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It is a warm and beautiful Saturday afternoon. You decide to take your 5-year-old son for a walk in the neighborhood park. After a couple of hours, you head back home. Once his hands and face are washed, you go into the kitchen to prepare a snack for the two of you. Shortly after, your son walks into the kitchen, reaches into his pocket and says, “Hey mom, you want to see this big fat worm I found outside?” You look at his hand and see a long, fleshy, squirming brown worm. And because you were not raised like some of those “weird nature people” your brain freezes for a second, which is just enough time for your son to accidently drop the squirming worm much too close to your bare feet.  As you frantically attempt to move away from the worm’s blood-thirsty teeth, in the angriest voice you can find you scream, “Bad Boy! Pick that thing up, and take it back outside where it belongs…worms don’t belong in the house.” Your son drops his head, walks slowly over to the worm, picks him up, and walks sadly out of the kitchen.

What just happened here? Is this story really about a worm in a kitchen? While this might be the subplot, it is mainly about a boy and the early development of his social emotional intelligence. It is about how mothers, fathers and other caregivers in our society routinely, if often unintentionally, damage our boys’ social emotional lives in their early years.

How does this simple story demonstrate all of this? Glad you asked. Let’s start with school, and what we now know from the sciences about how children learn. 

Despite what we have been taught to believe for the past five hundred years, the latest scientific research tells us that social emotional development is the foundation of all human learning.  As one researcher puts it, “We feel, therefore we learn.”

Parents and other caregivers should be mindful of this important message when it comes to where and how to educate our young boys.

This is especially true because some scientists who study the human brain believe boys social emotional maturity lags behind girls, and possibly contributes to what is called the “male literacy gap.” A term that highlights the fact that for a very long time girls tend to be more successful in reading and writing than boys. 

Important differences in academic achievement also show up in special education classrooms, where boys sometimes make up more than 80% of the referrals. A challenge particularly plaguing Black and Brown young boys of low-income and low-resource homes, schools, and communities. Where many children suffer from the pain of intergenerational trauma.

However, I maintain that it is in our homes where the damage is more keenly felt and lasting.  For a variety of unresolved social reasons, our society has to work harder to avoid labeling harmless, curious, and natural things boys do as “bad.”  As this point relates to our worm story, of course many boys (and girls) love worms, and love to play and learn in surroundings where worms live and play. Solid research also says when we cultivate these learning spaces for our children it enhances their:

  • self-esteem
  • and self-confidence.  

Good feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence:

  • deepen a boy’s understanding of himself,
  • enhance his relationship with his parents, teachers, and other children,
  • and drive learning by coordinating and balancing his brain.

With this information, let us revisit the story. What if after hearing her son excitedly share the presence of the worm, mom was able to control her emotions of fear and impending doom. What if she instead said, “what a big worm! You found him all by yourself...what a big brave boy.”  Of course still jittery, she goes on to say, “you know this beautiful worm’s mommy is probably somewhere out there looking and crying for her baby, you think we should go back to the park to return him?”

It is important that moms know social emotional intelligence is more than what’s in books and on standardized tests. Instead, it speaks to the experiences, such as these, that shapes a child for a lifetime.


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