All parents have their own way of disciplining their children. Some favor gentle correction with few actual consequences, while others take a more heavy-handed approach, yelling perhaps more than they should and instituting strong consequences (punishments, in other words). While an abundance of literature exists supporting each approach, I firmly believe that most boys will turn out the way they turn out, regardless of their parents’ individual parenting styles. Boys from the best families, on both ends of the parenting spectrum, have ended up in prison and/or the Peace Corps. In other words, how a boy is parented (assuming he is parented with love) is not the sole, or even the primary, determinant of what he is like when he grows up.
One thing I think damages a boy regardless of his parents’ approach to raising him is being called “bad.” Most parents who tell their sons that they are bad do not do so with any intention of hurting them deeply or causing long-term harm. Rather, sometimes even in a spirit of love, they sit down with their son and tell him, “You were bad today. Tomorrow will have to be better.” On the face of it, that statement is very innocuous. Every mother of a son will acknowledge that some days are worse, far worse, than others. However, one can convey that message to her son more effectively (over the long term) by avoiding the use of the word “bad.”
So what is the big deal about the word “bad”? How is it all that different from “naughty”? The difference, as I see it, is in emphasizing what a boy is versus what he does. In other words, your son may have done something naughty, but he is not inherently bad. Bad connotes a state-of-being, whereas naughty connotes a temporary condition. While it is fine to say, “You did something bad”, it is not fine to say, “You are bad.”
Occasionally, my son will ask me, crying, “Why am I so bad?” My number one objective at that point is to tell him that he is not bad – that he is, in fact, quite good. His behavior has been bad, or naughty, but he is not bad. Does this difference really mean anything over the long run? I think it does. Children believe what we tell them, and they internalize everything (this is especially true of highly sensitive children). Tell a boy often enough that he is bad, and he will come to believe it. Emphasizing his inherent goodness, while acknowledging his bad behavior, sends quite a different message. It says, “I believe in your ability to do better.” A bad kid is a bad kid, right? Why even bother to try if you know you’re a bad kid?
In so many ways, parenting is a crapshoot. We do our best and hope it all comes out okay in the end. When we have so little control over so many things, it is vital to do what we can to increase the odds that our sons will become responsible and loving adults. Letting your son know often, from a very young age, that you think he is good is one way to tip those scales.