I’ve been writing an advice column for years. Lately, I’ve been receiving more and more letters from boys who feel bad about themselves, who are depressed that the only friends they have are online, and who feel directionless.
Some aren’t doing well in school and don’t have goals for the future. Others keep up with their schoolwork but wonder whether there is any point to it.
They complain that their parents are angry with them for playing video games and being constantly online. They are angry that their parents can’t seem to offer any real help. Many of them talk about having low self-esteem.
The notion that boys as well as girls are suffering from low self-esteem runs counter to the conventional wisdom. It all started with a 1995 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that reported that educational bias results in girls having lower self-images than boys. That started a wave of books and articles about how girls lose their voice in adolescence.
Many school systems instituted corrective measures. Even the Girl Scouts got involved. In 2002, they established a program to “address the critical nationwide problem of low self-esteem among girls.” The only problem with that AAUW study is that it isn’t valid!
Current research shows that the differences in scores on tests of self-esteem between the genders is actually very small. In fact, in an analysis of several hundred studies of men and women, boys and girls, ages 7 – 60, the males came up with only slightly better scores. In still another overview study of 115 studies, researchers did not find gender differences in self-esteem. Those who accepted that only girls question their self-worth apparently were overly impressed by the swagger of the boys who seemed to be making it and missed the boys who retreated to their rooms and all-night video gaming. Yes, the girls do have self-esteem issues during adolescence. But so do the boys. The letters I receive only confirm it: Adolescence is hard on kids — boys and girls alike.
Do Good to Feel Good
The most important principle for building self-esteem is this: Feeling good about the self comes from doing something to feel good about. Positive self-esteem has to be based in doing real and worthwhile things. Adult reassurance that he’s special doesn’t add up to much if a guy knows he hasn’t done anything to earn it. Wishing that somehow he would wake up tomorrow feeling better about himself won’t help either.
Our boys need to be involved in activities that are meaningful and that keep them involved with other kids who are constructively occupied. Teenage boys need their parents to keep actively parenting even though they may be bigger, speak in grunts, and would just as soon keep us on the fringes of their lives. Don’t buy it. They may be as big as adults but their values are still developing and their self-esteem is still gelling. Yes, we need to start letting go but we also need to continue to provide some limits and guidance while they finish their growing. Here are five ideas to help boys come through their teen years with their self-esteem intact: