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! Even if the book were an attempt at humor, if it were “Girls are Stupid Throw Rocks at Them!,” a publisher would not even have agreed to publish it and if it did, groups 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 retinue of negative imagery and few male role models. Many boys already 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 only takes reasonable risks? Is he usually kind? Able to fix things? Does he write well? Stay alert for his latent as well as apparent strengths and point them out to your boy. Do it often.
Conversely, 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.