Raising boys in the modern world

How do we bring up happier, healthier sons?  Ruth Whippman’s book explores the urgent need for us to question masculine stereotypes and free boys to be less lonely.

School

 

Raising kids these days is not easy, with all the school pressures, the Covid-related hangover, mental health issues and constant access to [mis]information. And while we’ve focused on how we raise our daughters to feel more confident to do anything they want to, we’ve perhaps not thought as much about how to raise happy, self-aware sons.

Yet it is how we raise both our sons and daughters that will dictate, to some extent, their resilience in the face of future challenges, including in the workplace, and their attitudes towards equality.

Ruth Whippman’s new book Boymum: Raising boys in an age of toxic masculinity is an attempt to address this issue from the point of view of both a feminist and someone who, as a mother of sons, loves boys deeply. Her contention is that while we have been focused on breaking down stereotypes for girls, “we have mostly been ignoring boyhood”. She calls this “a half-finished revolution”. What’s more, she says most of the books about raising boys are written by experts and tend not to stand the test of ‘messy’ reality. Many are written by men and mums tend to be sidelined in them, she argues.

As a mum, she is keen to learn how she can bring up happy, well-adjusted boys at a time of hyper stereotypes [super heroes, Andrew Tate and the like] which seek to impose certain ways of being on our sons.

Fragility

Whippman’s book starts by exploring the whole nature nurture thing. She seeks out the research on gender differences and is surprised to find that boys, “by almost every measure”, are more sensitive, fragile and emotionally vulnerable than girls and need more parenting [and a strong bond with their mother] and more support to build relationships and engage with their emotions, even though they tend to get less. 

Whippman contrasts the way girls are encouraged to pursue traditionally male pursuits, whereas it is still not okay socially for boys to engage with anything viewed as traditionally feminine. Boys are channelled away from relationship building in the toys, games, books and programmes targeted at them and towards competitive endeavours. Whippman interviews boys and says that invariably what comes across is a sense of loneliness as a result of superficial interactions and a desire for deeper, more emotionally focused connections. She writes: “Prioritising strong supportive relationships for our sons is likely the most important thing we can do for their long-term physical and mental wellbeing.”

She speaks to researchers who are worried about the growing phenomenon of boys retreating to onscreen life and away from socialising amid a rising right-wing embrace of traditional ‘masculinity’.  She describes a gaming world where personal or deeper conversations are rare. Emotions are suppressed, with all the damage that does, or channelled into aggression. For Whippman, the trends towards incels and the like have much deeper roots in the way we fail to nurture young boys, in hypermasculine hero narratives and a superonline culture, in a misogynistic society, a complex sexual landscape and rampant mental health problems.

A failure to question masculinity

Whippman would like to see us all thinking more about how we engage with boys, particularly schools, and for us to emphasise commonalities between the sexes and relationships. “As it turns out,” she writes, “boys are like humans”.

She says that despite all the feminist progress, we have failed to question masculinity, which is regrettable not just for women, but also for men. That starts with naming the problem and pointing out how it is failing so many boys. “I want boys to have the same level of awareness of where they are missing out, be able to identify and name the impossible pressures placed on them, and to ask for change,” she writes. That means prioritising connection and regular face to face social time and taking boys seriously as people. 

She ends: “Although masculinity has been in the spotlight since #MeToo, its terms have remained oddly static. We have accepted it as some kind of biologically determined inevitability, rather than a set of decisions that humans have made about meaning. I don’t want to make my sons’ meaning for them, but I want to give them the tools to think and notice – to question and analyse, not to just accept the chokehold of masculine expectations as an inevitable part of maleness.”



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