In light of Men’s Health Week this week (13th–19th June), I want to focus on some of the, often totally innocent, yet toxic everyday phrases we use as parents when talking to boys and look at how these can impact that individual long term as they grow up.
Our role as parents or carers is to teach our children, to nurture them, to shape them into wholesome people and to ensure they grow up as the best version of themselves. It’s certainly no easy feat and unfortunately there is no playbook on how to be the ‘perfect’ parent. But the thing is, we don’t need perfect parents for perfect children, rather, we need real parents for real children.
A big part of parenting revolves around the words and the language we use to teach and talk to our children. Words matter so much in fact that according to Harvard Medical School, using the wrong words with kids can actually cause a great deal of damage. Through our words and language, we guide our children on what we perceive to be the best course for them, and whilst this is usually helpful to the child, on occasion we can fall into the very innocent trap of sharing outdated phrases or our own cliched assumptions with them. Sadly, it is often these innocuous phrases which can be innately toxic and can cause long term damage despite our very best intentions.
Here are five toxic phrases to avoid as a parent or carer when talking to our boys, and why:
‘Don’t be so sensitive‘
Benign as this phrase might sound, it could be causing more hram that you might think. Boys and men the world over have been made to feel a great deal of shame for expressing their emotions, almost to the point of not being allowed to have feelings, let alone voice them aloud. This, as we know, has resulted in increased mental health issues for males and indeed greater suicide rates too. When we tell our boys not to be sensitive, we are basically teaching them to totally supress their feelings or emotions and that their feelings are not valid. We are also further emphasising the outdated (and invalid) assumption that boys are strong, and girls are weak. Yet our boys certainly do not have this misconception in their younger years – quite the oppositive in fact, as many will idolise their mothers and see them as a tower of strength. Instead of saying that a boy is too sensitive, as a parent it’s our role to celebrate the fact that our boys are able to express their emotions as a human first and foremost, and then evaluate those emotions with them.
This phrase may seem like a very harmless way to tell a boy to step up to his responsibilities, to be strong, or to be braver, but the phrase itself implies that a boy or young adult should not feel vulnerable or indeed feel their own emotions. Worse still it implies that the individual is more or less of a man based on how he behaves, which we, of course, all know to be wrong when you put it like that. Perhaps what we mean as parents or carers when we say “man up” is rather that we are asking them to show greater maturity at that specific moment. Doing this removes gender from the discussion altogether and helps the boy to understand exactly what is expected of them at that time. It also sets a boundary for them to work towards and deliver on, and allows a more open conversation to flow between the parent/carer and child.
‘Big boys don’t cry’
Boys are often taught that crying or showing any sign of weakness is bad. But this perception leads us all (and specifically our sons) into thinking that emotions are gendered. I.e., the emotions of crying or feeling sad should be felt only by girls. A big reason as to why men struggle with mental ill health when they get older is because they have had it inbuilt into their upbringing that showing weakness or expressing their emotions simply isn’t acceptable. It is also why they are more likely to display anger instead of crying at something sad as, quite frankly, this is all they know. As parents or carers, we need to teach our boys that it is ok to cry and feel sadness. And fathers are particularly important in this process by role modelling behaviours and showing that they too feel sadness.
‘Boys don’t do that/ play that’
Often it is not just what we say as parents that can cause issues in our children, but indeed what we encourage our children to do can also play a big part. By suggesting that our sons only attend football practice, and not ballet we are once again suggesting that an activity is gendered and that their feelings for wanting to try that activity are invalid. If we give our boys a car to play with over a doll, we are implying that it is not socially acceptable for them to do certain things. Likewise, by parenting in such a way as to suggest that given Daddy likes football, so you should, as our son, also like football, we are projecting our own gender assumptions on a child who wants to experience a myriad of new things. This kind of behaviour stops young boys from exploring their instincts to try new things, and long term can impact their ability as a parent to be a caregiver too.
‘Why can’t you be more like your big brother’
Bluntly nothing is more harmful to a child’s self-esteem than being compared to their sibling (or indeed any other child). Saying this to our sons can set them on course to constantly try to replicate what the other child does in an effort to delight his parents. This is not only dangerous but will cause the boy to feel constantly downbeat and exhausted. Likewise, it will undoubtedly result in him feeling like he is failing daily – after all – he is himself, no one else. Instead of using this phrase, as parents we need to spend time validating the uniqueness of our children and accept them for who they are as individuals. No one child is the same, just like no one parent is the same.
Using language more carefully in order to provide a sense of support for young people, many of whom will no doubt be struggling with how to become themselves in a challenging world, can go a long way to creating an environment in which boys are comfortable expressing themselves and experimenting with their identities in ways that are healthy and productive to future happiness.
Though it may seem like a complex minefield to navigate as a parent or carer, learning to adapt your words and phrases to be empathetic, empowering, and inclusive is the best way to ensure that your message will get through. As I said, there is no playbook to being a parent, and regrettably there are no set answers to some of the most difficult problems you will likely face. You will of course make mistakes. Which leads me to another dangerous phrase we all use, “practice makes perfect”. As I stated at the start of this piece, there is no such thing as the perfect parent. You just need to be real; you just need to be human.
Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a UK and international registered psychotherapist and accredited clinical supervisor.