It’s unfortunate how well I can recall the moment a freckle-faced boy in primary school pulled my pigtails and let out a cruel laugh. “He picks on you because he likes you,” my mother told me when I recounted the eye-watering moment, frustration making my voice shake.
At 18, my first boyfriend cheated on me with a close friend of mine (trust me: I’ve made better decisions in my love life since then). “Boys will be boys,” Mum responded mechanically as I cried on her shoulder.
Fast forward some years and I’m looking back on the sweet moment my father said to me, “You can be anything you want to be” with an elaborate eye-roll.
Sure, it was a nice, if not empowering sentiment when I was seven years old, but, as child psychologist Collett Smart asserts, what we say to our kids has the power to shape their views and expectations - and not always for the better.
From excusing bad behaviour to stunting emotional growth, the below sayings – all of which you’ve definitely heard, if not said before – can have a seriously negative impact on your child’s life.
Here, Smart explains why...
"Man up/Be a man"
There are certainly times in a young man’s life that he needs to begin taking responsibility for his decisions and actions. However, telling a boy to ‘man up’ has often been used when a boy or male teen showed emotion.
The implication was that ‘boys don’t cry’ or men don’t show emotion, so they should ‘suck it up’, suppress the emotion and get on with whatever they were doing.
This is dangerous and destructive when used in this manner, as it assumes that boys or men shouldn’t be emotional, and when this happens, it seems the only ‘acceptable’ form of emotion is often anger or aggression.
Former Playschool host Noni Hazlehurst put it best when she said to her sons: “You are not special; you’re unique but you’re not special – because if you’re special then someone else isn’t.”
We can certainly tell our children they are special TO US, but implying that your child is most special or more special than others may set them up to fail.
They could either become exceptionally unkind adults who don’t recognise others’ gifts, or they may be crushed when they discover there are other people in the world better than them in many areas in life.
It’s not that we shouldn’t acknowledge our children or be proud when they succeed, but I generally prefer to praise the process or praise the genuine effort children have put in to study, sport, flute practice and being kind or helpful.
“You throw like a girl”
If we think about it, we’ve never heard a coach say, ‘Wow, you threw like a girl!’ and he meant ‘Wow – what a fantastic throw – great job!’.
'You throw like a girl’ is a term that is used as an insult. It’s often said between boys and implies that the way he performs an action is done poorly.
Not only that, it implies weakness and sends the indirect message that girls aren’t very good (usually at sport).
"He/She is mean to you because they like you"
This saying makes ‘hurting’ an acceptable form of gaining attention. It’s important to teach boys that girls are not mysterious or weird, and vice versa.
Teach that hitting or pinching a girl is never a way of telling her he likes her. Teach him how to properly communicate affection with kind words and gestures.
“You can be anything you want to be!”
While this is often said with good intentions, the worry is that it can set children up for failure.
No-one can be ANYTHING they want to be, especially by just wanting it. Most things take a great deal of effort, hard work and skill.
Many, many young children would like to be an Australian sports star, but very few will get there. That’s not cruel – it’s just life.
Children need to see value in helping others, being kind, doing something they enjoy – things that don’t always get public accolades.
“You sound like The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
It’s OK to gently explain to children that they need to be careful that if they keep saying they are hurt when they are not, that it could cause adults not to come to their aid in an emergency, or when it is really necessary.
Not only that, but a parents need to dig deeper to try to find out what is behind this need to embellish stories. If your child keeps going to Sick Bay, or saying they're hurt, there is often an underlying reason for this.
"Boys will be boys"
Unfortunately, this term is also often used to excuse little boys when they physically or emotionally hurt each other or hurt girls, and this is never ok.
Many boys are more fidgety and physically active than girls at younger ages. Some of this is partly due to the different stages in which boys and girls develop, but I must add that the brain is not so different in boys and girls at we once thought.
We do know, however, that there are different rates at which their brains and bodies develop.
So, when we see a backlash against the term ‘boys will be boys’ it’s not denying some of the developmental differences, it’s a reaction to the way the term has been used to excuse poor behaviour.
As Smart reminds us, just talking with our kids can give them clarity, and help them see through these erroneous messages.