'When I look at my daughter, sometimes I see myself as a child,’ says Carol, 46. ‘But I look at my son, and think, “Who are you? What are you talking about?” He talks to me about Lego and Xbox, football cards and Transformers. I have no frame of reference for his world, and I don’t understand it.’
It’s easy to see why boys get a bad press. Male toddlers are noisy and hyperactive. Pre-teen boys are immature, can’t concentrate, won’t sit still. Teenage boys are so negatively perceived that if you didn’t actually know any, you’d think they were all drug addicts and vandals.
According to child-development expert Elizabeth Hartley Brewer, author of Raising And Praising Boys, the root of the problem is not boys themselves, but the way we react to them. ‘From earliest childhood, we give boys far more negative feedback than girls, and then tell them off when they live up to the negative image of themselves we’ve given them. We’re not very good at celebrating boys for being boys.’
When my son was little, his favourite outfit was a pair of his sister’s cast-off flowery leggings and a turquoise gingham skirt. All efforts to steer him towards more conventional clothing met with fierce resistance. I thought it was fine (he was only three), but not everyone agreed. His sister was old enough to sense something wasn’t quite right about him wearing her clothes. His grandparents thought it was downright peculiar. The crunch point came one afternoon when we went to pick his sister up from school and some of the children pointed and whispered. After a bit, one of them piped up: ‘Why’s your little brother wearing a skirt?’ My daughter blushed. My son went very quiet. He never wore the turquoise skirt again.
Boys are not just different from girls, but also in many ways more vulnerable. Boys are born six weeks behind girls developmentally, a gap that widens throughout childhood right up to puberty, by which time they are two years behind. In infancy, boys cry more, take longer to settle, are slower to learn to walk, talk and potty train. They have more difficulty adapting to school. Reading, writing, sitting still all come harder to small boys.
Socially, too, they lag behind girls. Behavioural problems and mental illnesses, from autism to attention deficit disorder, are more common at all ages in boys than girls. In adolescence, boys do less well at school, leave school earlier, and are more likely than girls to die, in road accidents, from substance abuse, in fights and by suicide. The vast majority of young offenders are boys.
Hartley Brewer believes there is a whole host of ways in which we can do more to affirm our sons and make life easier for them. She advises praising boys at every opportunity, especially when they’re little; avoiding criticism and unfavourable comparisons; accepting the ways in which they are different from girls, and rewarding them for the many things they are naturally good at.
‘Boys are wonderful problem-solvers. They are very good at coming up with innovative solutions. They engage with the world physically, and we need to work with that as a strength, not turn it into a weakness. Boys are very responsive to praise, but it works the other way too: if we make them feel unaccepted and unacceptable, they will quickly start to misbehave and play up.’ For many mothers, this means being aware of their own inbuilt bias towards girls and femaleness. Sally, a mother of three sons, aged eight, 12 and 15, grew up with sisters and admits she had a lot of negative preconceptions about boys. ‘I didn’t really know anything about them,’ she says. ‘My entire idea of what was normal came from my own experience as a girl.’
Boys need opportunities to be physical, to rough and tumble, to let off steam. Televisions, computers and games consoles may seem to harassed mothers a good way to contain boys’ energy and deal with their short attention spans, but experts all agree that letting boys play games for hours is only ever a short-term solution that stokes up long-term problems. Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys, stresses the importance of reading and talking to boys, to help them catch up linguistically and develop socially. Mothers, in particular, have a vital role to play in helping their sons develop emotional skills as well as physical ones.
‘A mother teaches a boy a great deal about life and love,’ says Biddulph. ‘She is his “first love”, and needs to be tender, respectful and playful, without dominating his world.’ Mothers invariably take the lead in this social learning. ‘It never occurs to my husband to ask our sons how they’re feeling,’ says Helena, 41. ‘Probably because no one ever asked him. I’ve always encouraged my boys to talk. But you can’t just sit them down and say “talk to me” like you might with a girl. You have to come at it sideways.’
Perhaps the hardest task of all for mothers is knowing how and when to let their sons go. As boys mature, mothers have to let them push us away at times. ‘You have to be careful not to intrude on your son’s privacy, and not to take it personally when he doesn’t want to share everything with you any more,’ says Hartley Brewer. ‘As they get older, boys need to feel they’re in charge of their lives. That means letting them make mistakes and letting them set their own boundaries.’
Charlie Taylor, author of Divas And Dictators, believes physical affection is vitally important for teenage boys, yet very underrated. ‘In other cultures, parents are physically affectionate with their sons right into adulthood, and research suggests teenage boys benefit greatly from loving touch. Obviously, they don’t want you to be hugging them in front of their mates, but our need for physical affection and reassuring touch doesn’t go away.’
Mothers of teenage sons have an especially delicate balance to strike between being available but not intrusive. Psychologist Dr Terri Apter, author of The Confident Child, says: ‘Relationships with parents continue to be of great importance to boys during their teenage years. Parents need to keep the channels of communication open by responding with interest rather than dismay. You have to set aside expectations of who your son is and let him tell you who he is.’