General background on boys growing up and awareness for sex differences.
- Specific development, specific tasks
- Nature, nurture, stereotyping
- Movement and language
- Outside influences
- What really matters?
- Boys with a different background
An extended and wider elaborated version of this text can be found on the Basics: Boys in Balance page.
Specific development, specific tasks
What do boys really want? What makes their lives meaningful? At the moment there is plenty of attention worldwide for boys falling behind in education and for their misconduct. But how about their qualities? What about our attention for them? Boys do need more and better attention in upbringing and education; they crave good and inspiring examples who show an integrity and wisdom that is not imposed on them, but offered in communication and mutual respect.
Just like girls, but in a different fashion, they are faced with specific tasks to develop into balanced adults. They need both space and attention in fulfilling these tasks. Too much space equals neglect. Too much restrictions and negative attention breeds negative reactions, grudges and despair. Misconduct is often the result of a long process. Keywords are: contact, eye for their already mastered qualities, safety, connection with the world, and focus on their future. Knowing what they can do, what they’re up to, and what is still beyond their reach. Of course, setting clear limits can be (very) necessary, but it’s important to make a difference between learning (a process from within, leading to self-control and personal pride) and obedience (externally oriented, costs additional energy, produces dependence and fosters low self-esteem and resistance).
Nature, nurture, stereotyping
XX or XY? After all, everyone is different. Nature is only the raw material with which boys and girls start their journey in life. Nurture (care, upbringing, education and media) anticipates, builds and reacts. Obviously, it makes little sense to reduce boys and girls to their biological differences, as there is so much more. Essentially, it’s all about doing justice to both boys and girls, supporting them to develop into balanced grown-ups with responsibility for themselves, towards others and this planet, reaching a meaningful place in this world in cooperation with others.
Stereotyping is off limits, but in raising and educating children it makes sense to have some feeling for and insight in some important average sex and gender differences in their nature (both mentally and physically), the way the environment influences them and their maturation process. These differences can be absent, dominant or trivial, and turn out differently in each individual. Nonetheless, we ought to adjust to them in our methods.
Movement and language
Boys are associated with qualities such as creativity, curiosity, audacity, a physical orientation, and the inclination to experiment. Girls can develop these qualities as well, but most boys are more disposed to do so. Learning to relax and control their often strong impulses is very important to them, as tension and high energy have the tendency to shut off their higher brain functions (executive functions), anticipation skills and empathy. Their verbal development – say what you feel, communicate with words and getting a grip on your emotions – tends to be slower. It takes most boys more time to find the right words, whereas their physical behavior seems to develop faster. Often asked “What are you doing?“, they have to account for their actions and feel that their words may turn against them (“Everything you say can be hold as evidence…“), which leads them to bluff, lie, mince their words or even worse: refrain from the important developmental task that is language. The use of language aids in reflection, in using inner speech to get a grip on their own emotions, their plans en the consequences of their acts.
In most girls, other qualities draw attention: empathy, communication and verbal expression. Elements I mentioned for boys are less conspicuous, but girls can acquire these qualities as well, either with or without extra stimuli (like self-defense, or the ability to make mistakes and learn from them). Girls have, in turn, the task not to abuse their empathy, verbal and social skills through gossiping or emotional manipulation. Even so, boys can acquire better verbal and communication skills too – as long as they are up to it instead of having it forced upon them.
Boys do have much to offer – just as girls do – but they are often portrayed negatively: they are said to be restless, unmanageable, school dropouts; they supposedly behave dangerously or are destructively aggressive. This portrayal does not work; it’s not constructive, it points at the negative, and in doing so reinforces that aspect. There’s no denying their own responsibility – something they need to learn to comprehend – but sometimes it is as if we blame them for their nature or for the effects of our neglect and bad examples.
No boy is the same, whether it be in terms of background, culture, temperament or sexual orientation. Each has an individual interpretation of his own life and has to make something of it by himself. To a certain extent, boys have to deal with other tasks than girls when they are growing up, either in terms of their disposition, their biological make-up in body and brain, the male legacy placed on their shoulders and because they have few close and communicative male role models.
They grow up somewhat more irregularly; some of their qualities come sooner, other later. It takes most boys longer to mature into adulthood than most girls. Therefore, they need to be given extra and sometimes different forms of attention. When they are up to it they can learn to communicate better, whereas girls can learn to defend themselves physically.
Boys can and should learn to know themselves and others, see what suits them, direct their energy into constructive channels, get connected and achieve a sense of balance. Women can give this attention, but boys do also need positive male examples in their direct environment. Male dominance in the outside world may seem to favor boys, but they have an invisible burden on their shoulders. Many adults know too little about the ways in which boys learn and operate in the world. Many adults have stopped to think about their lack of intimacy, the pressures of work, the media, the market, or the violence they experience from each other and sometimes become a part of.
It is as if many adult men have forgotten their own younger years (or do exagerate their own young experiences as a kind of cult). Negative reactions towards boys’ behavior easily lead to a vicious circle. The male world imposes limitations upon them, emphasizes greed, frequently gives bad examples – making the choice to learn to care for themselves and others a difficult one. Spiritual fulfilment often seems far away.
What does really matter?
Mankind is heading for disaster if we keep on focusing on material wealth and ‘economic growth as a flight forward’, escaping responsibilities in the present and mixing up show with self-acceptation, self-esteem and self-actualization. Advertisements try to link products with people’s unfulfilled wishes and needs in domains like prestige, belonging, intimacy and self-esteem. It’s a never-ending story: real satisfaction that lasts longer than the ever shorter product-cycles is the enemy of this economy. In other words: from advertisements one can deduce the flaws and shortcomings of our culture. Putting it bluntly, in a world where people have satisfying sexual relations, it would be ridiculous to sell cars (or coffee, or whatever…) with sex.
Upbringing and coaching boys in what really matters – love for themselves and other people, enjoyment of this world, and taking care of our environment – instead of duty, guilt, do’s and don’ts is one of the manners in which we can strike newer and better paths for our planet.
Boys learn differently from girls and in some aspects they give different significance and meaning to their lives. Parents, schools and the media can offer them support by tuning into what they are already capable of doing, by challenging them and helping them in areas which they are ready to deal with. Imposing limitations on them where necessary and confronting them when they go too far and harm others, gives boys structure and safety. The distinction between obedience and learning is crucial here. Under hazardous conditions, obedience is a way of coping with stress or threads, but real learning may suffer. Skills and knowledge of a higher order will fail here.
Boys with a background in other cultures
For boys from ethnic minorities it can be more difficult to find their own way. Their religious beliefs sometimes may provide them with inspiration, but major cultural differences can also be a hindrance. They are often brought up with little discussion or negotiations and they may communicate badly with the still dominant white western culture or fail to adjust to a culture they are supposed to be a part of. The mutual lack of understanding arising from this, in addition to discrimination and more limited opportunities, rapidly leads to a destructive escalation. Major contrasts between men and women in their culture of origin may stand in the way of equal rights and a relaxed relationship with girls and women. We as adults must initiate contact. Poor opportunities and humiliation will create a climate in which they become easy prey to extremists. This places extra requirements on those who are supervising and sometimes also disciplining them on their way to an adult role in this world.
Fathers are crucial for making contact, setting examples and giving support. Boys (and girls) who have a safe attachment to their father do develop a lot easier, have more self-confidence in the outside world, and especially boys do better in language and selfregulation. Fortunately, an increasing number of adult men are trying to combine work and care, but there are others who provide awful examples for boys by placing excessive emphasis on classical male codes and stereotypes, material prosperity and asocial, corrupt and sometimes even simply vulgar behavior, on the street but also high up in government and the corporate world. Recent research shows in general, that men who conform strongly to traditional restrictive masculine norms tend to have poorer mental health and have less favourable attitudes toward seeking psychological help. This sets an example for boys and young men. With the power of money and media all around them, the integrity which should function as a mirror to boys is often missing. Yet the world is at their feet now that the relationships between men and women are changing, even though this won’t happen of its own accord. It is a question of equal opportunities and – whenever necessary and useful – attention for differences in predisposition and development; no more and no less.
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