Black Boys and Self-Esteem

As parents, we sometimes aren’t mindful of how we speak to our children. Although we think we’re offering constructive criticism, we may be feeding our son’s inner critic. Children internalize the voices from their parents, teachers and other adults in their lives and start to criticize themselves.

Who is the Inner Critic?

The inner critic is that nagging voice that points out our failures, inadequacies, and our shortcomings. Although disguised as constructive criticism, this inner critic sabotages our best interest. The inner critic undermines our belief in our abilities.

In children, the inner critic tells them that they are not smart enough, good enough, or talented enough to accomplish their goals. Children start to use their inner dialog as a defense mechanism against the world. The truth is that criticism can never be constructive.

According to Merriam -Webster dictionary, the definition of constructive is: promoting improvement or development, while the definition of criticize is: to find fault with: point out the faults of.

So how do we promote development without finding fault? It starts with choosing our words wisely and encouraging self-awareness in our sons about his inner critic.

1. Help your son identify when his inner critic is attacking. Signs of the inner critic are fear, feeling powerless, feeling disappointed or discouraged, feeling tired or sick (such as a belly ache or headache), self blame and lack of motivation. Once your son senses when the inner critic is at play, help him to observe the underlying situation. What is the inner critic telling your son that he can not or should not do? Tell you son to observe what he is feeling physically and emotionally when the inner critic attacks. It might be helpful to have your son write down whatever he is feeling. It could be just one sentence such as: “I am not a good at math.” “My hands get sweaty and my stomach hurts when I have to take a math test.” Have your son do this whenever he notices the inner critic. If your son is under age 7, ask him to draw a picture about what it feels like.

2. Help your son to develop powerful self-talk. Developing powerful self -talk takes time and practice. This is a tool that is useful for parents too! It is very easy for us to name our weaknesses or to recognize our limiting beliefs. However, it takes time for us to identify our strengths and potential. Try this exercise: Ask your son to tell you 5 things he believes is a weakness or something he is not good at. Time how long it take for them to respond. Next, ask him to name his 5 strengths. Time how long it takes for a response again. Most boys who have a healthy self-esteem and practice powerful self talk are able to tell you their strengths much quicker than their weaknesses. You can help your son nurture his strengths by brainstorming on strengths and helping your son to use his strengths more often. Make a list of all the strengths and post it on the wall, where your son can see it on a daily basis.

3. Offer positive feedback. Listen to how your son explains what failure means to him. How does your son react when he fails a test or scores lower than expected? Find out what position your son takes on his accomplishments or failures. Don’t rush to solve the problem or tell your son why he failed. Let him use critical thinking skills to identify what is going on. If you notice your son making excuses or self criticizing, make your son aware of it.

4. Be a role model. Do you have a grasp on your inner critic? Your son notices how you behave when your inner critic attacks. When you are disappointed or have failed at something, talk to your son about it. Be honest with your son about your own inner critic. Notice how you behave when your inner critic attacks and set the example for your son. Let your son see you demonstrating healthy ways of dealing with disappointment.

Marie Roker-Jones is editor of the Raising Boy section of The Good Men Project and the Founder of Raising Great Men™ -Real talk about raising boys to become men of character and What Kind of Man Do You Want to Be.

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“How To Silence Your Son’s Inner Critic: Black Boys and Self-Esteem” appeared originally at
The Good Men Project, and was reprinted with permission.
[Photo credit: “Sharpening Iron” by Afro Dad, via Flickr]
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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I love this post. I’ve always wondered why I myself have criticized myself throughout my life and it seems that I had a little too much incorrect criticism. I think this is a useful read for any father or mother. I certainly will use this for my children and any children I come into contact with as it’s important we give the future generation the right tools to be successful in life.

  2. Wow! This is such a powerful piece.

    I can definitely relate to being a young man and having to deal with my inner critic.

    Thankfully, my mother was able to assist me during those times. I don’t know if she was aware of the things you listed, but she did each of them and continues to be a source of strength and encouragement to this day.

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