Mums and dads both have a role to play in raising boys that are self confident, empathetic and respectful
How to talk to kids about: building confidence
The days when boys were told to act tough to help them grow into “real men” are thankfully long gone; however, raising boys today presents a new set of challenges. Or at least, things to think and talk about, and help them to navigate.
A healthy sense of self is an important protection against the perils of puberty, but also against the expectations that society piles on boys’ shoulders. Expectations that lead to a less than healthy fear of failure, and worries that can corrode self-esteem.
The Rap Project, a non-profit education awareness programme, recently asked 3,000 British teens what they worried about, and its findings might surprise the parents of boys: overall, boys and girls of all ages are most concerned about their school work; boys ages 13 and 14 are also concerned about their body image, followed by their social life and friendships; 15- to 18-year-old boys are worried about sex, followed by the future. Such concerns could hardly be described as minor. So where should parents start?
Keep your eyes and ears open
Studies of boys’ neurological and emotional development have shown that they lag behind girls significantly in their social skills by the age of 7. They are also slower to share what’s on their minds, so parents have to take the time to look for signs that something might be wrong. If your son is always putting himself down, comparing himself to friends, is angry or hostile, and avoiding stressful situations, his self-worth is most likely under pressure. Spend time having fun with your son and making him feel special, as this will give you the chance to ask gentle questions later on. In the United Kingdom, BuildSound Minds, a mental health campaign by the charity Action for Children, recommends asking kids to complete a daily thoughts diary answering questions such as: “I felt proud today because…”; “Something I did well today was...”; and “A nice thing someone did for me today was...”. Better still, do it together.
Superman comes in all shapes and sizes
One-third of boys are worried about their weight by ages 6 to 8, according to a recent survey of academic research by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation that hopes to raise awareness about the effect of technology on children. And by the time they reach high school, 40 per cent of boys are exercising to bulk up, a phenomenon being blamed on the rise of Photoshopped selfies and legions of below- average-weight TV hosts, models and actors. Parents need be aware that boys are just as sensitive as girls when it comes to physical appearance, so don’t put an emphasis on looks at home.
Bring out the dads
Psychologist Steve Biddulph’s book, Raising Boys in the 21st Century, is particularly good at analysing the different roles that mums and dads play. It’s tough, he writes, in an era in which “men are often little more than walking wallets”, expected to stay late at the office. But from the ages of 6 to 14, boys are looking to spend time with a father figure to help them to cement their identity. It’s also an important opportunity for dads to pass on a positive outlook on the world and upon himself. “A boy will copy you,” Biddulph says. “He will copy your way of acting towards his mother. He will take on your attitudes (whether you are a racist, a perpetual victim, an optimist or a person who cares about justice, and so on). And he will only be able to show emotions if you can show yours… Teach your son to respect women and to respect himself.”
What about mum?
The early years are when mum comes into her own, wrapping her son in love and showing him how to love others, show kindness and learn empathy – all of which are essential for a healthy sense of self. In later teenage years, mums are well-placed to build their sons’ confidence ahead of more complex relationships by reassuring them that girls value “kindness, conversation and a sense of fun”, the author says.
Screen time versus me time
The problem with spending a lot of time gaming with mates via a headset is that there is less time to chat over a pizza, learn social skills and meet new friends in the real world. It also supports a view of relationships in which Instagram likes are a barometer of popularity and a self-esteem-busting source of anxiety. It’s vital to impress upon boys (and girls) that there needs to be offline time, phone-free time, and face-to-face friendship time. To help banish that worry about socialising, encourage your son to invite his mates over and make yourself as scarce as is appropriate, but don’t forget to lay down some house rules, so they realise the invitation is predicated on mutual respect.