It's only natural for boys to be boys
Nowadays we tend to assume there's only one way to bring up children, be they male or female, but this kind of thinking is flawed and means that boys lose out
Published 05/04/2010 | 05:00
WHEN Dr Kate Byrne sees her eight-year-old son tiptoeing along the roof of their granny flat 20 feet above the ground, she doesn't rush out and yell at him about how dangerous it is.
Instead Byrne, the mother of seven boys aged between three and 19, calmly tells her middle one to get down.
"I don't use the word 'dangerous' because as soon as you instill that fear, a child is likely to become fearful, so I just say I don't want him up there.
"I let them feel their way -- boys tend to know their own capabilities, and they lose that ability if we instill them with fear."
Byrne, a psychologist who specialises in children and adolescents, is a strong believer in allowing boys to be boys.
There are differences between boys and girls, she says, and we should accept them.
It's a concept supported by Dr Patrick Ryan, director of the doctoral programme in clinical psychology in the University of Limerick. Nowadays, he says, we tend to assume that there's only one way to bring up children, male or female -- and this often doesn't take into account the inevitable differences.
"I think people often look on boys as mad things! They have a lot more physical energy than girls -- they really want to run and jump, so expecting them to sit down and play quietly is very hard for boys," says Kate Byrne.
Parents should bite their tongue when tempted to list a range of blood-curdling 'what ifs' to adventurous boys, she advises.
"If you spend your life worrying your son about what might happen if he does this or that, he may become anxious and fearful.
"Discourage a boy from climbing a tree by warning that he could fall and break his neck and you may discourage him from ever climbing anything," she warns. "If you don't trust them how will they ever trust themselves?" she asks.
"You have to grit your teeth and let boys off the leash," Byrne insists.
None of us can deny the modern trend of over-protection where children are concerned. Child consultant Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, points to a huge increase in parental anxiety, which has led to restrictions on children's physical activity, their play and their freedom to roam.
She believes the increasing lack of opportunities for unsupervised play may cause more long-term problems for boys than girls.
This theory, some believe, is borne out in the prevalence of behavioural disorders which affect an estimated eight to 10pc of school-age children, with boys being four times more likely to be affected than girls.
The roots of this problem may, to an extent, lie in the way we live: modern life means an overly protected environment for many boys, says Ray King, principal of the 660-pupil all-boys Scoil na Mainstreach in Celbridge, Co Kildare.
Busy modern families don't always know their neighbours, he says, adding that nowadays "there is a level of privacy and protection" involved even in the child's neighbourhood.
"With both parents working and child-minders after school there is now an emphasis on protection and a reluctance to allow children to engage in their environment as we would have done when we were young."
Many children, he points out, may now go direct "from school to a minder, which often leaves very little time for informal play activities".
"Then at weekends there tends to be more emphasis on structured activities such as music and games. Opportunities for traditional unstructured play are not as plentiful as they were years ago."
Add to that the mistake that parents and society make in assuming that "there's one way to bring up children, full stop", says Patrick Ryan.
This means that although young boys naturally tend to be more boisterous than girls, the response of society has been to suppress it because it's seen as a "negative" thing when it fact it should be understood as a natural display of energy. Rough and tumble play is all important.
"It creates a connection between boys because they're all doing something similar and that's important in terms of their development -- their sense of esteem, their sense of identity; they are part of the group.
"It also helps them regulate their behaviour -- if one boy in the group steps out of line they will cajole or jostle him back into shape.
"This behaviour teaches boys the rules and norms of acceptable behaviour in a group, which is important in terms of going out into society."
Lack of horseplay can have unpleasant consequences, he warns.
"Research shows that if you try to control that natural boisterousness it tends to seep out somewhere else -- if they cannot do the rough and tumble in play it gets pent-up and comes out in aggression.
"Boys are more into risk-taking in play and behaviour than girls are generally so it's about how you perceive it."
Boys actually need rough and tumble play in order to learn what it is to be male, says family therapist and author Steve Biddulph.
"What boys learn in rough and tumble is an essential lesson for all males: how to be able to have fun, get noisy, even get angry and at the same time know when to stop. For a male living with testosterone this is vital."
Climbing, for instance, is very important for a boy's neurological development, says Kate Byrne, yet, she points out, not only do we often discourage them from doing it, it can even be viewed as bad behaviour.
"A child gets to develop different neurological perspectives and it's good for spatial awareness. It exercises muscles and it's good for their gross motor development.
"Horseplay is rough and tumble and part of their natural neurological need as males to compete and experience success and failure in a friendly non-hazardous way. Rough and tumble horseplay with brothers or friends is important for their emotional development, while they're also developing a hierarchy within their peer or sibling group. That's very important for males.
"It goes back to the whole thing about dominant alpha males and a male's need to see their place within the world and within society."
Patrick Ryan would like to see more rough and tumble in schools, but acknowledges that today the emphasis is more on trying to take out all possible risks than allow horseplay.
Meanwhile Kate Byrne believes schools, where children are expected to sit down for long periods of time without regular breaks, are more suited to girls than boys.
"Boys would need shorter lessons and more physical breaks in order to concentrate better."
Not necessarily, says Ray King. Learning to sit down and pay attention is a crucial part of a child's preparation for life but, he points out, there's a lot more physical movement around the modern classroom than people may realise.
"When I was in primary school we sat in our desks from nine to three, apart from the lunch breaks.
"Now there's a lot more movement around the classroom and genuine interaction: between the child and teacher and the child and other children and between the child and the learning experience."
Horseplay and informal rough and tumble is not for the schoolyard, he says -- for schools, structured sports is the better option.
Play in the playground is limited by space, resources, time supervision and facilities.
"We have an official non-running rule which is essentially a ban on dangerous play. We have a huge variety of structured sports activities.
"It's a great way for boys to let off steam and release energy."