What gives a boy good self-esteem? The answer is simple. It’s work. W-O-R-K. Those four little letters strung together add up to big benefits for teen boys.
For the first eight years I practiced therapy, I believed all the books I’d read. I thought teen boys needed a great home life. I thought they needed to believe they were good enough on the inside and the outside. I believed they had to be accepted by their peers. While these things are certainly helpful, where does it leave the boys who don’t have this?
Two years ago I had an eighteen year old boy come in for therapy. This kid had it all in terms of what we think should create high self-esteem in an adolescent. He was a good-looking, popular kid. He had a great family, was talented at sports, and really did believe he was good enough to win anyone’s approval. Why was he unhappy then? It was absolutely baffling to me. We worked and worked. Finally I told this kid he wouldn’t have a good self-esteem, or feel happier until he started taking responsibility for the things in his life. I didn’t mean the emotional things. I meant the really simple things. I told him to start keeping his car clean, pay his cell bill, and buy his own gas. He gave me a sideways look, but then decided he’d try it. He quickly ran out of money though. That’s when everything got better. He got a little part-time job and began to pay his own way. The more of his own things he paid for, the happier he felt. His self-worth began to improve. Then he found a full-time job and began to pay for all his own stuff.
The boy’s parents couldn’t figure out why he was doing this since they were willing to pay for everything. He explained to them that when he paid his own way he felt like a man. He said he felt he could look anyone in the eye and have dignity.
That’s when it dawned on me: Many teen boys today don’t have dignity. For an adolescent male, being able to get up and go to work is defining. It allows them to psychologically transition from a dependent boy to an independent man. Manhood and independence are synonymous. If you are trying to prevent your son from working so that he’ll have more time to focus on school, it’s an admirable thing to do. However, though your intentions are really good, I think it might be a misguided way to help your son.
Your responsibility as a parent is to help your son become a man. You and I agree wholeheartedly that education opens more doors for your son as he becomes an adult. Don’t forget though, your son also needs to have his character shaped. He craves hard work and the associated reward (a paycheck and the dignity of earning his own way). Don’t stand in his way. Even if this slightly slows his educational process down, by the time he graduates college he’ll be far better prepared for the working world. He’ll be more likely to succeed if he’s had just a little bit of time in the trenches. He’ll be more appreciative of his paycheck. He’ll be less entitled out of college, and therefore more able to handle his money. He’ll have a greatly improved understanding of how to get along with people of all stripes. I could list many more benefits than this.
Ever since that epiphany two years ago, this has become a consistent recommendation I make to the parents of the teen boys I see in my counseling office. So, all this to say, if you find your teenage son has low self-worth, consider having him work. I believe it makes a big difference.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT