COLUMN | Steve Biddulph: Understanding boys

We need to raise our sons to be good communicators with open hearts.

Boy or girl – does it matter?  You have to discover the unique child you have got, writes Steve Biddulph

Congratulations they say to you.  It’s a girl!  Or, it’s a boy!  And straight away your ideas and images about their future start to take shape. You can’t help it, and nor should you, as its by dreaming that we mobilise ourselves for the great journey of raising a child. But we have to keep an open mind. Gender does not tell you everything about a child.

There are boys, for example, who are sensitive, quiet and gentle, and girls who are thick-skinned, boisterous and noisy. You have to wait and find out ‘what you have got’.  But taken as a whole, gender still has some risk factors that will apply and are really worth knowing.  After all, the whole secret of raising children is finding out their nature and working with that.

I often say that the world doesn’t need men who can wrestle buffaloes any more, so we need to raise our sons to be good communicators with open hearts. But, the world is still harsh and terribly sexist, so we have to raise our daughters with backbone and fire. By knowing what you start with, it makes working towards equality more likely to succeed.

The biggest biological difference between boys and girls is in rate of brain maturity. Even as a newborn, a baby girl has a more finished brain and that difference continues all through. Most girls are ready at five for sit-down schooling, they are settled and patient, and their fingers work well, their words and language are coming along.  Meanwhile, most boys are simply not. So we have to be wary of starting boys in school too young.

Boys also go through very different stages, at very different times. In updating the Raising Boys book last year, we found that new hormone research explained the phenomena of the ‘full-on fours’ when many parents noticed their four-year-old sons becoming incredibly active and physical. In fact, it’s been one of my key themes over forty years that we must let all children feel okay about their need for movement, activity, and exercise. Mothers in many countries have told me that they felt enormous relief that their boys weren’t ‘bad’ for being lively. That just as with a big dog in your home or apartment, you need to run off all that energy. It’s actually helping them to grow their brain.

We also found new research about the ’emotional eights’ when early hormone changes, about four years before actual puberty, cause them to have more intense feelings. Explaining to our little boys that “it’s okay, sometimes feelings get big” and helping them know the warning signs, when to walk away and chill for a while, and to be able to talk to you when they are sad or afraid, or feel like punching out their best friend. I always remember a little boy who heard his best friend was moving to another school –  he hit him!  We males have to be able to stay with our grief sometimes. I once heard a dad saying to his son, who was struggling on the edge of tears “you are a great kid, you have such an open heart”, and then nestling against him with a sideways hug. The boy turned towards him in a full embrace and let the tears come. It was so healing.

When I began in the 1970s, the theory of the time was – raise kids the same, without any gender messages, and they will turn out the same. And that is very worthwhile to pursue. We have to make absolutely sure that we don’t box children in by saying girls must, and boys must. At the same time, if we can learn all we can about the biology of being a boy, and being a girl, then we can do equality better. Next time I’ll write about the strengths, and vulnerabilities of being a girl, and how to make sure she is strong, equal, and comfortable in her own skin. So she can wrestle her own buffaloes!

Steve Biddulph AM

Author – 10 Things Girls Need Most, Raising Girls, Raising Boys.

Complete Secrets of Happy Children, and The New Manhood