The Paradox of Raising Boys

They need to be held accountable and loved unconditionally.

Posted Jul 30, 2019

At the end of the last post I raised a question: How do we raise boys who are secure enough being a man that they don’t always have to prove it? Whenever I can I ask young men what it means to be a man. Here is one of my favorite responses. It comes from Noah, 24, who played hockey in high school and college: “It’s being comfortable in your own skin, being comfortable with who you are. That is my definition of being a man. Not a guy who is afraid to show his pain.”

Noah understands that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. Rather, it is an act of courage, and it’s the only way we can form connections to other human beings. You see, the opposite of shame isn’t pride:  it’s trust. Trusting in your feelings, and having people you can trust to share them with.

So let’s talk about how to raise boys who can be true to themselves, and who don’t see violence and aggression as the only way to be a “true man” or dominance as the only way to lead. Most importantly, let’s raise boys who are not threatened when another boy wants to be their friend.

However, this is asking a lot of our boys and young men. We are asking them to be strong and sensitive, invincible and vulnerable. It’s a paradox- the paradox of raising good men. In order to do this we have to challenge them, and support them: hold them accountable, but also give them unconditional love.

The first thing we have to do is listen to them. Really listening, without judgment, is the best way to communicate love and unconditional support. It is also is one of the most powerful things one human being can do for another. So often parents want to rush in with a solution or a suggestion without giving the child a chance to speak. Most of the time, children just want to be heard. Listening gives us more information so we can better address the problem.

Oftentimes if we just listen, children will come up with their own solutions, and isn’t that what we are really after? Listening helps boys to get in touch with their feelings and models empathy. Remember you do not have to agree with someone to understand how they feel.  You are not endorsing his position; you are affirming his feelings. Good listeners are curious about how someone else feels, so they ask a lot of questions.

The second thing is to teach boys about their feelings- to help them develop emotional intelligence. Think of yourself as your son’s emotional coach. Your job is to guide him through recognizing, labeling, and managing his feelings. To be a coach you can't be dismissive or disapproving of your child's feelings. “You shouldn’t feel so sad” sounds innocent enough, even supportive, but what it really says is “the way you feel right now is wrong.”  This is not the message we want to give our kids.

To stress their importance, teach your kids that feelings have a job to do, so when your son has a feeling, he needs to an emotional detective to discover what that feeling is telling him. Sadness’s job is to slow us down. It means something is bothering us and gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is bothering us and why. Anger's job is the opposite—it speeds us up. Anger tells us that our rights have been violated and helps us mobilize to protect against future threats. It also motivates us to make a change when there is something about a situation we don't like. Anxiety is like an alarm bell. It tells us there might be something dangerous ahead, motivates us to prevent that thing from happening, to make a plan, solve a problem, even to run for safety.

Guilt says, "I did something wrong, something a parent or teacher will disapprove of." Guilt can help us to act according to our morals and values. It reminds us that no one is perfect, and that we always strive to be better.  Also, help your son understand that feelings don't last forever, even good ones - they are like the weather. When it rains, we think it will rain forever. But eventually, the sun comes out. Then we want it to stay warm and sunny every day. But that does not happen either. Just like the weather, feelings come and go. Once emotions can be recognized, labeled, and we know the job they are there to do, we can help children to manage them, to express them appropriately, and to feel understood. Listening without judgment will help guide your son toward his feelings, and reinforce that it is ok to feel vulnerable. Using empathy leads to trust, and remember, trust is the opposite of shame.

Finally, make it ok, really ok to make mistakes and to fail. This teaches kids to ask for help. The goal is that your son does not always have to feel in control, in charge, and know what to do. Here are some things parents say to themselves that cause them to rescue their children:                      

  • I only want the best for my child.
  • I can't let your child fall behind.
  • It’s so much easier and takes less time if I do it.

You have to ask yourself:

  • What is on the line for me if my child does not perform well?
  • What if my child turns in homework with errors on it?
  • What kind of parent would I be if my child failed to play well, get good grades, etc.

Remember, making a mistake does not mean you are a mistake. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything. If it is ok to make mistakes, it is ok to have feelings, and if you respond with empathy, then your son will not feel ashamed when he feels vulnerable.

Masculinity, at least in the rigid way we define it, is a terrible excuse for not being authentic. But it is really hard.  So, in closing, here are some things to ask yourself before you expect boys to open up. Can you accept your own imperfections, so you can accept your son's and let him flounder when he needs to?  It’s not easy to let kids be less than perfect if you are struggling with your own inner critic or if your self-worth depends not only on your achievements but also on your kids’ strengths and failure. Talk about your missteps, acknowledge your mistakes. Kids do not expect us to be perfect. In fact, what they really want are parents who can show them how to deal with life's uncertainty and with their own imperfections. In the words of my friend and colleague Rosalind Wiseman: “Boys profoundly want strong, comforting, honorable adults who admit how messy life is. (p. 8)."

Dads, what are your friendships like? Someone did a study asking men and women to say who their best friend was. Around 80% of the men said it was their wife, but the majority of wives did not name their husband.

Can you model emotional intelligence by talking about your feelings?  Your kids are watching you. How do they see you express anger? Sadness? Disappointment? How do you express affection? Dads can you really become more vulnerable yourself admit when you are afraid and ask for help?  Moms are you really ready to allow your son to express weakness? Can you tolerate it in your husband?

Shutter Stock
Source: Shutter Stock

Mr. Rogers said, “The only solution to loneliness and fear is to share it with someone." We still want our sons to be competitive, and get to the top. We just don’t want them to get there alone. 


Wiseman, Rosalind.  (2013) Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. Harmony Books