How not to raise an “alpha male”

Family/Kids, NakedLaw, Opinion, Relationships

You gaze out the window to make sure the neighborhood is still standing and see all of the neighborhood kids in your front yard. Then you realize that your 7-year-old son is leading the group, which includes kids three to four years older, as they prepare for another epic Nerf gun war.

Yep, the older kids are taking orders from someone who’s a foot shorter, wearing a SpongeBob t-shirt, and has the body language of a young General Patton. Well, if Patton had a blue Otter Pop melting in his back pocket. I suppose I should be thankful he’s not out starting fight clubs.

I’ve tried to raise all my kids with similar values (who has time to do anything else?), but somehow he turned out a little different, an experience I’m sure other parents have had. He’s an unusual kid who both frustrates and amazes me. While the other kids skip or shuffle at school, he walks with notable swagger. It’s already very clear to me he has strong leadership qualities—even if he’s only in grade school. But the kid is also a handful. His self-confidence can blind him to other people’s feelings and he often doesn’t lose with grace. So I keep asking myself: how do I work with him so that he doesn’t turn into the dreaded (by me, anyway) “alpha male”?

The term “alpha male” means different things to different people (and to be clear, your daughter can also have the below qualities, but as I am focusing on my son, I’m going to stick with the “alpha male” terminology, despite its gender-exclusivity). defines him as “the most dominant, powerful, or assertive man in a particular group.” It originally comes from describing the most powerful male in the animal kingdom.

Typically, the alpha male is highly organized, competitive to a fault, and the kind of person who inevitably either does great things or turns into a raging bully. Or both.

While most commonly associated with the business world, the alpha male’s habitat extends far beyond that realm; they’re everywhere. You find them in every sport, at school, in tech companies, or selling you a new car. We’ve seen a lot of them in politics lately, and none of us want to be responsible for raising one of those.

Being an assertive leader who works hard for a goal can be a great thing, but being a bully who runs over anyone or anything in their path is not. My own little leader is a force of nature. I sometimes worry that he’s going to blow through life not realizing how others feel and taking over any situation he walks into.

To make sure I’m raising a strong person and not a boorish jerk, I’m focusing on trying to harness and direct his inner drive for leadership. Here are five ways to accomplish that while keeping his more humane traits from falling by the wayside:

1) Teach empathy

Not sympathy (although that would be nice too), but empathy. He needs to understand and empathize with people and what they’re going through to become a driven, successful person who is also thoughtful and human. One way of teaching empathy, according to child psychologist Lawrence Kutner of the Harvard Medical School, is when something unfortunate happens to another person, ask your child if anything like that has ever happened to them. Then ask how that made them feel. When they make that connection, they begin to understand how others feel, and become less likely to join a “men’s rights” movement.

2) Develop listening skills

This is important for everyone, but crucial in this case because typically, when you’re talking to my son, he’s not listening. He’s preparing his onslaught of a rebuttal and poking holes in your story, whether they’re valid or not. People who don’t listen often end up destroying relationships, projects, jobs, and other people’s nerves. By learning listening skills, he can develop relationship skills that will help him in every phase of life, and learn from people he would have otherwise dismissed too hastily.

3) Praise hard work, downplay outcome

Use caution when praising the results of whatever he’s accomplished. Praise the hard work, the pride he feels, and how he elevated others. But if you focus only on the “win,” that’s what he’ll focus on too. The authors of the parenting book, NutureShock, found that parents who praise kids for being smart negatively influenced children’s future performance, because the kids start thinking that they don’t have to work as hard. Praise the hard work.

4) Get him on a team

Individual sports are great, but my son already has the drive, so I make sure he’s also participating in a team activity. A sport where one person can’t dominate the game—like football, soccer, and lacrosse—help participants learn teamwork, selflessness, and the value of sacrificing individual achievement in favor of team goals. Ross Morrison, an educational sports expert, explained it perfectly when he said that when you play a team sport, you learn that success doesn’t just come down to the best player (much like life).

And it doesn’t have to be all about sports; it could be debate or another activity where he has to lean on others. Learning to depend on other humans and be part of a successful team instead of a “one-man show” teaches lifelong lessons.

5) “Help someone today”

When dropping my son off at school every day, the last thing I say is, “Make sure to help someone today.” Just hearing that statement over and over has helped him become more aware of those who do need help—whether it’s at recess, with school work, or getting picked on by other kids. I don’t ask for the result all the time, but when I do, I’ve found that it’s working.

You could say it’s important to teach these five lessons to any child and you’d be right, but they matter even more to the kind of children who are already hardwired with an overabundance of drive and self-confidence.

If my kid can develop these skills today, we’ll all be in good hands when he takes over the world tomorrow.