Career Tips for Boys' Parents: Toward Moderate Self-Esteem

Part I of a four-part series of career advice for boys and men.

Posted Sep 26, 2015

The Photographer, Public Domain
Source: The Photographer, Public Domain

Today's boys are struggling:

Recent years have seen an avalanche of career advice for girls and women. That appropriately recognizes that advice for females isn't necessarily the same as for males.

In that spirit, here is the first of three articles on how parents might help set the stage for their boys' career success. Of course, some of the advice will be applicable to girls. I'll conclude the series with an article with career advice for men.

The primacy of MODERATE self-esteem

If a boy's self-esteem is too low, he can't envision a significant career goal let alone be motivated to do the work to achieve it. On the other hand, too-high self-esteem risks complacency or the unrealistic belief he could do anything---Not everyone has a realistic shot of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or astronaut. Self-esteem should be just high enough to engender the sense that, with effort, there's a range of rewarding careers in which he could succeed.

Alas, it's harder than in previous generations for boys to acquire even moderate self-esteem. When I started out as a career counselor 30 years ago, my male and female clients were equally confident in themselves. Today, my female clients are, on average, more confident.

That's understandable. Disproportionately, today's boys get messages that female is good, male is bad. For example, I just googled the terms "Girls Rock" and "Boys Rock." There are 300% as many listings for "Girls Rock." There even are books and posters that explicitly encourage girls to be violent against boys. For example, most books go out of print in a couple years but the book and poster,  published by Workman, a major publisher, "Boys are Stupid. Throw Rocks at Them!" remains in print a decade after publication!  That spawned a line of tee shirts of the same title, available in 10 colors!. Even if the book were an attempt at humor, if it were "Girls are Stupid. Throw Rocks at Them!," a publisher wouldn't  even have agreed to publish it and if it did, feminist groups and their media friends would immediately demand it be pulled from the shelves.

Of course, books, posters, and tee shirts in themselves won't destroy a boy's self-esteem. What increases the risk is a boy who is already vulnerable and then experiences a daily curriculum that accentuates the contributions of females from Sacajawea to Sally Ride and the evils of men from Hannibal to Hitler to Timothy McVeigh. Then add the continual stream of TV shows, commercials, and movies that disproportionately show a spunky female putting a male in his place  For example, think of all the blockbuster kid movies of the past two decades, for example: Matilda, Frozen, Hairspray, Hunger Games, Twilight Saga, Brave, Malifcent, Mulan, and the Little Mermaid, plus the most popular musicals of all time: The Sound of Music, Annie, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof, in which the father's daughters win every encounter with him, forcing him to abandon his most deeply held value, tradition.

So, many boys think they're inferior. That mindset is unlikely to open them to a reasonable range of career opportunities. So parents might want to do one or more of the following:

  • Identify and frequently remind him of his strengths. Is he bold yet fair and taking of only reasonable risks? Is he usually kind? Able to fix things?  Does he write well?  Do stay alert for his latent as well as apparent strengths and point them out to your boy. Do it often.
  • That said, praising trivial accomplishments and excessively tolerating bad behavior leads to the aforementioned too-high self-esteem. Limit praise to legitimately praise-worthy behavior. Of course, do set limits and issue criticisms as appropriate, although corporal punishment is a no-no--That teaches that an acceptable response to bad behavior is violence.
  • Keep on the lookout for boy-friendly teachers at your son's school. Perhaps visit classrooms and ask parents of boys at your child's school. 87 percent of elementary school teachers are women, among the highest percentage in the world, so you may not have a high-quality male teacher to vie for. But female teachers vary in how well they treat boys: Do they allow for plenty of movement: Active boys have a harder time sitting all day than do many girls. They may prefer reading about insects and monsters more than do girls. They may like plot-driven stories of adventure and heroism more than talky books about relationships between girls who are clearly superior to the male protagonist. Does the teacher accept a measure of "hyperactivity" or is she too quick to refer the child to the principal or to a physician for Ritalin?
  • Encourage your child to pursue extracurricular activities that are respectful of boys'--especially your boy's--ways of being. Sure, for some boys, that's sports and roughhousing but if your boy is, for example, artistic or bookish, of course, respect that. After school, some boys would rather read a book, draw pictures, or yes, watch TV or play a video game. In moderation, there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, recent research finds that video games yield a surprising array of learning and personal development gains.

It's long been argued that role models portrayed on TV and in movies affect kids. So boys need to see positive role models in the media, especially since their teachers will overwhelmingly be female. So....

  • Show your boy books with positive male protagonists. PBS has assembled this list, "Best Books for Boys"  It offers many types of model boys, not just athletes, soldiers, etc. nor just hyper-feminized types.

Do remember that even as boys get beyond the traditional age when parents read aloud to kids, your 6 to 10 year old may still enjoy it, and it's a parent-child bonding experience.

  • Similarly, encourage your child to watch TV shows and movies that present positive boy and men protagonists, who demonstrate heroism, prudent risk-taking, and drive, used to admirable ends. Alas, there is a dearth of recent such movies so I've had to dig into the archive. Fortunately, all are available on NetFlix, Amazon Instant Video, etc: Back to the Future, Home Alone, Dead Poets Society, ET, Field of Dreams,The Black Stallion, The Great Escape, James and the Giant Peach, It's a Wonderful Life, The Lion King, Rocky, Big, The Red Balloon, Rudy, and the first Harry Potter movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Helping your child acquire reasonable but not excessive self-esteem lays the foundation for a thoughtful, fair-minded exploration of career options. Part 2 in this series shows parents how to facilitate that exploration..

Marty Nemko is a career counselor and on the Coalition to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men. His bio is in Wikipedia.