One topic that I see around the internet on a fairly regular basis is a concern over boys who might need to “toughen up a little.” More often than not, it’s the dad who wants his son to toughen up, and the mom is not so sure that it’s a problem – maybe her son is just sensitive.
So who’s right? Dad or Mom? How can a parent decide whether their son needs to toughen up or not? Is this merely a cultural issue, or are there any Biblical principles involved?
Issue #1: Does a boy needs to toughen up because he is not interested in “manly” things?
If Dad’s passion is hunting, fishing, or sports, it can be hard to relate to a son who is into drawing or music, for example. However, the Bible does not equate manliness with sports or firearms.
Parents (both dads and moms) should be more interested in the spiritual well being of their children than in passing on a love for football or whatever, although it’s fun if our children do share our interests. The Bible calls parents to not provoke their children to anger but to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4 – it says specifically fathers, but the word used here refers to both parents). It can provoke a child to anger to try to make him excel in something just because Dad (or Mom) did. My husband wants to add here that it’s good to expose boys to things such as sporting events even if they are not super interested because it’s good to learn to take an interest in something as a way to care about the person who values it. It’s also good for boys to have a general knowledge of how to play various sports so that they are not left out if they want to join in a game. But trying to force a child to love the same things that you love is not the way to go.
There are so many things out there – can some common ground be found? A trip to Lowe’s and a wood working project? How about biking, tennis, geocaching, camping, hiking, indoor rock climbing, film making, or computer programming? Legos? Photography?
Issue #2: Does a boy needs to toughen up because he cries over every little thing?
Some boys are more sensitive by nature than others and may be more emotional than others over the death of a pet or over watching someone else be mistreated. Others become easily frustrated and cry over not being able to complete a task. Then the issue for other boys might be having a “victim mentality.” You know the type… everything that happens is thought to be the fault of someone else, even when it clearly isn’t. Every loss at a game is someone else’s fault, and crying and complaining usually follows. And then there’s the boy who cries over every injury and disappointment.
Our culture twists this issue in a couple of different ways. One is the thought that we need to “toughen up” our sons through shaming, name calling, or refusing to listen to the child’s concerns. Sort of a, “Don’t come to me until you’ve walloped the bully down the street!” approach. The other is the mother or father who coddles and babies their son and prevents him from handling problems on his own. Honestly, both harshness and over-protection can provoke a child to anger (Ephesians 6:4).
How can we sort out this mess?
One thing to keep in mind is that our emotions respond to our thoughts. If a child is being overly emotional, a good place to start is with the content of his thoughts. The Bible clearly tells us that we need to think about things that are true and good (Philippians 4:8). If we choose to think on the right things, our emotions will eventually follow suit (although not always perfectly!). Our emotions become a problem when we are dwelling on things that are wrong or untrue. So as parents, we need to help our sons develop the skills to think through a problem (what is true in this situation?) and create a plan for resolution. This is helpful for all kids, but especially for those who tend to be ruled by their emotions.
Let’s think through some examples…
(Note: The examples I chose are situations in which it might seem that a boy needs to “toughen up.” I am not talking about a traumatic sad experience, such as the death of a parent. Life-altering experiences like that are going to create a level of grief that I am not referring to in this post.)
Crying over a disappointing experience. Maybe rain has ruined a trip to the zoo or a child wakes up sick on the day of a birthday party. Is it true that this is sad? Yes. When a child seems to have excessive emotion, encourage your child to think about things that are true about God.
Possible untrue thoughts, leading to crying/whining:
- We never get to do anything fun! (Never? Really?)
- Something always happens to ruin our plans. (Always?)
- This isn’t fair.
True thoughts to replace the untrue thoughts:
- God loves me with steadfast love. (All over the book of Psalms)
- God is good, and He only does what is good. (Psalm 100)
- If something hard is happening, God will use it for my good. (Romans 8:32)
- God must have a different plan for me today, and that’s okay!
And after discussing the right perspective, we have sometimes had to just tell our kids that the sadness has now degenerated into complaining and needs to stop!
Crying over unfair treatment. We have noticed that a victim mentality can manifest itself in a couple of different ways, at least at our house! Some boys become aggressive while others whine, cry, and complain. Here are some questions to help you think it through if you have a child who seems to often be upset with others.
- Is it true that your child is being mistreated? If so, are there steps that can be taken to address the issue? Maybe a meeting with a teacher or another parent?
- Is this a real offense against your child, but one that really should just be overlooked?
- Is your child making assumptions about what is motivating another person, when in reality it is not possible to know the other person’s motives? Dwelling on the motives of others is not thinking about what is true.
- Is your child misinterpreting or exaggerating the situation? At a point, this may become an obedience issue. If you have discussed the issue, talked about the person’s perspective, and your son continues to sulk, he may need a consequence that fits the situation.
- Other people often sin against us. But if we respond with anger or excessive sadness (not willing to let it go), this can be a warning sign of sin in our own hearts. Ask your child, “Why do you think this is making you so upset? Could it be that the kids teasing you about your backpack is bringing out your own pride? Maybe you are not willing to let this go because it is so important for people to think you are cool? Is your reputation more important right now than having a forgiving spirit?
Crying over things that are new/difficult/scary. Everyone has things that they find scary. And it can definitely be hard at times to know when to push a child to do something that he doesn’t want to do. We have one at our house that would seldom try anything new if we didn’t give him a push, and we admit that we don’t always know when to push and when to not.
Moms, this is an area where it can be easy to coddle our sons. We understand fear, and we don’t want to cause our kids to suffer! But at the same time, do we really want our sons to learn that they can cry and get out of anything hard? Do we want them to grow up to be men who won’t do anything difficult or uncomfortable?
Last year, we had a situation come up where one of our sons needed to try something new (a new activity). He cried and complained. I told him that we were doing it anyway. The next day (I waited for the crying to stop), I announced that we were still going to try the new thing, but that after the class was over we would go out for donuts if he had participated. He went, he participated, and he even had a good time!
1 Corinthians 16:13 gives a challenge to men. “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”
Notice that this doesn’t say “enjoy violence.” That’s a twist that our culture puts on manliness. But men are commanded to be strong and courageous. There are going to be times when “being a man” requires doing things that are not comfortable. I want my boys to be men who will take on a challenge, and who will give it a good effort without complaining. Not fools who won’t back down even when they know they’re wrong. Not men who use aggression to get their way with the customer service employee at Walmart. But men who are willing to do what’s right and not just what’s fun or at least comfortable.
How can we train our sons for this?
We have the opportunity to help our sons gain the tools they need to solve problems. Are there small ways that you can help your son do something brave, and do it successfully? Can you help your son develop a plan to put into action when he starts getting frustrated with a task so that he can overcome the temptation to give in to whining or sulking?
Practice helps. When my oldest son was 7 or 8, he was terrified of taking the trash out in the dark. At the time, we lived in a house where the outside trash can was about 40 feet from the back door. The entire yard was miniscule. And yet, he was afraid. We allowed him to open the blinds so that more light would shine into the yard, but we did not let him get out of it! And he got better at it. One night when he was 9, he went out in the dark back yard to clean up a big mess that the dog had made with the trash. Dad was gone, and he knew I needed him to do it. I was really proud of him in that moment!
Possible Ways to be Courageous:
(Things to encourage your boys to do, and to praise them for when you see things like these.)
- Standing firm when others are doing the wrong thing.
- Including a child who is usually excluded.
- Trying a new experience.
- Owning up to a mistake.
- Having a conversation with an elderly neighbor.
- Doing a hard job without complaining.
- Helping two people solve a conflict.
For more on raising boys, you might want to check out our Biblical Boyhood series.