When my son was a toddler, he always played hard and slept hard. Some of his ideas left me nearly speechless and hoping they don't end in disaster. He liked to push his giant metal Tonka dump truck on concrete as fast as humanly possible, for example. He also loved to race downhill on his PlasmaCar, squealing with delight.
A fellow mom once watched in horror at the park and asked, “Is this what boys do?”
I smiled at her and reassured her that every single questionable thing my son did came on the heels of another questionable decision made by his older sister. That was what my boy did, but his play did not represent all boys everywhere. We had a laugh and talked about the different ways kids play.
I never thought of my son as a kid who “played like a boy,” he just played the way he wanted to play. As he grew, I took notice of parents using certain phrases to excuse or explain certain behaviors. That never made much sense to me. Reducing negative behaviors to a “boy thing” or shushing boys because they’re boys disempowers them.
Our words are powerful, and we have to choose them carefully. As Jennifer Lehr, author of "Parent Speak," explains, "The way we talk to kids becomes their inner voice—the soundtrack they’ll involuntarily play back to themselves throughout their lives."
We can use our words to set boys up to be kind, strong and thoughtful leaders, or we can reduce them to a group of individuals who have little control over their behavior and stuff their emotions. I’m hopeful we can all agree to raise leaders.
It’s not our job to toughen up our boys and make them into men. It’s our job to provide unconditional love and support.
To that end, we have to move away from some commonly used phrases in boy world.
“Boys will be boys!”
This phrase is widely used to excuse behavior that is aggressive, destructive or disrespectful. As in, that boy just hit the other boy because, “boys will be boys!” Or, that boy can’t possibly sit still in the classroom even if he’s being disruptive because, “boys will be boys!”
I always wonder why so many people are OK with the subtext of this phrase. Do we really want to send the message that aggression is acceptable and boys have no ability to regulate their emotions? If we want to build boys up, we have to use our words to communicate that we believe in them, that we know they can learn new ways to communicate their emotions.
“Big boys don’t cry!”
Crying is a very healthy way to release pent up emotion and work through difficult feelings. Kids (both boys and girls) encounter shifting emotions throughout the day. That’s perfectly normal! Shushing them or silencing their cries only teaches them to stuff their feelings and avoid dealing with difficult topics.
To help boys learn to verbalize and cope with big feelings, we have to encourage them to label their emotions and talk openly about how they’re feeling. Boys need just as much empathy and understanding as girls.
“Shake if off!”
When girls fall down and get hurt, time stands still. Is she OK? Is she bleeding? Does she need a Band-Aid? When boys fall, you hear quick responses. “Shake it off,” “Get back in there” and “You’re fine” all come to mind because I hear them frequently. From the tot lot to the baseball field, boys are told to get over their injuries the moment they happen.
The reality is that little kids fall and get hurt. Sometimes those injuries cause physical pain that triggers the tears, but other times fear or exhaustion contributes to the response. Whatever the feeling beneath the pain, dismissing emotional responses teaches boys that their feelings don’t matter. We all have to deal with painful moments in life, but isn’t it a little bit easier when a supportive person helps us back up?
It’s not our job to toughen up our boys and make them into men. It’s our job to provide unconditional love and support as they work their way through this thing called childhood, and that begins with listening and normalizing all of the emotions they encounter on any given day.