How to raise boys and stay sane
Everyone says that boys are monsters – but a new book suggests otherwise. Anna Maxted is delighted
We're all agreed that boys are hopeless. Indeed, the numbers are terrifying: three-quarters of suicides are male, and boys perform worse than girls at all levels of education and are four times likelier to be diagnosed with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties.
Hopeless! As a mother of boys, my heart sinks.
There's a point at which you're so beaten down by the negativity that you start to believe it. I can still see the sneer on a teacher's face as she informed me that my eight-year-old, who she'd picked on, belittled and blamed for every classroom ill, was "crumbling his sandwich under the table at lunch". I'd pleaded that his behaviour might improve were she kind to him. (Imagine. He has feelings. Like a girl.) But the sandwich-crumbling stumped me. I asked him why, and received the unsatisfactory reply: "I hate the sandwiches you give me."
Two years later, the mystery of the sandwich-crumbling is solved. I'm speaking to clinical psychologist Nigel Latta, author of the new parenting book Mothers Raising Sons, who asks us to embrace "the noisy, rowdy roughness, the fascination with toilet humour and the aggression", and claims that the fighting with sticks, the "yelling and yelling and yelling and yelling" is all normal, desirable boy behaviour, and assures us that – despite the death looks from parents when he splashes a girl in the pool, and the fear he will never be able to read the word "said", and the fact that your teenage son is channelling the Hulk, and those dreadful statistics – the boys are okay.
It's adults, Latta says, who need to change. To turn out capable, kind young men, we mustn't obsess about schools and bathmats. We can start by "lying a lot" to foster their sense of fun: so tell them that you used to be a cheerleader for the Mumbai Indians. And we can stop sucking all the joy out of life by making every last moment a learning experience. It is so rare to find a text so fond and understanding of boys and "their fragile hearts" that I read much of it, even the page on farting, teary-eyed.
'It's become fashionable to generate scary statistics around boys," says Latta, talking fast and excitedly on the phone in his New Zealand twang. "But there are scare stories about everything. Today, here, a man was eaten by a shark, so now no one wants to go in the water. I don't think boys are in crisis. Some boys are, but if you break down the research it's not so much about being a boy as about child poverty, socioeconomics and discrimination."
Still, mind-reading my conviction of the endless possibility for disaster, he adds: "We don't control the fate of boys globally, but we do have a lot of influence on the ones who live with us. The average level of achievement for boys in reading won't affect your boys' ability to read – but you can."
He adds that the oft-quoted research about boys having reading issues overestimated the boys' benchmarks and underestimated the girls' – "So it looks like boys have a bigger problem with reading. In fact, they don't."
We parents are fools to every burst of psychobabble because scaremongering has pushed us to the edge of hysteria. When mothers of boys talk, it is confession-style: tales of terrible deeds – squirting next door's rabbit in the face with a water gun on the grounds that it "looked thirsty" – in the hope of absolution. We know the girls aren't angels, but they hide it better.
Meanwhile, we ache for reassurance that we haven't created monsters.
Latta – who, aged 11, shoplifted a necklace for Mother's Day and then fretted for weeks that if she went into the shop wearing it she'd go to prison – specialises in working with children with behavioural problems, from mild to severe. He certainly has the measure of the jumpy middle-class mother who is afraid that the faintest sign that her boy is too hard or too soft is the sign of a fatal personality flaw that will leave him friendless, alone and with all those emotional and behavioural difficulties.
"As a generation of parents," Latta sighs, "we worry about everything because we're told to worry about everything. I spoke to a mother who was in tears because her six-year-old boy didn't listen."
We pause to cackle. "She was worried that there was something wrong with him because he was so dizzy. Boys at that age are the dizziest creatures on Earth. If you walk through a school and there's a single shoe lying in the middle of the playground, that will have been dropped by a boy. He'll have been running, the shoe will have come off, and he won't have stopped to get his shoe because he's running. And the next time it occurs to him will be when his mother says, 'Where's your shoe?' and he says: 'I don't know.' It doesn't mean he'll be a failure in life."
But why don't boys listen? Too many words, Latta says. "Women think that if you just keep talking, he'll see that you're right. I don't think boys care about who's right. They don't care if it's better that the bathmat is hung up – they just don't care about the bathmat.
"A lot of mums worry that their sons are lazy, useless, mean because they don't care about the bathmat. But," he adds cheerfully, "boys don't start caring about those things until they get a girlfriend or a wife."
A callous disregard for the bathmat is one thing, but parents can assume that a son is not as capable of empathy as a daughter. But, Latta says, if you have low expectations of your boy's emotional intelligence you're almost conditioning him to become an insensitive brute. And if boys do struggle to verbalise their feelings (our culture hardly encourages it), they are easily misunderstood.
My belief is that society often disapproves of boys – their physicality, their burgeoning masculinity – and is harsh and rough with them. Then it's surprised when boys grow up to be harsh and rough. My young sons' beliefs and impressions about their gender are telling. The six-year-old declares: "Boys are naughtier than girls." The eight-year-old claims: "Mrs X says boys are stupid." The 10-year-old says the girls fidget "with their hair or clothes" while the boys "get told off for rocking on their chairs".
I discuss Latta's theories with the educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni. She believes that: "Precocious boys – by that I mean intelligent, verbal, capable boys – present more of a threat than intelligent, verbal, capable girls, so people have a need to put them down."
Sbuttoni says that the key is to consider what underlies irritating behaviour: "Every piece of behaviour tells us something, and rather than jump down their throats, be they boy or girl, we need to work out what it is so we can help them."
From an evolutionary perspective, our expectations are unreasonable: "Boys are designed to be muscular and violent and aggressive. That's what they exist for, biologically," says Professor Stephen Scott, director of the National Academy for Parenting Research at the Institute of Psychiatry. "They're going to be hunter-gatherers and maters." But it's wrong to assume that if boys act tough, they are.
Sbuttoni warns: "We mustn't do all this bullying of boys because we think it makes men of them. In some ways they are more vulnerable than girls and they need nurturing and treating fairly."
Latta wants the reform to start at home. Even those who love them, simplify boys. "You know where you are with boys," said one proud father as we watched our sons tussle on the football field: "You get an 'I hate you' and a punch in the face."
The deeper truth, Latta says, is that boys feel just as many emotions as girls, and are no less complex emotionally: "They just don't bang on about it as much. Boys tend to externalise their problems." He adds that when his own five-year-old started school, they'd just moved cities: "He's quite shy, so of course he acted out. His behaviour in class was atrocious, because he was anxious and worried. He did the boy thing; he expressed his unhappiness through anger."
I think of the eight-year-old, furiously crumbling his sandwich, and get a lump in my throat.
Anger may be the first response, but it's our job to help children manage their emotions. If they know you're on their side, the battle's half won.
"It's when kids don't feel that anyone's interested in their life that trouble comes." But Latta – breezily noting that his 15-year-old hates his new school – is against solving every problem: "You want things to go a bit pear-shaped when they're children. Adversity teaches them important life skills. Resilience is like physical fitness. You don't get it without sweat, pain and perseverance."
Ultimately, as we know in our hearts, parenting is less about science than common sense. Latta says: "Even if you decide you don't want your child to climb trees, that you're going to hover, make his lunch until he's 18, do all the things that I don't think are particularly helpful or fun, he'll be fine."
Soft as a lullaby, he adds: "He's still going to be a perfectly nice human being – because he's got people who care about him."
Mothers Raising Sons, by Nigel Latta, is published by Vermilion at £12.99