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Key phrases for raising kind + empathetic sons

To me, my toddler son is the most special thing in the universe, and his intelligent little mind blows me away. That’s probably why I tell him he’s “so special” all the time. For a long time, it was pretty much my go-to compliment for him, along with “you’re so smart.” (What can I say? I’m a proud mama.)


I honestly feel like my son is special and smart, but recently I’ve been making a big effort to add to my compliment repertoire because research suggests that when I call my son “my special boy” I’m planting the seeds for an attitude of entitlement—and I am so not trying to raise an entitled dude.

Before I found out I was going to be a #boymom, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could bring up my baby (my presumed daughter) to actually be a little bit entitled—to take up space and claim the world for herself. When I found out I was having a boy, my goals changed.

Let’s face it, some things are going to be easier for my son than they would be for a girl. He won’t need to claim as many things, because the world already gives them to him. If I’d had a daughter I’d be raising her to elbow her way to a seat on the train, but I want my son to be the guy on the train who gives up his seat to a pregnant woman, not the manspreader taking up two spots.

I want him to be that kind of special man, so I’m trying not to tell he he’s special right now.

What I’m doing instead

1. Avoiding ‘special’ for now

According to Dr. Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, telling kids they’re super special all the time teaches them that they “deserve something extra in life” and isn’t good for them or society.

He says it doesn’t actually create self-esteem in kids, but is associated with higher levels of narcissism. Parental warmth on the other hand, is associated with high self-esteem. These days, I’m trying to show my son how special I think he is, rather than tell him.

Instead of calling him “my special boy” I’m cranking up the hugs, the one-on-one time, and using language that reflects the values I’m hoping to instill in him, like empathy and kindness.

2. “You’re a kind kid”

Bushman’s research shows us that our kids believe what we tell them, and I want my son to believe in his own capacity for kindness, so I tell him he has it in him and let him show me he does.

Experts at Harvard recommend parents prioritize caring as much as academic skills. At 2 years old, my son’s not much into academics yet, but as I mentioned, I do have a tendency to emphasize how smart he is. I’m chilling out on that, and following the advice of Harvard researchers and providing my son with daily opportunities to practice kind acts.

At two, kind acts are pretty small. Dump the dog’s kibble in the bowl, wave goodbye to your playschool teacher, thank Auntie for the cookie. It’s all small stuff, but when he does something nice, I make sure I tell him so.

3. “Thanks for being gentle”

My 2-year-old boy is the definition of rough and tumble. His favorite games include making his dinosaurs fight, throwing things out of the toy box and anything involving wrestling. He also has a gentle side though, and according to the American Psychological Association thanking him for being gentle (and reminding him to be when he’s not) is a good way to teach it.

When my son gently pets our cat, or hugs his cousin instead of taking him down like a wrestler, I give him a compliment because he deserves it.

4. “You’re really trying hard”

I feel like my kid is super smart, but I don’t want him to think he’s too smart to try or that I expect him to know everything. That’s why I’m trying to focus less on smarts and more on effort. The schools in our neighbourhood are getting into the concept of the growth mindset, so I’m trying to instill that idea in my son before we get to kindergarten.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University explains that “in a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that.”

According to Dweck, when kids believe their intelligence or other traits are fixed “every situation calls for a confirmation of intelligence, personality, or character.” So if I’m telling my son he’s super smart all the time, I might be setting him up for some really hard times if he’s ever in a situation where he doesn’t feel so smart.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, teaches kids that abilities—academic and otherwise—can be developed through practice. So, instead of telling my son he’s smart all the time, I’m making an effort to tell him that he’s good at trying hard. Putting the crayons back in the box might be frustrating, but if we practice enough, we can do it.

Above all, being loved is more important than being special

When I tell my son he’s “special” what I really mean is that he’s precious to me, so that’s what I’m telling him these days. I’m trying to let him know that he is so loved and that my love doesn’t depend on him being unique or smart. I mean, he may be special to me but in the grand scheme of things he’s probably actually a very ordinary toddler—and that’s okay because I’m a pretty ordinary mom. We can be ordinary (and caring and empathetic and gentle) together.

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