I have had very little experience of being a girl, but I have been a boy for a long time, and so I thought I would share a few scattered insights into what I have discovered to be particularly useful about myself and my fellow boys. By the way, don’t be deceived by the receding hairlines and business shirts – you don’t have to peel back many layers of your typical bloke before you discover there is still a boy inside. Things that peel back those layers include motorbikes, flames, sport and I’ll end the list here as my wife will be reading this.
I have already dropped into using stereotypes, and some stereotypes are just plain wrong, especially the ones based on Tom Sawyer and beer commercials. An article on boys has to deal with generalities and features common to many boys, but it may not describe your lad at all well. Boys are different from girls, definitely, but boys are also very different from each other, and should be encouraged to be. Sometimes parents (dads especially?) see masculine stereotypes as being some sort of code for our boys, something they have to follow to be true men – don’t show emotion, winning fights proves your masculinity, work hard, protect women etc. Not all negative, but probably not all that helpful. Stereotypes can be descriptive, but they shouldn’t be prescriptive.
One of the stereotypes is that boys are basically cavemen. They may pong at times and have feral manners, they might fight and do reckless dangerous things, but don’t assume that boys are insensitive, empty-headed and only have three basic emotions – mad, glad and sad. Parents sometimes confuse an inability to communicate with nothing to communicate. Girls are definitely streets ahead of boys, communication-wise – they acquire language earlier and maintain that advantage. They have a much better vocabulary whereas boys like me are just, “Yunno, thingy”.
There is a lot going on in their heads, but they have neither the words to describe it, nor a repertoire of behaviours to express it appropriately. A boy might feel confused, alienated, conflicted, passionate – and yet it all might look like anger to an observer. A boy might appear distressed but be unable to tell you why – but there’s the clue right in front of you: he appears upset. Read your boy’s body language and demeanour. The way he walks, the set of his shoulders, the clouds that cross his expression – these are seldom meaningless. He might not be able to make the right words, and he might not be ready to absorb many of your words yet either, so use the same non-verbal language he is using – use your closeness, your hugs and you accepting expression to communicate your care and concern.
There are other clues about his internal world as well. For example, you can deduce a lot about how he thinks about himself by the friends he chooses to hang out with. His self-esteem determines whom he gravitates towards. If your boy tends to hang out with confident boys who are full of drive, then that is how he sees himself. Likewise, if he tends to associate more with boys who retire to the background, that could be an insight into his self-esteem as well.
Some lines of questioning may lock boys up even more. “Why?” questions are particularly useless. “Why did you go on the internet when I told you not to?” “Why did you hit your brother?” The right answer to questions like that is, of course, “Dunno”. Similarly, asking a boy how he feels is likely to be fruitless. Instead, parenting guru Michael Grose suggests asking them what they think instead. Ask a boy for his opinion about something and you will usually get some pretty clear insights into what he is feeling.
What motivated me as a boy? The same thing as every other boy – a desperate desire to be liked and approved. When a boy has a cheering team (even if it only has one person in it) he does so much better. He will notice that you came to his school concert, and even though he never seems to look at you from the stage, he will notice if you listened to every piece or got bored and read emails on your phone. It is an incredible tonic knowing that he matters to you and you take an interest in him, but don’t expect him to know how to express that. In fact he might even act embarrassed by you afterwards as you are exiting with all the other parents and kids, and tell you off for taking too many pictures or clapping too loudly. Many boys are conflicted – they love to be honoured by you but hate to stand out in any way as different from their mates. I remember at least two parents mentioning how their boys were doing really well at school, until they received some prize or recognition at an assembly. They were so embarrassed their performance fell right back. ‘It’s cool to be a fool’ is still part of the culture for many boys.
Boys love the respect and favour of older guys and men. This can be great – if they are good role models and mentors, your boys will ‘download the software’ to be a good man from them. I think that it is great that most boys stay in school until they are 18 to get a good education, but it does delay the time when they meet and work alongside older men until much later in their lives. Their world is full of similarly-aged peers and I think it is delaying the maturation and character development of our young men. My recommendation is that you engineer opportunities for your boys to interact with good men. As a young teenager, I can remember when my dad took me away on a fishing trip with his mates. I thought they were a bit of a boring bunch of old guys, but I did feel so grown up going away with the men, and grateful that my dad gave me that experience. Involve them in the communities you interact with. Take them to your workplace. Get them involved in sports, social and hobby clubs. Have parties at your place and, instead of letting them hide on their Playstation, get them involved taking around refreshments and food. Draw them into conversations with your friends and ask their opinions.
Be clear on this too – older males can have powerfully negative influence on your young boys as well. Older boys are a common feature in younger boys being introduced to drugs and alcohol, porn and other mischief. Sometimes the boys most vulnerable to negative influences are boys who have difficulty fitting in with their peers, and will do anything to be accepted. A huge part of parenting is shepherding the influences in our kids’ lives and keeping our supervision and instincts switched on.
That desire to be liked has been linked to why boys under-perform at school. A simple and not surprising fact is that teachers prefer girls. Of course there are many teachers who love teaching boys but, on average, both male and female teachers would rather have girls in the class – neater work, quieter, more cooperative – who could blame them? Dr Bonny Hartley’s research in the UK showed that boys believed their teachers thought they were ‘dumber’ than girls, and came to believe it about themselves as well. If a boy picks up he is not liked by a teacher, the feeling is likely to be reciprocated. Australian educator Ian Lillicoe sees this as vital, “If a girl doesn’t like her teacher, she can still can get around her teacher to get to the subject. But for boys, if they hate the teacher, they’ll hate the subject.” As psychologist Steve Biddulph says, “Boys learn teachers and not subjects.”
What kinds of teachers bring out the best in boys? According to Lillicoe – Boys love teachers with a sense of humour. They hate it when teachers aren’t fair, such as punishing a group for one child’s wrongdoing. They love it when teachers love their subject. Ian Lillicoe mentioned he had a maths teacher at high school who used to weep at a beautiful maths solution. They thought he was nuts, but five boys in his class became maths teachers, including himself.
Boys love to hear stories. I was one of four boys (and one girl), and my wife and I have two boys (and one girl). I’ve put both of those girls in parentheses because the boys feel safer that way. It is my opinion (unpolluted by anything like research evidence) that girls who grow up surrounded by boys seem to be remarkably resilient and somewhat daunting to their brothers. That’s a key point – boys are more comfortable with other boys. As a toddler, a boy is probably just as happy playing with girls as boys, but from about four years of age, when the testosterone really comes on stream, his preference is very clear. He will still play with girls, but only if there are no boys to play with. Both boys and girls form same-sex gangs, but boys defend the boundaries of their gangs more ferociously. It has to be a remarkable girl who can join in with a boy gang, and a boy who defects to play with girls risks severe mocking.
I remember in our primary school playground we would lock arms and walk around in a row recruiting other boys to play, singing “Who wants to play, cowboys and Indians, but no girls.” I’m sure that type of chauvinism would be banned in the playground now (cowboys and Indians is probably too racist and violent by today’s standards as well), but the preference for same-sex company remains, peaking at about eight years of age. At puberty, their attitude to girls changes. In fact, it is amazing how quickly they go from being afraid of girl germs, to actually being at risk of catching them. But even though they are now fascinated by and attracted to girls, most males will be at their most relaxed in the company of other blokes.
Boys definitely do better with male teachers. The reasons might be quite simple – as well as tolerating boy restlessness and noisiness better, male teachers speak more loudly, more slowly and with fewer words than their female colleagues, which suits the slower auditory processing of boys. Are single-sex schools (or single-sex classrooms) better for boys? For some boys, they are undoubtedly better off. A four-year long Cambridge university study found that single-sex classrooms (even with co-ed schools) were remarkably effective in boosting boys’ performance, particularly in English and foreign languages. “We don’t just do war poems and Macbeth, we do Wordsworth too. It’s a challenge, in a way, which Mr J sets us to show the girls we’re capable of doing it, but I couldn’t talk about these things if there were girls there!” (Interestingly, a same-sex scenario produced a similar improvement for girls studying maths and science.)
A case sometimes made against single-sex schools is that the resulting ‘macho’ culture is very hard on boys who do not fit the normal ‘boy’ stereotype, for example, boys who are not keen on sport. If this still happens, I think it is more likely to be the result of the school culture rather than boy culture. The Cambridge study showed that gender-atypical boys actually fared better in a same sex-class or school. “These ‘non-macho’ boys told us, without exception, that they felt at ease and comfortable, that they did not experience bullying or aggressive behaviour from other boys, and that they were not intimidated by the atmosphere in all-boys’ classes.”
Maybe a single-sex school isn’t an option for you, or one you reject for the reasonable reason that you want your boy to learn how to interact with girls in a more normal context. But if your boy is struggling academically, do consider hiring a male (maybe a senior student) as coach in the subjects he is struggling in.