Say This, Not That

7 Toxic Phrases Parents Need To Stop Saying To Their Sons

“Boys will be boys.”

Originally Published: 
A dad with his arm around his son's shoulders, leaning back on a couch.

Parents say a lot of words to their kids. That’s the job, after all — to tell them things, to teach them lessons, to prepare them, protect them, and shape them into the people we want them to be. But sometimes in the telling are common phrases or clichéd ideas that are based on outdated or wrongheaded assumptions and are inherently toxic. We still have a tendency to raise our boys with age-old male stereotypes. In an effort to raise strong boys, parents can inadvertently create damaged men.

“Rigid beliefs about what a boy is can be very detrimental to a child, as boys come in all shapes and sizes and a wide range of personalities, preferences, and natural leanings,” says therapist Anahid Lisa Derbabian. “When a very specific template is presented to a boy as to what a boy or a man should look like, sound like, act like, enjoy doing, etc., then naturally the boy may often unconsciously try to emulate that, thereby ignoring their own natural tendencies,” she says. “Alternatively, sometimes children may begin to resist what is forced upon them, and in that very rebellion they actually may rebel against what is naturally part of themselves.”

In an effort to raise awareness about what sort of language is especially toxic to young men and boys, here are seven common phrases to avoid.

1. “You’re too sensitive.”

Boys can be made to feel a lot of shame for expressing their emotions, almost to the point of not being allowed to have feelings, let alone voice them aloud. Even mothers can fall into the trap of telling their sons to “man up” and keep their emotions under wraps.

“When we tell our sons they’re too sensitive,” says Matt Smith, a Charlotte-based anxiety therapist, “we not only invalidate their feelings; we teach them to suppress and neglect their emotional needs altogether, which can have a detrimental effect on males across their lifetime.”

Rachel D. Miller, a marriage and family therapist, agrees, saying that the consequences of forcing boys to tamp down their emotions can be dire. “When emotions are not felt and processed,” she says, “they come out or are coped with unhealthy ways such as violence, alcohol or drug use, physical ailments, and mental health issues.”

2. “Boys don’t cry.”

Similar to not showing any emotion, boys are often taught that crying or showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability is to be avoided. This kind of thinking leads boys into thinking that these so-called “softer” emotions belong to girls and that, for them, only certain emotions are permissible or acceptable.

“Part of why so many men struggle with relationships and managing their anger is because we, as parents and a society, have told them that expressing emotions other than anger shows weakness, and being weak is not acceptable,” says Miller. “Anger is easier to grab than pain, sadness, or fear. And when all you are given is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

3. “Those are for girls”

It’s become socially acceptable for girls to dress like boys, cut their hair short, and play with boys’ toys. However, if a boy dresses like a girl, plays with dolls, or even grows his hair long, he might be treated as though there is something wrong with him.

“This prohibits boys from exploring their natural instincts to be caregivers as well, and as they mature into adults, leaves them with blind spots in their parenting,” says Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles. “It creates emotional distance between them and their family, which leaves the next generation hungry for emotional connection and equally impacted.”

“If girls can be fully expressive, boy must be given the same,” adds Miller. “The binary view of gender is harmful and restrictive for everyone.”

4. “Why can’t you be more like…?”

Nothing is more harmful to a child’s self-esteem than being compared to another child, especially a sibling. It can set a boy on a path of constantly trying to match the other child or, worse yet, attempt to be perfect in an effort to please his parents.

“This could render him exhausted, depressed, and feeling like a failure,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Alternatively, parents need to observe, acknowledge, validate, and accept their child — flaws and all. This is the starting point from which healthy childrearing begins.”

5. “You play like a girl.”

This phrase sends the message to boys that girls are somehow less-than and, in essence, gives them permission to view girls as being unworthy. This can be especially confusing, as boys generally have positive female role models in their lives in the form of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts. And yet, this phrase instills in them the idea that all of these people are somehow inferior.

“Constantly being told that women are less-than, or not people to be admired or emulated, can lead to internalized entitlement and a belief that even the most reprehensible of men is somehow innately better than the most intelligent, creative, compassionate, talented, and powerful woman,” says Miller.

6.“You must win!”

Instilling a “win at all costs” mentality might seem like you’re grooming a motivated, driven young man. However, in reality, you are narrowing his focus so that all he sees is the prize, as opposed to the experience. He will focus only on winning the game rather than the joy of playing. He will concern himself with making first chair in the band instead of enjoying the process of learning an instrument.

“This can be very detrimental also as these boys will take this energy into their adult lives, and may miss life’s joyful moments, as their focus mainly is on winning the prize,” says Derbabian. “Later in life, they may realize that the prize often may not be worth what they gave up along the way.”

7. “Boys will be boys.”

This is a catch-all phrase that is often used to dismiss boys’ misbehavior, fighting, or acting out in some way, and it is perhaps the most damaging phrase they can hear.

“It teaches boys that they are not responsible for their own actions and are not going to be held accountable for their behaviors,” says Miller. “In addition, it steals their self-efficacy. It says men and boys can’t help themselves.” This is particularly problematic, Miller adds, because it feeds into the myths around things like domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault. Avoid it at all costs.

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