to (initially) be jammed into the dishwasher incorrectly, to give a boy who desperately needs it a sense of accomplishment? I would argue: absolutely! This may seem a little odd to any moms looking at this, but to a boy every correction will feel like a failure. They already get that a lot at school. We need to figure out ways to minimize it at home; which means reserving “that was a failure” messages for truly essential things.
- When they do get something right, praise them consistently for their outcomes (and even when they don’t, praise their positive efforts). Many of us don’t realize that praise is oxygen to a boy (or a man). Moms especially are more prone to say “I love you,” and give words of affection – but what a boy absolutely most needs to hear as he grows is “I am so proud of you,” “good job,” and “Thank you for loading up the dishwasher, that was so helpful!” How do you handle it if he didn’t do it right? Most important, as noted above, evaluate whether your correction is truly needed. Or more likely, needed right at this time. For some situations – correcting how your son is driving, for example – correction is truly needed immediately! But for many situations we can wait – and in fact it is important to wait. When it comes time to share a correction, then we can simply say something like: “Hey Bobby, thanks so much for loading up the dishwasher everyday this week. You’ve done a great job. One thing I should show you, is that when we have had spaghetti or lasagna, you’ll get a much better result if you rinse those plates off first. Do you mind if I show you how next time you do the dishes?” Some of you may roll your eyes at that, and think that you are tiptoeing too much around a boy’s ego. But remember the whole point of this: most of the time the ego isn’t the problem. The deep self-doubt is. All of those “you did a great job” comments are simply reassurances to make sure that he hears a suggestion simply as a suggestion rather than as a statement that “you failed.”
Those two things certainly won’t solve every problem, or combat all of the issues our boys face today. But if we make them a habit they will will go a long way toward helping our boys feel the most important inner certainty that any boy needs to feel; the sense that “I can do it!”
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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.