David Coleman: Given the lawlessness and disrespect in so many sports, we need to have an open conversation about boys
Amid the fallout from the Belfast rape trial and growing concerns around violent videogames, parents are afraid of making serious mistakes with their sons. David Coleman has some expert advice
What do boys need? I ask the question, not even being fully sure I know the answer, but I am sure that the question needs to be asked. I think we have some kind of crisis of confidence, or some kind of terrible, deep-rooted, fear that is creating a void, or a paralysis, in how we raise our boys.
This article isn't about neglecting girls, or downplaying the issues that affect them. Last year I wrote a whole series of articles about girls, and some of the issues that are specific to them and their needs. But, in the aftermath of the Belfast rape trial, the gaming epidemic embodied by Fortnite Battle Royale, the statistics about young male suicide and the lawlessness, disrespect and dishonesty that we see in so many sports, I think we need to have an open and vibrant conversation about boys and what they really need from us.
Let me start that conversation.
Boys need guidance about gaming
There are frequent fads when it comes to popular computer games for boys. From Call of Duty, to Pokemon Go, to Minecraft and most recently Fortnite Battle Royale, our sons can easily get hooked into gaming, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Aside from the potentially addictive nature of computer gaming, most games that target boys also involve violence of some kind. From the extreme end of such games, such as Grand Theft Auto, in which the latest editions give extra scores for murdering prostitutes, for example, through to the photo-realistic replication of the world wars in Call of Duty, violence and murder abounds.
The American Psychological Association (APA) assigned a task force to review the effects of media violence. In their most recent report in 2015, the task force experts concluded that those who play violent videogames will think more aggressively, will feel more aggressive and will act more aggressively than those who don't play such games. In addition, they found that violent videogames reduce people's ability to be empathetic and desensitises them to violence.
Somewhere along the way, most parents seem to cave in to the pressure to allow their younger teen, or preteen boys, play games with a higher age rating than their actual age. Perhaps we ourselves are desensitised to the violence in the game, and assume that because it is computer-generated and "not real", that it doesn't matter. But it does. Allowing our sons to binge on the likes of Fortnite Battle Royale could be seriously damaging their ability to regulate their aggression.
Boys need guidance about pornography
In my clinical practice, I am seeing younger and younger boys who've either willingly, or accidentally, been exposed to pornography. Aged 10 is no longer an uncommon age to first see pornography online. In many ways, it's not that unexpected. We seem intent on giving our children unsupervised access to the internet at ridiculously early ages, so its only a matter of time before they find their way to pornography, or it finds its way to them.
The evidence is rising about the harmful effects of pornography on boys. Adolescence, particularly, is a time of great change in the physical development of our brains. We prune back, and refine, our neurological connections and in effect this means that we "rewire" our brains.
If pornography is a central part of their experience (as it is for many teenage boys), then the associations and connections in their brains are being rewired with an immensely skewed and toxic version of human sexuality. Mainstream pornography depicts instant sexual gratification that is not connected to love or relationships. It frequently involves power imbalances and the degradation or humiliation of women who are expected to appear to like what's happening to them.
When boys masturbate, either after viewing, or while viewing these videos, they reinforce and shape their brains and their sexual development around these corrupted images, ideas and values. This is dangerous for boys, as they will grow up with a pathological view and experience of sex that could destroy their potential for healthy, loving sexual relationships throughout their lives.
So they both need and deserve our guidance. They need us to contextualise sex back into the realm of relationships, love and intimacy. They need to hear our values and beliefs about what is good and healthy about sex and relationships. That means we have to talk to them about what they are likely to have seen and to persuade them away from viewing porn. If needed, setting up external controls on their digital devices to make access difficult or impossible.
If you'd like to gather some really strong evidence to support your view of the dangers of porn, to be prepared when talking to your sons, then a really good place to start is the collection of research evidence on the 'Fight the New Drug' website - log on to fightthenewdrug.org/overview
Boys need to be physical
In their early years, all children learn by experiencing their world through the medium of their senses of touch, taste, smell and sound. They learn about their world (and their connection to that world) by running, climbing, jumping, pushing, lifting, smearing, digging, eating, swimming, hitting, cutting, pulling, throwing and so on.
But somehow, in recent years, we have tried to sanitise the experiences that boys have available to them. Some schools, for example, for insurance reasons, restrict any games that involve running. Many parents, in the busyness of their lives, choose to let their boys consume hours of different screen media, rather than get them out to the park, or the fields or the playgrounds.
Sports are not the "be all and end all" of boys' lives, but they can be a critical part of their experiences growing up. In sport, boys will have the freedom to play with key themes of competition, success, failure, relationship, ambition, personal drive, practice of skill and so on.
But, even when it comes to sports and boys we seem to be missing something essential. It is as if success has become the only marker of achievement. From the early teen years onwards, most team sports move into a more competitive mode and, quickly, some boys will get the message that they are not at the "right" competitive level and so they lose interest, motivation and drop out.
Is that really the message that we want boys to take from sports, or is there more that can be reached for in terms of engagement, effort and enjoyment?
Boys need men
Boys need men in their lives to guide them, steer them and show them the way to become men themselves. Of course boys need women too, but in truth, they are not short of female caring and involvement in their lives. As our society relies even more heavily on childcare outside the home, our boys are spending their early years, almost exclusively, in the care of women. Just one, or maybe two, in every 100 early childcare workers are men.
When your son goes to crèche or preschool, the chances are that he will be minded by women. Even when he moves on to primary school, 85pc of his teachers will be women.
I am well aware that this often reflects the salary and status of childcare jobs and teaching, but it also reflects a gender stereotyping that men can't care for small babies and young children, and that when they do, they may pose a predatory risk to those children.
That means that boys may miss out on key opportunities for interaction and learning with men. I believe that if we, as men, forgo those opportunities to be centrally involved in our children's lives, we are doing them a disservice.
Men bring a different energy, perspective and approach to caring for children. Without having that male energy present in their lives, boys' experiences run the risk of being imbalanced, and within that imbalance, I think a lot of boys and their behaviour can be misunderstood.
Daily life is pressured for most of us. We have a lot of demands on our time and attention. We have pressures from work, financial pressures, pressures within our relationship and pressures to involve ourselves in our communities, never mind the technological pressure of that "always on, always available" mindset that the digital world engenders. Within those pressures, it is easy to lose track of the needs of boys. But, if we are to be fair to them, to give them the most balanced opportunities for growth and development, we must be mindful of them and their needs. Without that mindfulness of them we run the risk of rearing a generation of boys who will struggle with their masculinity, their behaviour and their mental health.
Five ways to be a better parent to your son
1 Show interest in boys and their activity. Too often, when we ask boys "what are you doing?", the question is delivered in an impatient, frustrated or incredulous tone and is followed swiftly by "stop it!". We need to shift into asking them what they are doing because we are interested in whatever it is that we see or hear. Even if they don't deliver a detailed answer, they'll still appreciate the fact that we asked, and that we cared.
2 Consult with boys as joint problem-solvers. Boys like to solve problems and they feel better about themselves when they can do so. So, when you next feel tempted to tell your son what he should do, take a chance on engaging with him about what he thinks he should do. Seek his opinion: he may well have some great ideas!
3 Acknowledge boys' strengths and achievements. I never suggest we should just praise boys for the sake of praise, but genuine recognition of what they do well is so much more powerful for boys, and more appreciated and better responded to, than criticism of their mistakes or failures.
4 Identify feelings that you think boys may have. We often fear that boys can't access their feelings, keeping everything bottled up until they explode dangerously. However, to help them access their emotional world, instead of asking them about their feelings, guess at what might be going on internally instead. When we help boys to label and validate their feelings, we give them the skills and emotional literacy that can relieve a lot of otherwise pent-up feeling.
5 Remember the role-modelling that you deliver for boys. Irrespective of your own gender, your behaviour will demonstrate your true attitudes, values and beliefs. So, especially if you are a man, make sure you act in ways that will show the boys in your care about the kinds of wise choices they can make in their lives.
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