The Tenderness of Boys
Pre-school boys often show an intuitive and joyous lifeforce which they later learn to suppress. NICK THORPE looks at what happens on the road to manhood, and what we can do about it.
“There’s great native tenderness in children - in boys as much as in girls,” says the Australian novelist Tim Winton. “But so often I see boys having the tenderness shamed out of them.”
Winton’s counter-cultural description of boys as “beautiful creatures” – “graceful, dreamy, vulnerable” – before they learn to wear the stereotypical armour of masculinity, always gets an emotive ripple of recognition from both women and men when we quote him at our Celebrating Boys workshops.
Why? Because in stark contrast to the Victorian rhyme about slugs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, many of us love the irrepressible life-force and wide-openness of our own sons – particularly before they get to school age.
Mothers in particular (in most cases still the primary carers) feel the intense emotional connections their sons offer at an early age. For her superb book The Birth of Pleasure, Psychologist Carol Gilligan interviewed many women who described their four- and five-year-old sons as emotionally present and startlingly intuitive to a range of their feelings – sometimes in a way that their partners were not.
But fathers too, interviewed in the pre-school years, told Gilligan of their sense of closeness, the sweetness and spiritedness of the boys - and also a sense of sadness about an impending loss they couldn’t quite name but that they remembered feeling in their own young lives.
Does this resonate with parents out there? I feel a lump in my throat remembering my own son totally in his element in a barnstorming nativity play in his last year of nursery – his sheer pleasure in being alive - and comparing that to the default watchfulness and peer pressure that seemed to descend with schooling.
TABOO ON TENDERNESS
While many schools are trying heroically to change this, the basic desk-based paradigm and academic framework requires our boys to adapt themselves. It’s like an induction to the hierarchical win-lose economic and social structure in which we all to some extent end up.
The shorthand for this is patriarchy – somewhat ironically, given that it proves particularly hobbling for young boys, who quickly fall behind girls in attainment (except, interestingly, in countries where play-based kindergarten-style learning continues until age seven).
In fact, the “taboo on tenderness”, as British psychiatrist Ian Suttie has called it, actually runs counter to boys’ natural vulnerability. Research increasingly shows that far from being hardy creatures, boys in early childhood are more likely than girls to show signs of emotional distress – more prone to depression, learning and speech disorders and various forms of out-of-control or out-of-touch behaviour.
Young girls meanwhile show a general resiliency in the face of stress, until adolescence, when societal expectations kick in hard, and there is a sudden high incidence of depression, eating disorders, problems in learning and destructive behaviour.
In both boys and girls, Gilligan shows how the pressure to take on stereotypical qualities of masculinity and femininity causes us to shut down our instinctive “knowing” and openness to the full spectrum of life. This only exacerbates gender difference and leads to more shadowy behaviour – including ultimately the extremes highlighted in the #metoo campaign.
“Masculinity often implies a willingness on the part of boys to stand alone and forgo relationships,” observes Gilligan, “whereas femininity connotes a girl’s willingness to compromise herself for the sake of relationships. But both strategies (forgoing relationships to maintain one’s voice and muting one’s voice to maintain relationships) lead to a loss of both voice and relationship.”
What I love about Gilligan’s book (which, by the way, is written for the academic rather than self-help market) is that it holds out a hope for a world where we no longer have to follow these strategies.
When we required young men to sacrifice themselves in their millions for war, or sent them down mines or up chimneys, this “toughening up” had a kind of twisted logic, just as women were required to submit to men’s idea of femininity and sacrifice life outside the home to bear the full weight of bringing up families.
AUTHENTIC & ALIVE
But in today’s world, as men increasingly take on their innate nurturing role in domestic life, and women excel in business and politics, it’s surely time to ditch the old binary model and help our children to access their fullest selves. Gilligan’s prescription is that we strive to offer our children permission to be absolutely authentic, so that they don’t feel they have to hide their true selves to fit in.
The roots of the words patriarchy and feminism sometimes seem to imply that the problem is masculine and the solution is feminine. But Gilligan clearly cherishes both boys and girls for the unsullied “knowing” and pleasure they hold within them – and shows why older boys’ and men’s yearnings and pain are often wordless and unarticulated at first, because they were so much younger than girls when they last felt fully in their bodies and souls.
While she robustly lays out the ways in which such pain can turn septic and abusive to women, Gilligan ultimately sees both men and women losing out from this “tragic love story”. As a man I felt fully seen with empathy, along with the clear understanding that the way forward will be shared and co-created by the feminine and masculine together.
A NEW STORY
So what might this new way look like?
· Men holding emotional space for men & boys. In my work in mens’ circles and on rites of passage, I’ve witnessed brave men of all ages accessing grief that has haunted them for decades – and experiencing liberation which directly impacts their parenting. (I’ll explain in a future blog why I think all-male groups are particularly effective.)
· Reform an education system that’s not set up for boys. What boys know in their bodies is that they need to move about, not sit for hours at desks – so at the very least we should bring more active learning into our schools. Ideally, we should delay formal education until age 7 as advocated by the UpStart campaign.
· Encourage emotional openness in our boys. Even one relationship where a child can speak their heart and mind freely and without fear of censure, offers the best protection against most forms of psychological trouble, particularly in times of stress.
· Stop using shame to control boys (or girls). Let’s banish “Man Up” or “Stop crying like a girl” or “Don’t be such a drama queen” from our vocabulary. Emotions – including healthy anger - are universal and can be welcomed as part of our growth. We all need to cry, shout, laugh, stomp at times, and within certain boundaries can be welcomed in doing so.
· Dads, embrace feminism for your son’s sake. As Gilligan puts it, feminism properly understood is “not a battle in the war between the sexes but rather a movement to transform a world in which both men and women suffer losses that constrain their ability to love”. Let’s teach our sons to respect women and themselves – proper win-win stuff.
· Forget perfection – mending creates bonding. We all make mistakes. And Gilligan stresses that trust does not come from the quality of the relationship, but from the ability of the mother/father/carer and child together to repair breaks in relationship and build “a safe house for love”.
Let’s imagine what it might mean for boys, if we allowed them to trust what brought pleasure? What did I know in my body as a little boy, that I learned to suppress or forget after that?
The whoop of joy; the ache of grief; the wild whirling energy that tore across the playground like a dervish; the tender handling of a tiny insect in my palm; the intuitive knowing of a mother’s pain; the healing power of tears; the tingle of arousal; the animal fury of a moment, giving way to laughter.
It’s what I want for my son – and it’s what I want for me. Both in coaching men and my own personal life as father and husband, I’ve discovered that all this is still available in mature masculinity, awaiting the first courageous moment of opening.
The Birth of Pleasure: a new map of love, by Carol Gilligan (Vintage, 2003)