When family, friends, and even strangers see your son, is the first thing out of their mouths a comment about his size or strength? While you know they just want to give him a well-meaning compliment, you may wonder how so many people pointing out his stereotypical "manliness" will affect him in the long run.
"First, it's limiting because you're focusing on physical features and making a judgment call about that," says Jill M. Emanuele, Ph.D., senior clinical psychologist and director of training at the Child Mind Institute's Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center. "It could be interpreted by the child that you're defining him as that, therefore that's what his worth or value is."
Plus, while one person saying this type of thing is limiting, multiple people offering similar comments throughout his childhood could suggest it's the only thing that matters about him. "When it becomes harmful is when it's repeated over and over and no emphasis is put on other valuable things about that child," Dr. Emanuele says. "There are so many other things that could be so valuable about the kid: the way he does things, the way he behaves, the way he smiles."
Of course, people aren't trying to harm our kids—they say these sort of appearance-based, gender-stereotyped things because they don't know what else to say. "People aren't taught how to talk to children, and some people aren't comfortable with little kids," Dr. Emanuele says. "They don't really know what to talk about. That's not something that should be judged. It should be something that we practice, [so we can] learn how to talk to them in a different kind of way."
Instead of offering knee-jerk comments about phyiscal appearance, Dr. Emanuele suggests remarking on something the child has control over, like their choices, behaviors, or accomplishments. "Take the gender component out of it to some degree, and more globally give value to the child," she says. "What are they doing, or what behavior can you reinforce so they'll do it more?"
She also suggests using more gender-neutral descriptions and asking the child questions. "For boys, you could say things like, 'I like the way you're smiling at me' or 'Oh, you're showing me your sneakers, do you like those sneakers?' rather than going, 'Oh, those are really manly sneakers,' to a 4-year-old, which is what some people do."
While comments on things like what they're wearing are appearance-based, they reflect the child's choices and personality. "You're not just engaging with them on this superficial level," Dr. Emanuele says. "You're actually engaging with them on a level where you're getting to know them as a person about who they are and what they like."
We asked parents what they wish other people would say to their sons. Check out their ideas below, and then share your own!
"I love it when people comment on my son's manners. Life is about relationships and how you treat people and good old-fashioned manners are very important. For instance, once a retired military man struck up a conversation with my son. I loved that the man complimented Alek on his firm handshake, eye contact, and general politeness." — Kelly Osvath Zamonski
"You're such a bright young man, [I] can't wait to see how you will make a difference in this world!" — @Soozuhn_Ku
"I get both extremes [for my two sons]: 'He is such a big boy' and 'He is tiny.' I wish people would say, 'Your children are beautiful,' or 'You are a lucky mom or dad,' or 'Have fun, you are only a kid once.' My favorite quote I say to my kids and other kids I meet is, 'If you aren't dirty, you aren't having fun.'" — Zoe Ross Thompson
"'You worked so hard to climb that hill!' or 'Do you feel proud when you ride your bike?'" — @bmksu
"It would be nice if my three boys heard compliments that reinforce what I'm trying to teach them, like, 'You are so lucky to have brothers because you know they will always have your back.' I really wish people would say to me, 'Here's a stiff drink,' followed immediately by, 'Let me watch them for a few hours, you go take a nap.'" — Alyson Veit
"'You're such a sweet boy!' Boys can be so sweet, as I've learned since having three." — @BadassMomofBoys
"Most people comment that my newborn is so big and sturdy—or there was our neighbor who looked at him and said, 'Hey, Fatty!'—but I think I liked my grandpa's comment the best: 'He looks like he's going to grow up to be the kind of man who thinks before he speaks.'" — Lauren Matthews Ide
"You are unique the way you are! Do not let people change it.'" — @EklerIlayda
"As mum of 4 boys I say... '[You are] so caring, adventurous, compassionate, generous, enthusiastic,' but also big & strong. I prefer people to identify an actual quality, [rather] than generic terms." — @biscuitboxfox
"You are a kind and compassionate person with a big heart!" — @shiremclendon
"My son is a strong kid who plays lots of sports and likes to show off his muscles. But I like to tell him that he's a good friend with a kind heart, which makes him strong." — Jennifer Morgan Gray
"'You're such a caring human being! Never stop being you!'" — @velezc2