How to Raise Tough and Tender Boys

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He is the snuggliest baby (still!) that I am blessed to parent. He screams when he’s hyper, he defends his sister to the end, he designs outfits in pencil, and he’s learning a powerful kick in Taekwondo. He’s tough and tender all in one amazing human.

Occasionally, I note that there’s a bit of a double standard when it comes to all the sides of a girl we are encouraged to embrace compared to what is acceptable for a boy. Even masculine clothing styles never change, it seems. There is less flexibility as to what is acceptable.

It is a compliment for a little girl to be seen as tough or strong (the stereotypes we associate with boys), but what about the other way around? Is it a compliment for a little boy to be gentle, caring, or petite (complimentary stereotypes for girls)? What is this all about? Why are we afraid to get outside of our “either/or” assumptions about boys, yet we do that all of the time with girls?

What is our fear all about? Why are we projecting that onto our sons?

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It can be a challenge to raise a tough and tender boy to societal standards.

For example, as a society we are impressed when a small and graceful girl is also strong (small but mighty!), but where is that positivity and openness for young boys? Do they get to live with this kind of freedom of expression in the gray areas as well? Choices of hobbies and even clothing is more uniform for boys. It seems they to have to fit inside the box of successful, sporty, or strong.

Boys can be sensitive and tough, not sensitive or tough.

We are missing out on celebrating a vital part of humanity within our tough and tender boys if we only reinforce the tough. Let’s not neglect their tenderness! It is inherent within them, some more than others, and we should be extremely proud as we identify those characteristics in our precious guys.

Think about how much our society as a whole would benefit if the boys we are raising to become men had more of a capacity for empathy and emotional maturity (traits that are more often encouraged and reinforced in girls and complimented in women).

Currently, our culture uses “running like a girl” to place disapproval or shame upon a little boy. I imagine a future in which telling a little boy that he’s doing something “like a girl” isn’t shameful.

Dear Dad editorial seriesOur sons can do and be it all. Let them be emotionally sensitive while they also enjoy wrestling aggressively. Let their less masculine talents be considered wonderful, unique, and celebrated. Kids are so smart and aware of our preconceived judgments about their talents or tendencies. Let them be.

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How do we, as mothers, make different parenting choices to raise tough and tender boys? Here are five intentional actions we take in our home. 

  1. Tell him he is sweet. That word isn’t reserved for young ladies; our young boys are sweet and should hear about it!
  2. Comfort him. It can actually be tempting to comfort young boys less often than we do young girls in an attempt to toughen them up. We avoid that pitfall, because it would surely lead to poorer emotional skills in our son’s future. 
  3. Get as excited about an art creation he has made as we would for a score in sports. What incredible things our sons will do when they know how capable they are creatively! To only get excited about sports successes out of habit belittles their worth. (It also makes me ask: Who exactly are these parents excited for — their child or themselves?)
  4. Teach him emotional regulation. Once he knows how to cry, how to get mad, and how to address big feelings, he will be unstoppable in this world. Regulating our emotions is a great predictor of future successes.
  5. Wrestle, run, sing, teach him to babysit, shoot baskets, bake, and dance with him. Simply do it all. Throwing gender norms out of the window has been helpful for us in raising a strong, confident son who will fearlessly know what he wants out of this life.

I believe both things can and should be true. My son is tender-hearted AND tough as nails. I am a person who sometimes finds truth in the gray areas, and this is an example of that. Let them be all that they are rather than attempt to blunt certain aspects that seem less socially acceptable. Let our sons evolve not only for the betterment of our society and our world, but especially for the betterment of their own beautiful and special lives.

 
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Amber has been married to her college sweetheart from Texas A&M, Kyle, for 11 years. They encountered the difficulty of infertility, and it became the biggest blessing of their lives when it pushed them to pursue adoption. Both of their kids (Willow and Jonas) were born in China and adopted as toddlers; attachment has been a beautiful and unique story with each of them. Amber used to teach and then followed her passion to help children as a school counselor before becoming a mom. Although Amber stays at home with her children now, one day a week she gets to practice play therapy as a licensed professional counselor at Family Connections Counseling in Colleyville. Faith, family, and friends are especially important to Amber. On a day off, you can find her playing games, laughing, reading, talking, sleeping, watching a movie, or enjoying family time outside.

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