As the mother of a boy, and being fully aware of the high suicide rates of men, I care fiercely about the emotional wellbeing and fair representation of young men. Yet as a woman, with lived experience of being overly sexualized, catcalled, and followed, I identify with the absolute right of women to be respected and safe. Being the mother of a boy is a responsibility. A responsibility to inculcate in him a curiosity and respect for himself, for women, for other men, and for people of all stations and backgrounds. Respect for other people comes from having self-respect, and if we look at how we treat little boys we might better understand how we are setting men up in childhood for a future in which they are bound to hurt women, hurt each other, and hurt themselves. In order to eradicate toxic masculine behaviour and the dominance of unhealthy patriarchal norms, we need to examine our expectations of men and take it right back to how we bring up our boys.
On the football pitches, even in friendlies, I routinely observe parents and coaches screaming at very young players. They’re not running fast enough, they’re not trying hard enough, how could they miss that open goal? Come on! The common reaction from a parent when a boy is evidently hurt, with a stud in the leg, a whack to the head, a punching elbow in the ribs, is that they ‘shake it off’ ‘man up’, and ‘stop crying’. I recall asking a mother who turned her back on her crying son why she didn’t hug him. ‘Oh’ She said, ‘He’s always doing this. I won’t have it.’ Fast forward four years and this boy isn’t crying anymore, he’s bullying other boys. The father of another bully continually harangues and belittles him from the sidelines. I see the shame in the face of the father and a different shame in the face of his son. This son who turns brutal against other boys he perceives to be weaker than him. It is a domino effect of shaming that is started by the father.
Parents and teachers so often use a language of despair when talking about boys. They don’t sit still, they don’t listen, they don’t concentrate, they don’t read. But it’s the very physicality of boys that is the reason for this. It’s not a boy attitude, it’s a boy body! If we look at the biology of boys we’ll see that they are not set up for early success at school. Boys have 30% more muscle mass than girls and their legs and bottoms twitch. They need to stand and move but the classroom and the schedule don’t factor this in. We say that boys don’t listen but there is a period in a boy’s life, around age seven, when his ear canals stretch and thin and he actually can’t hear as well. It’s biological. Boys find it harder to focus on a set target, they do better with a teacher moving around. However, most lessons are led from the front. Boys also have more of an aural learning style and struggle to process information as well from reading. Frustrated with the difficulty of reading they tend not to read and so they fall behind girls.
The messages we’re collectively giving boys, overtly and discretely, is that there is a problem with the way they are made. They don’t fit the masculine mold on the field, and they don’t fit the feminine mold in the classroom. Is it any wonder boys become frustrated and internalize? Parents talk about a moment their little boy changed from sweet and loving to naughty and acting out. But if they look a little deeper, they might notice that change occurred when they started school or team sports. We have already taught boys that we’re not listening so why would they even try to talk to us?
Why do we treat our little boys like this? Why do we actively teach them not to register pain, not to seek help, not to share the truth of how they’re feeling? Boys are hugged less than girls, kissed less than girls, touched less than girls, and even given fewer books than girls. If boys don’t receive validation for who they are and how they feel, and they don’t receive respect and tenderness from their parents or other adults, they will seek validation from their peers. Other unvalidated boys. If we praise macho behaviour in young boys, bravery with contact sports, and the supposed gallant suppressing of their emotions, boys will continue to seek validation by being more of those things. Brave, emotionally suppressed, laddish. Add in testosterone and physical, sexual urges and the picture becomes bleaker for the whole of society.
When we talk about changing male behaviour, which we must, we are also talking about changing our own behaviour towards boys. This is where the problem starts. In the home, at school, and on the pitch. We need to free little boys from the constraints we are putting on them, constraints that are hurting them and hurting us. We need to show them how to respect their bodies and other people’s bodies by caring for those little bodies when they’re hurt. We need to model empathy by listening to their tears and consoling them so that they can carry this into their attitude towards, and treatment of, other people. We need to connect them into an inherent moral code that they can trust above outside pressures, a code that will keep them safe and keep other people safe.
In these days since Sarah Everard’s murder and the publicity of the website, Everyone’s Invited, I see an ideological hunkering down on both sides. Young men feel hard done by, falsely accused, scared to be free around girls. They talk of unfair expectations, confusing messages, blame culture. Young women are distrusting, angry, afraid. They worry about their safety, the tension between being desired and being disrespected, the extinguishing power that young men wield.
Where do we go from here? As adults, we’re not modeling solutions for our young people, we are publicly bitching and blaming. When we talk at a group of young men about how they should behave they’re going to switch off. We’re the same adults who brought them up in this culture, we’re low on credibility. But I do see a solution. I see the solution being with young people talking to each other. I see small groups of young men and women in schools and homes, sitting down to listen to each other, hearing both sides of what may seem to be only one-sided. And for our future generations of young men, as yet unborn, I hope for a world in which they’re free to be the loving, kind people that as little boys they show us they are.