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One for the boys

Cover of Biddulph's 'Raising Boys'
Cover of Biddulph's 'Raising Boys'

Tonight, I went to an evening with Steve Biddulph (well, a moderated screening of a presentation elsewhere), an Australian author who has written a number of parenting books with particular focus on boys. His ‘Raising Boys‘ is the only parenting book I admit to have read … because I don’t exactly read those.

The night was a treat and I’d like to share some of the insights, almost in point format. Some, many, all of them you may already know and may just confirm the job you’ve been doing. But maybe they strike your chord too…

A brave man

Firstly, Steve was facing a room full of parents, as he put it “as some guy, one of those ‘experts’ that have popped up in the last few decades telling parents how to do the job we’ve been doing for millions of years’. Brave soul but with sharp insight and a sense of humour.

Why are boys ‘the problem’ at school

He went through the familiar developmental ground (boys’ bodies, brains develop differently to girls) and I was glad he touched on school a little too (from “the body is telling the boy ‘move me’ but that’s not exactly valued in a class” to “…ridiculous to expect all boys, and girls for that matter, to enter school based on their year of birth”).

Wiped out within a generation

Steve talked a lot about the sudden (within a generation) loss of something present for millennia – boys growing up with grown up men and having them around, constantly.  With the advent of Industrial Revolution suddenly men were at work all day, largely removed from boys’ lives in mentoring, guiding, nurturing role (“don’t start me on education” I mumbled to myself at that point…), which has caused an enormous upheaval in practices and bonds within families and entire communities, the effects of which are still so clearly evident today.

Love what you’ve got, not the ‘ideal’

With fathers and sons removed for large amounts of time, they both invested in the creation of the ‘ideal’ other. Even today we know and see fathers who wanted their sons to be uni professors saw them become plumbers (or the other way around), addicts not leaders, battling debilitating illness not thriving as world-class athletes. You can fill the blanks the other way. Bottom line – the two ideals rarely meet. Embrace and love what you’ve got, not bemoan the ‘deficit’ to ideal.

Learn on the fly, just in time

Bringing up boys, well parenting in general, is not about following some grand plan or 5 points from October edition of Good Parenting Magazine down to perfection.  It’s about learning on-the-fly, just-in-time, constantly adjusting and … learning. Learning not to be perfect but to be, in the words of a wonderful psychologist and author Irvin Yalom: “just good enough”.

The three stages

According to a large body of research (I trust Steve on that one…), boys’ mothers are their world until about the age of six. At around six, boys begin to crave masculinity and while they may still be holding mum’s hand, they are, in Steve’s eloquent way, “downloading how to be a male” from men (closest) around them physically and emotionally. Male role-models are hugely important. At around 14, the massive testosterone spike in boys calls for ‘significant others’ in their lives – a mature person (usually NOT parents) they can talk to openly. Your friends, family, (even) people like kids’ teachers, mentors, coaches are crucial so nurture them well to be there for your boy(s).

The difference between boys and men

Even when playing rough and tumble (very important!) with a 4 year old boy you may need to state one or two rules to stop you being hurt (if you have ever copped a kick or an elbow in parts of your body you’d rather not … you know!). Whenever you can, extend the invitation to responsbility: “Can you handle it?”

Handling emotions and their bodies in the way that does not hurt other people is what separates boys from men (sadly, many never grow up in that department…).

Respect for women

Steve painted the time-honoured scenario: A teenage boy realising he is stronger than his mum and refusing to cooperate. After hearing a brief heated exchange between frustrated mother and surly teenager, the father walks in and utters the, again time-honoured words: “Don’t speak to your mother in that tone of voice!”

Not to intimidate or save the poor mother who couldn’t handle the situation but to send a consistent message to the boy “you may be strong but you still have things to learn” (a very alpha male moment by the way 😀 ), a message of support to the mother and a message that women, or anyone else that may be (physically) weaker, are to be respected.

What about single mums?

In families where the father wasn’t or just barely present, mothers who have brought up wonderful kids have consistently (over the past 30+ years Steve has been working on this) resorted to one particular tactic – they “made sure that the kids knew what a good man looked like”. It didn’t mean to marry them, even live with them, but to have a reliable, positive male role-model in their lives.

Don’t forget the heart

Boys are surrounded by images of toughness but they are such awkward, unsure creatures who need both “a backbone and a heart”. They don’t need to be turned into full-time ‘sensitive new age guys’ (huh, that term still around ? :D) but better not have their feelings and inner side ignored.

Housework hero is more than that

Get your boy(s) to let’s say .. cook a meal one day a week by the age of 10 (old enough to handle sharp, hot and have the insight for causal consequences). This is not because you the parent can’t cook (or buy ;P ) a meal. It is to get them to be a hero and realise one of those fundamental differences in obtaining happiness.

The biggest, most satisfying, inner and lasting happiness comes from helping, sharing and serving others, not from the things you buy (and with which you are bombarded every day).

” ‘Quality time’ is crap!”

Spend time with your kids. Be there. Childhood is made of memories, even not all good ones. Time equals love and love never runs on schedule. You never know when you’ll get a moment you will remember on your deathbed with a smile. If you can, spend less of the limited, dedicated ‘quality time’ (yes, circumstances vary, of course), just hang around instead and wait for those life-affirming, random moments, hours, days …

Steve’s presentation ended on the final note about spending time, as above. Most of this is common sense, some of it kinda presumes a bit idealistically, but it did get me thinking beyond my immediate experience of being a father to two boys. I asked myself: What could this mean if you work with other kids?

To start, take your neighbour’s kid out fishing, playing football or down to the library next time you go with your kids.  As a parent, friend, teacher (hugely important!), community member … be thoughtful in things you say and do – as a significant other (often unknown to you!), you may well be emulated. Cultivate, model friendships and treating people with respect. See the person, not a statistic in front of you, see what they are good at not see their ‘deficit’ from imaginary ideal …

Good parenting and good teaching are so damn close are they not?

Take it or leave what you can from this post, but, as I occasionally ‘sign off’ for a day on Twitter – kiss your kids and tell them you love them. Often.