redefining words

5 Words We Need to Redefine for Our Sons

When my son was born, I realized pretty quickly that there were words I used thoughtlessly that needed some redefinition. When he would toddle around and bump his head, I’d try to distract him, to get him to stop crying, by picking him up and tossing him in the air while telling him he was a “tough guy.” At the same time, I was working with young men in campus ministry and I’d find myself frustrated with how little they empathized with others. Then it hit me—maybe a key to empathy is being comfortable with your own feelings. If so, defining “tough” as “non-emotional” isn’t the best strategy for raising a healthy young man.

Sometimes words carry cultural baggage that creates barriers, making it difficult for kids to understand what it means to live well. Redefining words is a critical skill for parents. In fact, redefining words helps our kids see the world more clearly. Here are 5 words we need to redefine for our sons.

The biggest challenges are only brought down by the strongest character.

1. Tough

Our sons often think being tough means having muscles (idealized by people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and the ability to win in a fight. But the most challenging things we face in life aren’t bested by physical strength. The biggest challenges are only brought down by the strongest character.

Redefining tough: Perseverance and vulnerability through difficult times. This strength isn’t acquired in a gym, but as we do the hard work of pushing through adversity and asking for help when we need it.

2. Love

Our sons often think love is something you experience with a woman you’re attracted to. This involves hugging, kissing, hand-holding, and sex.

Redefining love: Putting the needs of another ahead of your own. Serving others out of a desire for them to flourish. This has nothing to do with your level of physical attraction to someone.

3. Beauty

Our sons often think beauty means the body shape and physical appearance of a woman. This is, of course, very narrowly defined.

Redefining beauty: The moral character and quality of a person. Of course, we don’t want to pretend like our sons won’t find particular people more physically attractive than others. But we want to cultivate a value for something much deeper than physical appearance.

4. Friendship

Our sons often think friendships are relationships with people like me and that they’re for kids and teens but are not essential for adult men. This assumption is based largely on their experience watching us, their dads.

Redefining friendship: People outside our nuclear family with whom we share the joys and sorrows of life. Those we show up for and who show up for us. (We redefine this for our sons not simply by talking to them about it but by modeling it in our own lives.)

5. Neighbor

Our sons often think neighbor means people who live next to me or on my street. My neighbors are similar to me in most ways.

Redefining neighbor: Any person I come upon who is in need of help, regardless of how similar to or different from me they are. Certainly, these people can live next door, but they often do not.

If we are intentional about redefining words for our sons, we can help them better understand the meaning of another poorly defined word: Man.

Sound off: What words would you add to this list? How might you redefine them?

Huddle up with your son and ask him what he thinks these words mean.