A couple of weeks ago, Ladue News editor Trish Muyco-Tobin emailed me a thought-provoking question: In today’s society, what does it mean to be tough? And, in particular, what does this mean for our children? As the father of two boys, these questions hit home. I want my children to be resilient, but I also don’t want them to be arrogant.

Teaching boys (and girls) that being tough doesn’t mean being antagonistic, belligerent or hostile can be a challenge. Violence and aggression perpetuate popular culture through movies, songs, TV, ‘celebs’ who abuse their significant others, and athletes involved in random acts of aggression. I want my boys to grow up to be good men, but the fast pace of today’s society means exposure to poor examples of masculinity constantly are on display.

Children look up to famous people—and more and more, these ‘noteworthy’ individuals are engaging and encouraging negative behaviors. Fortunately, parents—as cliché as it sounds—are the most important role models that kids have. However, teaching our offspring is not just about being present; it is a constant process of mentoring and connecting that creates an intrinsic desire in a young boy to be the type of man his parents want him to be.

There is enormous social pressure for young boys to act like mature men. Children learn at a young age that expressing emotions can make them the target of bullies. And being ‘cool’ also can make one the envy of their peers. Manly behaviors, unfortunately, do not necessarily promote masculinity. Instead, false bravado can serve to mask fear and pain, leaving kids alone to deal with difficult emotions. Children who do not understand their feelings often have future mental health issues and engage in self-destructive behaviors.

One of the most productive ways to teach your child about managing emotions is to ask how he is feeling. Being stoic is an admirable quality, but it also can lead to feelings of shame and insecurity. Kids tend to focus on the problem and not the sentiment surrounding the situation. Coaxing children into conversations can assist with easing the hurt and understanding that things always will improve.

As parents learn what is troubling their child, there is a natural tendency to want to fix the situation. This does not thicken the skin; instead, it creates a passive, dependent child who overly relies on the adults in their life. Discuss solutions, but let your son make his own decisions. As painful as it may be for both parents and child, sometimes, life’s best lessons are learned the hard way.

Unfortunately, every child will experience emotional turmoil as he matures. A boy who believes that he is capable, however, can handle most any situation. Build your child’s self-confidence with realistic praise that focuses on effort and achievement. Kids feel more accomplished when applauded for their hard work and true success, rather than when given a hollow compliment. Telling your child that he is the smartest kid in the world—or even in his class—develops false expectations and sets an impossible standard to meet (and, most likely, isn’t true).

Kids also should build a loyal support network by understanding how to identify which of their peers are true friends and which are unhealthy relationships. Loyal, compassionate and respectful kids support each other even when times are tough. They stand up for what is right and rarely back down. These qualities promote strength and determination, and that is what being tough truly means.

Children who are emotionally resilient truly are happier. They are less likely to be bullied and will work hard to overcome most challenges. Being courageous, however, does not mean being emotionless. At some point, all kids will experience hurt. And while ‘sucking it up’ has its place, sometimes letting it out can be empowering.

Read all of Dr. Hyken’s informative writings here

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