Raising boys in the modern era can feel like a major challenge. Evidence suggests that this is actually true. Young men are struggling academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. Some of this can be linked to modern technology. Some of it can be linked to biology. But much of it can be traced back to the “traditional” way boys have been raised. They’ve been taught to bottle up their feelings, to “act like a man,” never to show weakness. This antiquated way of thinking only creates problems down the line. Parents can — and must — do better. The modern challenges of boyhood require parents to be more thoughtful and present than ever before. One place to start? What we say — and don’t say — to them. Here, then, are six phrases that, per couples and family therapist Laura Froyen, Ph.D., parents should do away with when speaking to boys.
“Boys Don’t Cry.”
Telling boys that boys don’t cry — or aggressively telling a boy not to be “a cry baby” — sets a very bad precedent. Why? Simple. It makes them believe that they’re not allowed to have softer emotions and trains them to bury their true feelings. When parents reinforce this thinking, they’re robbing sons of a full emotional life, says Froyen.
“I work with a lot of men who come to my practice trying to be emotionally present with their kids or with their partner,” says Froyen. “They literally don’t know the word for the emotion that they are feeling. I have to do a lot of remedial emotional-intelligence education with adult men.”
Now, saying “good job” isn’t awful. It’s just said too often and lacks specificity. When boys hear the phrase regularly, they may find that when they encounter difficulty in things that they are ‘good’ at, they will lack the resilience to handle failure.
“Unspecific praise simply isn’t helpful to kids. It also focuses on the outcome, rather than the process or effort involved,” says Froyen. “So if your kid has worked on a math problem that they maybe had a hard time with but kept working on, if you said, ‘Ooh, good job,’ you’re really not paying attention to the fact that this was hard and that the kid put a lot of effort into it, it doesn’t focus on the tenacity or the grit.”
“Boys Will Be Boys.”
This is one of the more toxic phrases in the cultural lexicon that needs to be thrown out of the conversation entirely. “This phrase encourages boys to no longer take responsibility for their actions,” says Froyen. “Of course, we hear ‘boys will be boys’ within the context of the #MeToo movement now, but it starts much earlier than that. It really encourages boys to start seeing themselves as beings who don’t have to take responsibility for their actions or their impact on others.”
“You’re Just Like Your Father.”
In a positive light, this phrase can make boys struggle with their sense of self. In a negative light, it’s much worse. When a young boy is told this with negative emphasis, says Froyen, it not only makes them feel badly about themselves and their parent, it also makes those traits seem like a fixed quality. Think about it: Calling a boy stubborn, just like his father, makes him feel that being stubborn is bad — and that it’s a quality he’ll always have. This can harm a boy’s self-image and prevent him from flourishing emotionally.
“It’s Okay. You’re Okay. Calm Down.”
What parent hasn’t said this? It makes sense, of course. Parents want to console and put a stop to tantrums before they start. But it can send the wrong message to kids, especially boys, who tend to struggle with emotions. “The phrase is dismissive of what’s happening in the moment and of the child’s emotions,” says Froyen. “If a child is crying, they’re clearly not okay. It would be better for parents to identify that emotion and emphasize and validate them.”
When boys are 5 or 6 years old, parents might find that it is nearly impossible to get them to sit still or pay attention. But that’s by design. “That really isn’t practical for a lot of boys. I wish that parents would change their expectations for movement for all kids, but for boys especially,” says Froyen. If a kid has a hard time sitting at their desk in school or is spinning their chair at the dinner table, instead of telling them to sit still, parents, per Froyen, should consider giving them another option for movement. “We need to change our expectations to match what kids are physically capable of. Kids should be moving a lot more than what they are in our culture right now,” she says.