FRIDAY, 26 MAY, 2000
BRINGING UP BOYS IS HARDEST
Trouble ... boys will be boys while it is different for cute little girlsWith Dr RUSSELL VINER The Sun
BRINGING up children is never easy, but if you have a boy it’s probably going to be that much harder.
Mothers frequently tell me that their girls were easy while their boys tested them to their limits.
Before puberty, boys are psychologically and emotionally more vulnerable than girls.
They have a higher rate of emotional problems in general, and are harder hit by stress, divorce and school problems than girls.
Of course, this rule doesn’t apply to all boys. But it may explain why we are now constantly told that we are raising a generation of difficult boys who are unsure about whether they will be ordinary blokes, a lad or new-age guys.
Boys today are having more trouble in almost every area than previous generations. Sadly, this is reflected in the dramatic rise in suicide rates among teenage lads - with more than twice as many taking their own lives than 30 years ago.
So why are boys harder to raise?
Part of it is to do with the male hormone testosterone, which seems to programme boys’ brains to be more active, more demanding, but also more emotionally insecure than girls.
Boys tend to be more up-front and demanding of parents’ attention, which means a lot more effort is needed to keep them occupied and out of mischief as well as feeling emotionally secure. Mums, especially, can have difficulty striking this balance.
They risk either smothering their sons or becoming too distant from them — both of which can cause emotional problems.
Part of the problem lies with the lack of good male role models, the examples set by fathers for their sons.
In many families today, dads are simply not around much. It may be because most single-parent families rely on a mum.
But even in two-parent families, many dads are spending longer hours at work than ever before.
Traditionally, mothers play the larger part in bringing up boys. But boys need what psychologists call a SAFE, STRONG MALE around to model themselves on — or even to rebel against.
Whether dad is around or not, male role models for boys are not in short supply.
Boys can easily find them in soccer heroes like David Beckham and Gary Linekers, or even the now "new-mannish" pop stars Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis - despite their public bust-ups!.
But it is also very important that they have REAL men around — ordinary grandads, uncles and dads. Part of the difficulty with raising boys is that they show unhappiness in different ways to girls.
Girls are much more articulate. They are more likely to tell their parents or their best friend about their problems.
Boys often find it hard to tell others when something is wrong, even their parents. So their unhappiness comes out in other ways, including bad behaviour or tantrums.
And when they are unhappy, boys will make sure they give others a hard time — not themselves!
Unfortunately, these problems do seem to be worsening in modern Britain, which is the hardest and most expensive place to raise children in Europe.
Boys are increasingly confused about what a proper modern male should be like — macho and strong, sensitive and wimpy, or somewhere in between. It is a difficult balance to achieve, particularly when you consider all the other problems that adolescence throws up.
I believe that most parents do a pretty good job of raising their sons under the circumstances, and that dire warnings about future generations of male misfits are over the top.
But I’m afraid it is likely to be a very long time before bringing up a boy is a matter of sugar and spice and all things nice.
Dr Viner is a consultant paediatrician and adolescent physician at London’s Great Ormond Street and University College Hospitals. Sorry, but he cannot answer letters personally.
Health check: Male bonding
Ideal ... show him lots of love
THERE are some things you can do to help raise your sons to be emotionally strong and contented men:
1. Make sure your son has frequent contact with men he can admire – who you think have a strong and considerate attitude to life. Obviously, this should be his father. But if this is not possible, look to other relatives or his sports coach or youth group leader. They can have an important role in providing examples of good male behaviour for boys.
2. Remember that boys may show unhappiness through bad behaviour rather than being sad. Watch for a pattern of bad behaviour rather than one-off incidents. If your boy is always disruptive and difficult when dad comes home from work, he is probably telling you he is unhappy because dad is not around enough. Dealing with this is tricky, because you must still discipline him for the behaviour but you should also try to work out why he is misbehaving. Never use violence to answer bad behaviour.
3. If there are family stresses or problems, keep a close eye on all your children's reactions, but particularly the boy’s. Make an effort to let him know what is going on, and try to encourage him to talk about the reasons for his unhappiness rather than expressing it through bad behaviour.
4. Boys often need a lot more effort at consistency in discipline than girls. Boys will test you to your limits – you need to be firm and clear in your discipline. For mums it is important to find the right distance in your relationship with your son – don’t smother, but don’t be too distant.
5. If you are concerned, seek professional help.