I hear it often from parents of middle school boys: “It would be so much easier for my son if he could play sports.”
True. Playing sports is a rite of passage for many boys and the lessons, camaraderie, and thrills brought by being part of a team are priceless. But we do boys a disservice when we glorify sports as the be-all and end-all of popularity. There are lots of ways boys can develop social collateral. Here are just some.
1. Learn to play an instrument. Strike that – a cool instrument. Strike that again. Learn to play cool music on any instrument. We all know that for tween boys, there are no instruments cooler than guitar or drums. Those would be my first two choices for helping a kid earn street cred. But if your boy insists that trombone is his passion, buy him some culturally relevant sheet music. Remember when Casey Abrams played stand up bass on American Idol? That kid could have easily gone in a different direction, but he pulled off cool by playing hot music with swagger. The unexpected instrument actually added to his cool mystique.
2. Make and manage money. Is this any different from our expectations of cool adult men? Boys who know how to make money and how to manage it (i.e. not being overly flashy or trying to buy friendships but being chill enough to spring for a pizza after school) come across as competent leaders. Encourage your son’s earning power by helping him start a small business, teach him to do manual labor over the summer, explain investment, and begin to develop his reliable and hard working persona.
3. Be funny. What is it about a funny guy that’s just so cool? A good sense of humor demands bravery, intelligence, confidence, and a dash of empathy. My husband recently paused a hidden camera show we watch as a family to explain to our kids that the reason the pranks are funny is that no one is being humiliated or teased for the laugh. This is an important point to make with tweens and teens when flexing the good humor muscle.
4. Talk sports. Your son may not be particularly good at playing sports, but he should understand the vocabulary of athletes. Think Jonah Hill as Peter Brand in Money Ball. We only really play team sports for a short time in our lives. As adults, it’s the language of sports that matters most.
5. Know how to fix things. Show your son how to change the oil on your car, repair a flat bike tire, pump gas, replace windshield wipers, use sharp cooking knives to butcher meat, or perform CPR. Working with his hands is an impressive way to build social collateral…and as your boy becomes a teen, car maintenance and repair becomes really cool.
6. Develop strong body language. It’s not that we always notice when boys do this well, but a lack of strong body language can be glaring and spotlight a boy as a social target. Make sure your boy makes eye contact, shakes hands firmly, holds the door, and stands tall. Start young. Also, there are other ways for a boy to be active outside of team sports. Explore them. Break dancing, yoga, hiking, archery, rock climbing…anything to help your boy learn how to enjoy being a physical person.
7. Be “the man” at one thing. I bet we all know someone who earned peer approval for being really good (as in the best) at something notoriously dorky. In my high school there was a boy so into student government he carried a brief case instead of a backpack. At first the kids balked and teased, but he was relentless in his love for politics and eventually the class rallied around him. Help your son find his thing and do everything you can to support him as he leans into that obsession. Enter competitions, win some ribbons, get some hardware to show that you’re the best. Winning is definitely a valuable social currency.
What did I miss? What ways have you seen (outside of sports) for boys to be perceived as cool by their peers?
Michelle is our resident middle school expert. Please visit her website www.MichelleintheMiddle.com and hang out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/middleschoolrelief.
Great article! There often times is the pressure for boys to excel in athletics. There are so many other activities for them to participate in – thanks for bringing up some here!
Thank you Jen! Even for boys who are good at sports it’s all about balance with other parts of life 🙂
I was a sucker for slightly alternative boys in middle school, the ones who knew cool alternative bands and made me mix tapes. Even the boys who skied or snowboarded or skateboarded caught my eye. They had style and a passion for something and that is always cool!
Lisa, I agree. Having a passion is always seen as desirable. Plus there is something very cool about owning being on the fringe. Very “The Outsiders” or “Footloose”…
I really love your posts, always so thought provoking and just good “stuff”!! I have three boys and one girl- my boys do not like baseball or soccer like most of their friends, they race bikes- BMX and love it! They are only in elementary school right now, so we don’t have alot of worries about fitting in yet, but having something that they love and enjoy talking about has helped them to open up. My oldest boy is really shy and quiet in school until his teacher realized that he loved to talk about BMX so now she asks him about it all the time and he has finally opened up to her.
Jennifer – I love hearing that your son’s teacher is wise enough to engage him on his BMX interests. (PS: How cool is that? BMX biking is definitely cool guy material!) Sometimes our culture is trained to think of team sports as the ultimate, but the risk and technique involved in other sports like BMX is undeniable. Thanks of your comment! – M
I was never into the sporty boys, I liked the ones who surfed. Helped that I was in Florida! I really like the guitar suggestion, nothing cooler than that!
Jen, you totally look like a surfer chic! PS: That would have been my vibe, too. Add guitar on the beach, instant crush.
As a mom to 3 boys, i LOVED this article. sharing this w/ all my boy-mom friends. thank you, michelle!!
Brooke, what a nice comment! Thank you! Hopefully I’ll see you and your friends around my FB page – http://www.facebook.com/middleschoolrelief Take care!
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