Boys must be boys – for all our sakes
Our uptight, risk-averse world is denying boys the outlets they need to grow up into civilised, successful adults.
by Sue Palmer
Ryan was eight when he tried to kill himself. He saved up his Ritalin tablets until there seemed to be enough for an overdose, then knocked them back and waited to die. Later, after he had been very sick, his mum asked why he had done it. “Because I’m too naughty,” he said. “I’m just a nuisance to everyone.”
Ryan is constantly in trouble at school and at home. He has been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a “developmental disorder” involving problems with concentration and self-control. ADHD did not exist as a medical condition until 40 years ago but is now thought to affect about 5% of the population. The vast majority of sufferers are male.
Last year I published a book called Toxic Childhood, looking for reasons behind recorded increases in children’s behavioural and learning difficulties over the past 20 or so years. I concluded that rapid social and cultural change – junk food, poor sleeping patterns, a screen-based lifestyle, marketing pressures, family upheavals – were interfering with healthy development.
It was clear from my research that behavioural and learning difficulties hit boys hardest. Educationally, for instance, many now fall at the first fence and never recover: boys are three times as likely as girls to need extra help with reading at primary school, and by the time they reach GCSE they trail behind in almost every subject on the curriculum. Indeed, less than a century after women’s emancipation, female students significantly outnumber male ones at British universities.
Behavioural disorders such as ADHD are about four times more likely to affect boys and so are the emotional, behavioural and mental health problems that, according to the British Medical Association, now beset 10-20% of our children and teenagers. As these sorts of problems in teenage boys all too often lead to school failure, disaffection and antisocial behaviour, there are powerful reasons for trying to solve them.
So I’m now researching another book to find out why the modern world seems particularly toxic for boys. It’s already clear that the sort of behaviour we require from our offspring in an uptight, urban, risk-averse and increasingly bureaucratic society comes far less naturally to infant males than to their sisters.
Take the “naughtiness” that is wrecking life for Ryan and those around him. There have always been naughty boys, but in the past the activities of scamps, scrumpers and scallywags were usually shrugged off as high spirits. Fictional rascals, like Huck Finn and William Brown, clearly viewed themselves as heroes, not suicidal victims.
The big difference between Ryan’s miserable existence and that of youngsters in the past is that, until the end of the 20th century, much of boys’ boisterous behaviour went unnoticed and unrestrained by adults. There was time, space and freedom for lads to run off steam. Even when shades of the prison house did close around the growing boy, the time at the edges of the school or working day was still his own and the local woods and hills were his natural habitat.
This is not simply a case of “blue-remembered hills” – the tendency of adults to romanticise childhood. There have, of course, been periods in the past when children were mercilessly exploited and probably had little time or energy to play, but most historical accounts of boyhood, even recent urban ones, involve a degree of freedom to roam that seems unthinkable today.
There are many reasons behind contemporary parents’ reluctance to let their children play outside, one of which is a very reasonable fear about increases in traffic. Another is the far less reasonable and generalised fear of “stranger danger” which, in today’s highly anxious climate, parents seem unable to keep at bay, even when they know that child abduction is no more likely today than it was in their own youth. But perhaps the most significant reason for most of the parents I speak to is the fear of being thought irresponsible.
In an increasingly risk-averse society it has become the mark of a good parent to keep one’s child under careful scrutiny at all times. As “responsible” parents have increasingly locked their children away, there has been a change in the attitude of the public to unsupervised children. In the past few years, communities in all areas of the country have become far less tolerant of boys’ outdoor play, even when it’s not particularly rambunctious.
A teacher told me recently of a small group of boys who were playing behind her house during the school holidays, making go-karts from bits of junk. She was stunned when a letter was posted through her door by a neighbour, urging her to help to move the children on. “They may be making go-karts today,” the letter explained, “but they could be vandalising our cars tomorrow.”
Boys have a deep biological need to be out and about. According to evolutionary biologists, the brains of newborn human babies have not changed significantly since Cro-Magnon times, so infant males are still born with the genetic encoding of Stone Age hunters. As they grow their bodies yearn to rehearse this masculine role: they need to run across fields, clamber through the undergrowth, fashion tools and weapons, push boundaries, take risks. If they don’t fulfil these needs, they are likely to suffer in terms of development: physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively.
Humanity has, of course, come a long way since Stone Age times, not least because of our remarkable and unique ability to pass on our culture to our young. Through the ages this has made the human race more civilised, more democratic and more able to live a peaceful, social existence. Part of the civilisation process has been finding ways of gradually redirecting boys’ primitive male instinct to hunt (and fight) along channels that suit the economic circumstances of the day. But it is a gradual process and can’t be rushed.
Sadly we seem to have reached a stage where adult citizens have “civilised” themselves out of a sense of shared humanity. In a society driven by individualism, selfish consumerism and rights legislation, it’s easy for powerful groups (such as neighbours with no small children of their own) to assert their rights over those of less powerful groups, and children are the least powerful members of society. When adults deny children the right to play – out of fear, risk aversion or sheer intolerance – they threaten the long-term health not only of those children but of society itself.
Sometimes children realise this for themselves, even if adults do not. When teachers in Newcastle banned the game of tag [fangen], Hannan, one of the teenage pupils affected, had this to say: “To be honest, adults can be very stupid at times. They ban everything for health and safety reasons. If they are going to ban very simple stuff like this, they might as well lock all kids in empty rooms to keep them safe. Kids should be allowed to experiment, otherwise when they grow up they will make very stupid mistakes from not having enough experiences in childhood.” Even in the 21st century we still have to civilise our young, balancing their natural instincts with the requirements of society. This is what “bringing up” children means. During the first 10 years or so, parents and teachers have to bring these Stone Age babies up through 10 millenniums of human culture, civilising, socialising and educating them for the world in which they will live.
The process has always been more difficult with boys, since prototype hunters are less naturally inclined to social niceties than their sisters, the prototype nurturers. And as our urban, technology driven lifestyle moves us ever further away from our biological heritage, it becomes even more of a challenge.
The sensible approach – adopted in Scandinavian countries, with their outdoor forest schools and long period of informal preschool education – is to acknowledge boys’ biological drives and to take them into account, while gradually introducing all children to the sorts of behaviour that society requires.
There is a general awareness of children’s developmental needs among parents, politicians and the public in the Nordic countries, which means that everyone takes a more broad-minded and tolerant attitude to the undersevens?!, especially boys, and play is valued as an essential part of their early learning.
Giving boys leeway [Spielraum] in the early years pays off long-term. With time and space to develop physical, emotional and social skills, they acquire greater levels of self-control and empathy. As time goes by, they can therefore be expected to behave with greater consideration to their more venerable neighbours.
Meanwhile, those neighbours, having smiled indulgently at the little lads when they saw them playing outside as toddlers, are unlikely to feel threatened by them as they grow up. The early leeway pays off in cognitive terms, too: despite starting the formal teaching of reading two years later [!] than we do in Britain, Sweden and Finland regularly top the international league for achievement in literacy.
The contrast between Scandinavian tolerance of children’s needs and current Anglo-Saxon practices could not be more stark. In hyper-competitive hard-nosed Britain, the public, parents and politicians all seem to feel that there’s no time to waste on running about and playing. Our children, especially those wayward [widerborstig] boys, must be fast-tracked into “sensible” adult-like behaviour as soon as possible. Since we are not prepared to provide the safe open spaces needed for play, they also have to be fast-forwarded into a sedentary, screen-based 21st-century lifestyle.
So from their very earliest years many boys in Britain today have little means of fulfilling their instinctive need for activity and risk. They are plonked from babyhood in front of the television (or, in more aspirational households, Baby Einstein DVDs) to watch other people moving about rather than getting down and dirty themselves.
At nursery, boys are corralled with a host of other children, mostly indoors so that energetic play is out of the question. Even outdoors there is often restraint: toddlers in the nursery down the road from me are exercised on leads in our local park, three children per nursery worker. This fulfils health and safety regulations – but leaves their charges with less freedom of movement than the average family dog.
When proper school starts – which it does in Britain earlier than anywhere else in the world? – children must knuckle down straight away to reading and writing. But when they are denied the rough-and-tumble [balgen] activity that develops physical coordination and control, many five-year-old boys are simply unable to focus on a book or wield a pencil.
They find class lessons, trying to sit still “on the mat” while the teacher explains the mysteries of phonics, bewildering and intolerable. (“It wastes your time, sitting on the mat,” one little boy said to a researcher. “It wastes your life,” chimed in his mate dolefully.)
So boys who are too immature to settle sufficiently often fail to pick up the basic skills that underpin the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic, and then tumble into a cycle of school failure, guaranteed to add to their antisocial tendencies.
As we move further into the 21st century, our young men will need physical control, emotional resilience and social competence to meet the challenges ahead; and one of those challenges, unless we act very soon, will be dealing with the threat to society posed by Ryan and the growing band of “lost boys”, as they follow the horribly predictable downward spiral of school failure, teenage disaffection, violence and crime.
If British society is to keep up with the frantic pace of change, we must acknowledge not just where we are going to but where we have come from. Every baby born is a link between the future of the human race and its remote, primitive past; and if boys are not allowed to be boys – for the first few years at least – a growing number of them are likely to reject the cultural treasures that we have spent 10 millenniums acquiring.
Sue Palmer Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children (Orion, £9.99)