Basics: Boys in Balance

Last updated: 03/04/2017

Further elaboration: Development, Opportunities and High-risk Behaviour

Update december 13, 2016  L.Woltring (When quoting parts of this text please cite source with date of update and if possible, create a link to this text)

1.  Pleasure or problem?
2.  Policies and politics
3.  Boys. A blind spot?
4.  Nature, nurture and maturation. The epigenetic perspective.
5.  Chromosomes and hormones: the male body-brain.
6.  Behaviour under stress.
7.  Maturation of the brain.
8.  Risks and taking chances.
9.  Emotions and getting grip on your own reactions
10. Regression or post-feminism
11. Young men today
12. Men in parenting and education: role models and being sensitive to the way boys learn
13. Media and the advertisement industry
14. Power struggle or balance?
15. Zone of proximal development

We are living in troublesome times but fascinating as well: exciting, sometimes frightening, but also full of new possibilities and insights. A lot of learning has to be done, a lot is being learned and there are numerous opportunities to learn.

1 Pleasure or problem?

Use it or lose it. This is not only true about the developing brain and all the connections we make (or not) while experiencing life and acting upon it, it also goes for the energy and the qualities of young men. A thirst for action, creativity and exploring boundaries are qualities often associated with boys, as well as taking the initiative, experimenting, searching for solutions, desiring and having a feeling for justice. Every boy is naturally different. Many boys are doing really well, the current generation of young people are learning from the mistakes of previous generations and they are often able to get on with each other and others in a remarkably wise, supple and pleasurable manner. Naturally, creating problems where they don’t exist is nonsense.

However, some boys only manage to achieve part of their potential and there is a group who are really doing badly. In education, politics and the media these boys tend to have a negative image: they are portrayed as restless, troublesome, inaccessible, lazy, rude, aggressive or unreliable. They are either lacking in ambition or overambitious. Although this only applies to some boys, even so … are they really so bad? Or can their behaviour also be regarded as a reaction to what adults have to offer them? The worlds of sport, media and advertising often seem to glorify misbehaviour. The major question is what are these boys channelling their energy into? What do they dream of? Which adults – both men and women – are offering them support to search for something actually worthwhile, where they can develop their talents and direct their energy towards? How they can take up their responsibilities for the world if they do not, and how they can connected with others instead of focussing on their troubled self.

2 Policy and politics

Youth policy and the law are often ambivalent: boys are given a considerable amount of leeway but are also carefully watched and on occasion treated harshly. Boys who don’t project a strong image tend to be neglected, they often have to face problems on their own, while a tough approach for those overstepping the line frequently has the opposite effect. It calls forth new aggression and when everything has once again cooled down it’s a matter of waiting for the next incident. Even youth care professionals and civil servants in youth policy are often at their wits’ end.

In the Netherlands, in education and other areas of policy, special consideration for girls and their problems, questions and difficulties has existed for years. There is naturally nothing wrong with this, however, the same doesn’t apply for boys. Special attention for boys anticipates primarily potential nuisance and often it is repressive. Boys are supposed to fend for themselves and, if necessary, they will be given a proper dressing down (“That’ll teach them…”). Too much reproach in raising children and education can be detrimental. Feelings of guilt and shame are very strong emotions, especcially whjen they have not enough safe attachment to those who matter. If someone does not feel capable of preventing shame or shaking off blame, then this will only reinforce the feeling of inadequacy; with resentment this forms an explosive combination. E.g.  prisons are, without clear prospects, easy learning grounds for criminality. Humiliating sanctions or unfulfillable orders result in isolation, defensiveness and callous behaviour. Leaving school early is hardly the recipe for a successful future.

There are of course better ways of dealing with boys. But to develop them requires creativity and an awareness of sexual and cultural differences. Based on many years of experience both in the Netherlands and abroad, I can provide the services you need in this area.

3 Boys – a blind spot?

When the media and policy documents talk about ‘youth’ or ‘young people’ they usually mean ‘young men’ without making this explicit. Take any newspaper article, replace the word ‘young people’ with ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ and see whether the text still makes sense. A blind spot? What are boys really interested in? What brings out their better qualities and what makes them happy? How can they discover these things? What are their strengths and where do they get stuck? In an economic recession, or in an area with high unemployment doing nothing is destructive for a person’s self-image and it affects the motivation. If you are unemployed it is also important to consider what you are going to channel your energy into. On average, boys sooner than girls are more likely to be involved in all sorts of risky behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse, hostile behaviour at school, or small or large scale criminality, not only damaging others but also themselves.

4 Nature, Nurture and Maturation. The epigenetic perspective.

Of course every child and every boy is different, but upbringing, education and all sorts of interventions can be significantly more effective when people know how to respond to the particular predisposition and maturation process of boys.

5 Chromosomes and hormones: the male body-brain

The X chromosome is older in the evolution. The nowadays female variant is in a way closer to that original form. If not influenced by the Y-chromosome every baby would be female. The Y-chromosome, originating from the father,   has – among other factors – by means of provoking testosterone production – the effect that the foetus via a series of complex processes is ‘converted’ or ‘further developed into the male variant’ (it is just how you put it…).
The Y-chromosome in the boy-fetus makes that the mother produces a lot of testosterone in the womb; just before his birth the little boy is ‘marinated’ in testosterone… In this complex conversion process things can go wrong. There are more complications with baby-boys compared with baby-girls during pregnancy and around the birth. The first ten years boys are the weaker sex. Later they become stronger.

Boys tend to be more boisterous than girls: adrenaline and testosterone at work. On average, they mature more slowly. Their immune system is initially weaker: they have more childhood illnesses, but once they get over these, their immune system grows stronger. The physical growth as well as their emotional, verbal and cognitive development is often more irregular in boys, making it appear more incoherent, especcially the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex do mature slower.. Balancing seems the nuclear developmental task for boys more than for girls.

Their fine motor skills – for example, writing – usually develop later and their vocabulary is initially smaller. Tension stimulates performance, but being under too much stress means the higher cerebral functions (a.o. planning, empathy) are hardly given a chance and the necessary connections (i.e. learning) are made less easily.

6 Behaviour under Stress

Stress means that the primary reactions – fight, flight or fright – are more likely to dominate and the frontal neocortex seems practically disconnected, unless boys have learned a good motoric memory of managing their breathing (relaxation!) and learn to use reflective capacities.

7 Maturation of the Brain

Certainly in early years, some functions – especially those facilitating higher order skills – seem to be less integrated withy primary processes deep in the brain in boys than in girls. In boys, some brain functions seem to be more isolated. Research is going on and replaces some myths with more hard data.
In brief, brainfunctions that are associated with the intelligence of body and movement, felt emotions, space, music, creativity and intuition, are in boys in childhood and early adolescence less integrated with those parts that play a big role in logic, language and anticipation. This is in many ways a matter of maturation. The prefrontal lobes – with their important functions of inhibition, anticipation and planning – take more time to mature and integrate than in girls. In a process of making new connections (synaptognese) and dying away of unused connections (‘pruning’) the connections do grow and balance in the course of time, amongst other things through experience, and often through the correct challenges, attention, exercise, feedback and stimulus. It is thus a matter of challenging boys and helping them to integrate in due time (see, for example, on this website: cooperation,

Risks and taking Chances

Boys often have more of an eye for taking advantage of opportunities rather than for risks and safety. Tension and danger can be an attractive means of proving themselves, ‘it stimulates their nerve ends to make new connections’, so it is learning – but the ‘buzz’ of risky behaviour also numbs feelings of doubt, shame or not coming up to the mark. Boys certainly do not have any less emotions than girls, but it is often more difficult for them to express themselves. This – combined with often a lacking secure attachment to those adults who matter – makes them vulnerable for emotional pressure. Putting their own behaviour or feelings into words, to then be corrected or laughed at, easily leads them to bluffing or avoid expressing themselves in words: after all, everything you say can be used against you. This is unfortunate: it is precisely by being able to express yourself that you automatically give structure to your thoughts and feelings (conscious emotions) making reflection and communication easier.

9 Emotions and getting grip on your own reactions

A feeling for space, impulsive and intuitive movement and also the visual brain are often particularly strongly developed in boys. More than girls, most boys chiefly learn through trial and error. This can sometimes be difficult for their surroundings, but it is their natural way. Reacting positively to this results in a bond of confidence, which is necessary for intervening in more complicated situations. Developing communicative skills helps them and their daily environment, especially if we also pay attention to their physical communication, which many are often good at. Social and more verbal and reflexive skills can be learned more easily through physical balance and resistance programmes. During puberty, not only the existing connections in the brain are reorganised, as it were, but further specialisation also takes place and unused areas die off or become isolated. The ability to learn is at its peak.

10 Regression or post-feminism

Amidst all these biological data it makes sense to differentiate between regressive interpretations about masculinity and femininity (backlash to pre-feminist times, using biological data to legitimate male behaviours and dominance or female role taking and indirect dominance) and what I would call the post-feminist view: serving boys and girls right in what they need to grow into balanced and many-sided adults. Boys and girls have the same value, but they are not the same. Same treatment may breed larger differences. To reiterate: sex and gender are not all-determining, we are concerned here with the  differences between most boys and most girls, with considerable overlapping. Predisposition may strengthen certain opportunities or risks, but this is frequently only realised through influences from the environment. You cannot reduce boys and girls to one aspect of their personality, namely their sex and gender. What we can do is closely observe them with a feeling for sexual differences to see how schools, society and the media act upon them and try to find suitable solutions with them.
Furthermore, it is important to be aware that behavioural disorders, in particular in the autism spectrum (e.g. Asperger), concerning speech, language and the regulation of energy (e.g. ADHD and aggression disorders) occur more frequently in boys.
These disorders are not a question of a ‘faulty’ upbringing or environment, but is primarily due to predisposition or to early biological development, possibly epigenetic. Upbringing and other forms of support or constraint can help to make the situation more manageable. It is the case that boys with behavioural disorders are more likely to turn up in the judicial system, whereas girls are more likely to land up in the health care system or social services. Youth detention facilities and prisons are full of boys and young men, who, apart from being constrained, primarily need support and treatment.

11 Young men today

Improving the way boys are brought up and dealt with, starts with a quest. What does it mean to be a young man at the start of the 21st century? Girls are changing, tasks and roles are being redistributed, aspirations are high and everything seems to be permanently moving. This creates new opportunities for boys, but not automatically. A risk-society demands special competencies. Excessive individualization means interrelations must once again be sought, with each other and with the natural environment.

12 Men in parenting and education: role models and being sensitive to the way boys learn

In their youth, it is as important for girls as it is for boys that, in addition to women, they also associate with men. Boys need close role-models to measure up to, to mirror themselves upon and associate with. As children, they are mainly raised by women, admittedly often very well, but fathers and other men are still frequently far too distant. Happily there are increasing numbers of fathers who make time for their children, but in family law the position of fatherhood in all its current forms is in most countries actually weakly regulated.
In which roles do boys associate with men? In childcare and primary education, a primarily protective and ‘verbal-emotional’ climate does little justice to the more physical and experimental manner which characterizes many boys’ lives. Structure and protection are necessary, but an excess of order, neatness and protection, and too great an emphasis on the fine motor functions and linguistic skills, however, are perceived by boys to be constraints and hinder their curiosity, mobility and incentive to experiment.

In puberty and adolescence, many boys do not feel they are understood by women whereas they easily engage in a power struggle with men, unless men are able to offer them both space, a listening ear, as well as boundaries and good feedback, and do this with humour and a clear structure. They were once boys themselves, they have had comparable developmental tasks and often know how to respond more flexibly to their experimental behaviour and need for boundaries.

In primary education male teachers are disappearing at an increasing rate, while boys and girls need both men and women. This development is in danger of escalating. At teacher training colleges for primary educatie in the Netherlands, it is as if ‘a hidden female curriculum’ has come to exist and male students are increasingly rare, amongst other things because they feel less attracted to the contents of the lessons, the lack of space for experiment, and the predominantly verbal-cognitive and verbal-emotional atmosphere, namely the strong relational aspect and the many prescribed written or verbal reflections. Of course many women do a wonderful job in schools, but it is precisely male primary teachers who often have more feeling for the behaviour of boys and who are for example often able to discipline them if necessary using fewer words. Most men have a special kind of humor, physical attitude and communication, specific tone and timbre of voice that is attractive for children. For boys from an ethnic minority – who may not be used to the authority of women outside the home once they have outgrown their childhood – flexible and respectful cooperation with male and female teachers can provide them with excellent examples.
When starting secondary education, for many boys the accent has already fallen on unmanageability and hostile behaviour in schools. They are content with achieving a six out of ten for their schoolwork and life outside school holds far more attraction. At large schools there can be a lack of contact and their circle of friends or peer group predominates.

13 Media and Advertisement Industry

Given birth to by a women and for the most part closely surrounded by female role-models, there is the possibility that boys will primarily develop as ‘non-girls’; they can grow to be dismissive of girls or women, and mirror themselves on caricature images of men in the media. The individuality of every boy is overshadowed by the demands of the labour market and idealised images in the media which cannot be fulfilled. They are almost forced into bluffing. Advertising agencies tap into boy’s dreams and fantasies, embellish and associate them with all sorts of products which are then marketed back to them. It is precisely those intense emotions such as fear or happiness, the power of attraction or jealousy, greed or dismissive behaviour that advertising and the media strongly appeal to in order to distract consumers from consciously considering and weighing up the possibilities, to provide amusement or to sell products, as if what you possess or wear is who you are.

14 Power struggle or balance?

Boys want to have a grip on their lives and are faced with the special task of trying to find a balance in this. Faked self-confidence and challenging each other while at play can anticipate real self-confidence, so can be positive, but it also means that they can continually be brought down by others. Some boys shut themselves off, loneliness sets in, and a vicious circle begins. Anger and resentment can mask emotional clumsiness or low self-esteem and block the development towards balanced adulthood. Energy spins out in all directions and in large anonymous groups boys can become violent. The kicks induced by risky behaviour drown out common sense: primary emotions such as fight, flight or fright take over, agility is the only thing which counts and the higher brain functions (neocortex) are almost literally disconnected.

Many boys are continually jostling between struggling for power, exercising their power and reverting to powerlessness, until they find their actual power. They are exploring the extremes of the power triangle (adapted from Anja van de Servellen). (correction: ‘being fixed’ in the image below must be: ‘becoming stuck’ LW)


(1) Everyone experiences to have power in their lives: over themselves, over others or over their environment. This gives a feeling of control – you are in charge of your uncertainties – and this may give a kick as well. Perhaps you are entitled to the position you have attained – you are good at something, you take initiatives, are in charge and others also trust you in this – but there is a danger that you cling to that power, you take more than you are entitled to, you become stuck, stop learning and become cramped: you become a dictator over others and also partially over yourself, you easily feel threatened (politics are filled with examples). You can be toppled from your position and lose power. However, you can also let go and move on.

(2) Changing – possibly forced – sometimes leads to powerlessness. You have to admit that you can’t do something or can’t do it anymore and you are forced to confront yourself.  This can also lead to becoming stuck. You become pathetic, use your problems to seek attention and give others the blame: the victim’s power to prey on the energy of others. However, people avoid ‘parasites’ or ‘bloodsuckers’ or you become involved in complicated arguments.

(3) But you can also learn, you can pick up the thread in a different way, become assertive and engage in the power struggle once again until you have regained power (over yourself, the situation, possibly over others). This power struggle also helps you to learn  to know yourself better. Many people engage in this ‘power triangle’ a number of times, each time differently, until by doing so they learn (4) where their own inner strength lies: “What do I actually want? What is right for me, however great or small? What are my talents, what makes me feel at home? What really means something for me? How can I make a contribution and what do I need to obtain good and inspired results through which I can also relate to others and no longer feel alone?”

In jostling for a position young men are often pitted against each other. Healthy competition and rivalry turn into destructive behaviour, certainly if young men are left too much to their own devices, or are unable to learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and develop sufficient social skills. They have their hands full with themselves. The development of their inner strength and sense of direction – What is it all about? Who am I? What am I capable of doing? – is obstructed by shows of strength to cope with their insecurities. Some hide in powerlessness or aggression. Many boys swing between bravado and timidity.

15 Directing energy

Troublesome behaviour can also be seen as a signal: boys want to give meaning to their lives and look for boundaries. They like to test adults’ integrity but still have difficulty in recognising authority and sometimes stagnate in resentment, a sad combination of sadness and anger. Discipline is sometimes desperately needed, but the current call for detention centres or Borstal schools, primarily for boys who can no longer be handled, is a regrettable conclusion and an indication of failing efforts on the part of parents, supervisors and policy. Paying attention to boys and their developmental tasks and needs at an earlier stage can work preventively.

We should support young men in their search for new paths. This means, first of all, being able to make contact with them, listen to them and show appreciation. It also involves providing good examples and establishing boundaries, explaining them clearly and also maintaining them, preferably with humour and by offering a way out without losing face. Amends can be made for what you have brought about. Genuine interest really works. Confrontation is OK, but humiliation never works: nobody needs to be shown up.

16 Zone of proximal development

The concept of the zone of proximal development (by the Russian educational psychologist Vygotski) can enlighten us in our work. Just as cells continually divide and an organism grows, so children have a strong instinct to grow, experience something and develop themselves. Their world is constantly growing, they are broadening and advancing their prospects and an increasing amount of active connections are being made in their brains. Boys go through a lot and, if things go well, they want to take on an increasing level of responsibility. They may experience somewhat of a freakish passage through life: success, setback and sometimes relapse. Learning is often a matter of trial and error.

Being aware of which developmental phase that boys are in and the skills which they have already acquired is important. Prescribing or limiting someone in what he is already able to do is humiliating or creates laziness. However, if you can tune into what boys already are capable of, you will affirm their self-esteem and enable them to grow. Setting a boy a task which is bound to go wrong or will endanger himself or others leads to failure and disappointment. If so, it can also be humiliating or may result in fear or resentment. And if it happily turns out well, he may get a false feeling of safety. It is better to limit a boy when he goes way beyond his own boundaries and those of others and support him in doing things which are just out of his reach but can be achieved with help. Success not only boosts self-confidence but also increases trust in the person who is helping. Boys require help and support to name or internalise negative experiences or events which have not been coped with. Otherwise the learning process stops, the boy will feel stuck, or some hidden bitterness, grief or anger will develop.
This use of the ‘zone of proximal development’ can be used for every day tasks: in education, sport, recreation, surfing the internet, music or driving lessons. For example, you can ask yourself (and your son) whether a moped with an increased capacity is appropriate for the balance already acquired by 16 year olds, or does it actually place too high demands on them and only intensifies their natural restless energy by 50cc, resulting in pranks and accidents.
Popular or not, it means again and again tuning in to what boys want and can do; if necessary, finding this out together, putting it into words, developing alternatives together and, if need be,  helping them to direct their energy into different channels. In this way boys can get more of a grip on their bodies and lives, co-operate with others, and feel responsible for themselves and their surroundings. They can grow into well-balanced men who feel a bond with others instead of being selfish egotists, inflexible controllers or politically correct, verbally compliant but in fact weak men without a balanced and strong self-image.
In this way, fathers can have more fun with their sons, and professionals and volunteers will also enjoy their work with boys more.
2007  L. Woltring (update december 13, 2016).  (When quoting parts of this text please cite source with date of update  and if possible, create a link to this text)

Photo by Giles Douglas

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