“Be a man.”
“Suck it up.”
“Boys don’t cry.”
“You throw like a girl.”
From a young age, comments like these affect the way that boys see themselves. Often, parents worry about the self-esteem of their girls, but it’s crucial to remember that boys are criticized as well. Whether in school, at home, or in other places, male stereotypes begin to form a child’s idea of what a “man” should be.
Self-esteem, previously thought of as an adolescent’s issue, has now been established in children 5 years of age (Cvencek, Greenwald & Meltzoff, 2016). Research dedicated to the preschool-age population provides some insight as to why this may be.
In one study, children and their daycare teachers completed questionnaires regarding boys’ self-esteem. Boys who overrated their cognitive abilities were more likely, one year later, to be perceived as having problems with social skills, aggression, and delinquency. This makes sense, as peers are likely to reject boys who consider themselves to be smarter than they really are. This peer rejection may lead to forms of aggression to obtain what they want. Another possibility is that boys overrate themselves not because they think they are smarter than their peers, but instead because they feel less secure in their abilities and therefore compensate by overrating themselves to appear more socially desirable (Mathias, Biebel & Dilalla, 2011).
But…why is this important? How does this connect?
To be told what a “man” is and to not meet those standards can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem and hinder their ability to find their true self. If they present as confident, they’re ‘cocky.’ If they try to appear socially desirable, they’re ‘fake.’ If they are cognitively advanced, they’re a ‘nerd.’ Boys of all ages often struggle to find their place on this tight-rope of male expectations.
But other than being taught these stereotypes, where are these influences coming from?
The media. You already knew this. As a parent, you most likely attempt to filter what your little guy is exposed to. Yet, children’s television shows portray messages about the world and its stereotypes to young children. Recent statistics show children ages 2-11 watch an average of 19.5 hours of media per week (Fuller, 2018). However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Media platforms are adapting, and thus stereotypes appear to be changing, especially on the male end with shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Curious George. These TV programs show that it’s acceptable for males to show ALL of their emotions (Martin, 2017).
So now you know (or were reminded) that stereotypes are influencing your little guy’s self-esteem. But how can you help?
If a child is struggling, whether in school or other activities, adults should look for opportunities to compliment when the boy does something right, even if it’s small. I’m not saying to praise every moment, but encourage the good instead of pointing out the bad. This can increase a child’s feeling of worth and help positively shape their behavior.
2. Validate Difference:
In the lives of young boys, role models such as professional athletes or superheroes often fill their minds about what a “man” is. Although this notion is not bad, we must remember to encourage difference: “He is good at basketball, but not EVERYONE is like that. Some people are better at…” Or instead of focusing on physical/athletic attributes consider: “That’s a great guy, he’s super-smart, he’s kind, he’s creative.”
3. Feelings are for Everyone:
Tears are not something to be ashamed of. Let boys know they shouldn’t be embarrassed of their feelings and that showing emotions does not equal weakness. Allowing them to talk openly about how an experience made them feel (not just how they reacted) is a great way to open a dialogue between a parent and their son, while also building the child’s self-esteem.
4. Others have Feelings Too:
Encouraging empathy from a young age can encourage boys to be aware of how others think and feel. This requires a knowledge of emotions. Just as we teach kids shapes and colors, we need to explain emotions and the way they make us feel. The main way your child learns empathy is by observing the people in his environment…including you! Are you showing empathy with other drivers? In stories you tell about your day? Increasing our own empathy will in turn help build it within our kids.
5. Slow Down:
The world, especially the world of a little one, is going so fast. Slow down! Despite perhaps being late, it is important to allow your young one to do things themselves, within age appropriateness and safety precautions. Let them tie their own shoes or carry their own backpack into the classroom. Yes, it may take longer…BUT by doing so, you’re fostering your kiddo’s sense of independence and confidence in their own abilities to try, maybe fail, but then be confident enough to try again!
6. Replace Stereotypes with Encouragement:
“Your thoughtfulness is one of your greatest strengths.”
“Thank you for cooperating.”
“You showed so much strength in handling this challenge.”
“It’s great to see you believe in yourself!”
“It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in!”
“I’m proud of you.”
“Your imagination is awesome.”
“I really want to hear what you have to say.”
“You’re so brave. Go ahead and try something new today.”
This should give you some ideas on how to help improve your son’s self-esteem. If you want more info, enjoy the kiddo-friendly resources below. And remember, an important part of the process is having fun!
Tough Guys Have Feelings Too by Keith Negley
Today I’m a Monster by Agnes Green & Viktorila Mykhalevych
Stand in My Shoes by Bon Sornson
Cvencek, D., Greenwald, A. G., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2016). Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 62, 50–57. https://doi-org.xxproxy.smumn.edu/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.09.015
Fuller, S. (2018). Topic: Children and media in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/topics/3980/children-and-media-in-the-us/
Mathias, J. L., Biebl, S. J. W., & DiLalla, L. F. (2011). Self-Esteem Accuracy and Externalizing Problems in Preschool-Aged Boys. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 172(3), 285–292. https://doi-org.xxproxy.smumn.edu/10.1080/00221325.2010.530702
Martin, R. (2017). Gender and Emotion Stereotypes in Children’s Television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61(3), 499–517. https://doi-org.xxproxy.smumn.edu/10.1080/08838151.2017.1344667