Why boys need a boyhood to become good men

Boys struggling to find their self-worth ...
Boys struggling to find their self-worth ... Photo: Getty Images

Given the current deep community outpourings of concern for the senseless violence present on Australian streets at night, the disturbing numbers of little boys being suspended and expelled from our schools, and the decreasing numbers of young men attending and graduating university, something is going wrong in the world of our boys.

I lay blame on society, which seems to have stolen boyhood in the name of a sanitised, politically correct, gender neutral, bland childhood.

One of the world’s leading writers on boys and men, Michael Gurian, believes the invisible drive at the biological core of manhood is the pursuit to prove self-worth. No one can give a man his self-worth – he has to give this to himself. The guidance of good men, of course, helps.

To find this place, however, boys and men seek external ways to demonstrate potency, victory and independence – and this is what helps shape their search for meaning and purpose in life from a very early age. It is the warrior unfolding from within.

There have been several shifts in society that have undermined our children and particularly impacted on our boy warriors.

In days gone by, boys had the freedom to roam unsupervised on adventures that allowed them to be massively engaged in pursuits that helped them to learn and grow using life’s greatest teacher – experience.

Our modern-day phobia that our world is unsafe, especially for our boys, is creating an environment where they are finding it ever more difficult to find that place of self-worth through external moments of potency and success. We now run the risk of creating a generation of frustrated and angry young men.

The dominant male hormone testosterone is associated with sex and aggression and the search for social power, ambition and independence. Another key influencer (alongside cultural conditioning of course) may be that men have more receptors for the hormone vasopressin – which some researchers have associated with territoriality, hierarchy, competition and persistence, as well as the capacity to bond.

Generally, boys are soft wired to be competitive and active, and are constantly in search of moments to prove their worth and value (in girls and women, oestrogen and oxytocin influence us in different ways, along with their cultural conditioning).

The playground provides an early opportunity for boys to demonstrate worth but the safe, ‘fantastic plastic’ playgrounds of today are emasculating boyhood.

We’ve removed the traditional monkey bars, seesaws and maypoles which were all wonderful opportunities to stretch oneself, hurt oneself when a poor decision was made and learn how to play well with other children – this is where we learnt healthy risk management.

Today’s playgrounds are less engaging and statistics show that children are injured more in modern playgrounds than in the scary old playgrounds because they no longer know how to cope with and manage risk. And keeping kids indoors certainly hasn’t made them any safer either.

The demise of vigorous play as a valid and accepted part of the school playground has also had an impact. Not only did it allow for boys to discharge energy, it was another way children learnt the code of good play versus bad play.

As boys tend to be less efficient at using language to resolve conflict, this is where they learnt non-verbal cues telling them it was time to leave and walk away.

Leading play expert Dr Stuart Brown argues that we only develop an understanding of ‘play code’ in our childhood from playing endlessly with other children.

Without a play code we can badly misread social situations and interpret a threat incorrectly and, without the ability to defuse the situation, this can turn into violence quickly, especially with a bellyful of alcohol.

Other trends that are sucking the healthy warrior spirit from our young lads include the ban on keeping score in junior sports competitions so nobody under 14 loses (or wins!). This must be so exasperating for lads, another stolen validation.

Some early years’ centres have banned superhero play so children are not allowed to dress in capes and masks to lead the fight of good versus bad – this actually needs to be encouraged rather than shamed as this courage settles deep within a boy’s psyche.

We’ve also seen bans on tree climbing, playing chasey and even removing sandpits to be replaced by more mat time, phonics in isolation, more desk work, less free play and homework for 4 year olds.

If I was a 5 year old today I would be angry too.

Boys need to learn at a young age what happens when they make poor choices in the pursuit of conquering the world.

Our modern-day warriors need to become accountable for their own actions before they hit the party scenes of late adolescence and make a mistake that may be life-changing.

We need to celebrate the bruises, the occasional stitches and the rare broken arm because boys learn deeply from real experience and seldom from lectures, especially from well-meaning mums. These wounds are external signs that you are a warrior.

Our children’s lives tend to be micromanaged, over-supervised and planned, and there is very little freedom and autonomy.

I believe the impact on boys is particularly negative and increasing levels of depression and mental illness in adolescence may be telling us that there are some very deep instinctual drives that need to be nurtured in a healthy way, rather than denied and crushed.

As Michael Gurian explains, the strong drive for self worth and value is a profound and sacred journey that is the core to a healthy manhood and it starts at a boy’s birth:

“This core of manhood represents maleness at its best – self sacrificing, devoted to service, loving, wise and powerful and at its worst – brutal, shaming, destructive, dangerous,” Gurian writes.

We need to seriously consider giving boys back their boyhoods and opportunities for authentic growth in the company of good men, or we are going to continue seeing more and more 'coward-hitting' warriors wreaking havoc in our communities.

Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator, speaker and mother of four sons. In February, she is releasing a DVD of her popular talk Boys, Boys, Boys: Understanding, Nurturing and Connecting to Today’s Boys, which is already available as streaming media at http://www.maggiedent.com

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