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How to Raise Respectful Boys in 4 Easy Steps

Photograph by Twenty20

“She could stand to lose a few.”

I asked my son to hand me the book, thinking he must have misread that last sentence. Sadly, he was not mistaken. I stared at the line for a few moments in a state of shock. Is this what kids read these days?

My son is 8 years old, and he loves books with sports-themed story lines. In all fairness to the author, my son reads on a sixth-grade level and the books we read together are intended for older kids. Even so, my heart sank when he read those words aloud and paused to inquire, “what does that mean that she can lose a few?” Though he’s only in second grade, I wouldn’t want him to read those words in sixth grade, either.

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The book is about a boy who doesn’t make the travel basketball team he hoped for but gets a second chance when his father decides to start another team. As with most of these books, the sport takes center stage but friendship issues and dealing with the stress of growing up fills the pages in between games. And that’s where the mixed (or just plain awful) messages arise.

One line in one book is easy enough to work through, but it’s not just that. Little boys are privy to all kinds of inappropriate commentary about women and girls these days. Media consumption might be partially to blame, but the truth is that negative messages are everywhere (don’t get me started on anorexic-looking dolls).

As much time as I spend making sure my 9-year-old daughter understands things like consent and assertiveness, this one line stopped me in my tracks and reminded me that young boys need just as much input when it comes to learning how to relate to their peers.

The best thing we can do for our boys is talk early and often about how they communicate with other kids—girls and boys. Truth be told, if the line read, “He could stand to lose a few,” my conversation with my son would have been the same.

1. Talk about the power of words

When kids are toddlers and preschoolers, parents provide constant reminders to “use your words!” When little ones finally learn to use their words, however, we move on from words and focus on other issues. That’s a mistake.

Words have both the power to hurt and the power to heal, and kids need to learn that from the beginning. We can’t assume they will figure it out on their own. We have to guide them.

Role-play is an excellent way to practice hurtful and helpful words. Write down some common kid scenarios on strips of paper, and put them in a hat. Some should include examples of kids being helpful; others should include kids being hurtful. Act out the scenarios with your son, hitting the pause to label feelings and come up with better word choices.

My son and I spend a lot of time talking about how to be a change maker. If he sees something unkind happening, he knows how to make a difference.

2. Practice the art of giving compliments

The morning after the discussion about “she could stand to lose a few,” I asked my son to come up with three compliments he might give to his sister. He thought about it for a few minutes he came up with the following: “She’s very strong because she does so much dance. She’s really great at art, especially drawing. She’s always kind.” Cue the giant sigh of relief.

We are specific in our praise and compliments in this house. Honestly, it’s just what comes naturally to us. I’m happy to see that it’s trickling down to the kids.

It’s also perfectly normal for kids to struggle with this concept. When asked to give a compliment, most kids will say something like, “I really like her hair” because that’s something tangible and easy to see.

Practice compliments in your home by talking about peeling the onion. The outer layer is what you see, but the best compliments are those that apply to our inner selves—the ones beneath the skin. One way to practice this is to write, “compliment starters” on Popsicle sticks. They might say, “I really liked the way you…” or “I admire you because…” Place them in a jar and have each family member pull one stick a day to practice on another family member.

3. Talk about embracing differences

Repeat after me: All kids are different! As adults, we know this. We know that comparisons are, in fact, useless because our kids are all different. It’s up to us to talk about this with our kids.

If we want our kids to stop focusing on things like appearance and forming friendships based on “common interests,” we have to teach them to embrace and celebrate differences. We’re always looking for commonalities when meeting new people. If we shift our thinking to learning from others, we increase our friendship networks and we gain new knowledge.

How does this look in kid world? When your son avoids a peer because “he doesn’t like the same things,” encourage him to find out three things the boy does like. Practice asking these questions at home: What do you like to play? What do you like to do on the weekends? What is your favorite toy or game?

4. Comments about appearance are off limits

The truth is that after taking a giant, calming breath, the first thing I said to my son was this: “You will hear kids talk about the way other kids look. It might be a comment about how much someone weighs or the way a person wears her hair or even the clothes another person wears. It’s important to understand that it is never OK to say mean and hurtful things about the way someone looks on the outside.” I thought I might have to revisit this conversation at another time (preferably not 10 minutes before bed), but I didn’t. His response was quiet but honest. “I would never do that, Mommy. I don’t like it when people tease me for my long hair, and I would never tease someone else like that.”

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My son and I spend a lot of time talking about how to be a change maker. If he sees something unkind happening, he knows how to make a difference. He knows that sticking up for another kid is nice, but sometimes you have to ask an adult for help. He knows that helpful words are a good antidote to hurtful words. He knows that differences are good. Most of all, he knows that kindness matters.

Boys will be boys” is one of my least favorite phrases of all time. We don’t need to excuse unkind or poor behavior by hiding behind boy culture. We can raise a generation of kind and respectful boys, instead.

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