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Boys need to be boys, for all our sakes

Sunday Times

Ryan was 8 when he decided to kill himself. He saved up his Ritalin tablets until there looked enough for an overdose, then knocked them back and waited to die. Later, after he’d been very sick, his mum asked why he’d done it.

‘Because I’m too naughty,’ he said. ‘I’m just a nuisance to everyone.’

Ryan is constantly in trouble at school and home. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a ‘developmental disorder’ involving problems with concentration and self-control. ADHD didn’t exist as a medical condition until 40 years ago, but is now thought to affect between five and ten percent of the population. The vast majority of sufferers are male.

In 2006 I published a book called Toxic Childhood, looking for reasons behind recorded increases in children’s behavioural and learning difficulties over the last twenty or so years. I concluded that, although British lifestyles have changed hugely during that time, children haven’t. Their developmental needs – physical, emotional, social, cognitive – are still the same. But unintended side-effects of rapid social and cultural change mean that those needs are often not being met. Junk food, poor sleeping patterns, a screen-based life-style, marketing pressures, family upheavals all interfere with healthy development.

It was also clear from my research that these behavioural and learning difficulties hit the male of the species hardest. Educationally, for instance, many now fall at the first fence and never recover: boys are three times as likely as girls to need extra help with reading at primary school, and by the time they reach GCSE they trail behind in almost every subject of the curriculum. Indeed, less than a century after women’s emancipation, female students significantly outnumber male ones in British universities.

In terms of behaviour, developmental disorders such as ADHD are around four times more likely to affect boys. And so are the emotional, behavioural and mental health problems which, according to the British Medical Association, now beset between ten and twenty percent of our children and teenagers. As these sorts of problems in teenage boys all too often lead to school failure, disaffection and antisocial behaviour, there are powerful social reasons for trying to solve them.

So I’ve now researched and written another book, to find out why the modern world seems particularly toxic for boys. And it’s already clear that there’s one unintended – and largely unrecognised – side-effect of change that’s made life much harder for them. The sort of behaviour we require from our offspring in an uptight, urban, risk-averse and increasingly bureaucratic society comes far less naturally to infant males than it does to their sisters.

Take the ‘naughtiness’ that’s wrecking life for Ryan and those around him. There have always been naughty boys, but in the past the activities of scamps, scrumpers and scallywags were usually shrugged off as high spirits. Fictional rascals, like Huck Finn and William Brown, clearly viewed themselves as heroes, not suicidal victims.

The big difference between Ryan’s miserable existence and that of youngsters in the past is that, until the end of the twentieth century, much of boys’ boisterous behaviour went unnoticed and unrestrained by adults. There was time, space and freedom for lads to run off steam. Even when shades of the prison house did close around the growing boy, the time round the edges of the school or working day was still his own, and the local woods and hills his natural habitat.

This isn’t simply a case of ‘blue-remembered hills’, the tendency of adults to romanticise childhood in bygone days. There have, of course, been periods in the past when children were mercilessly exploited and probably had little time or energy to play, but most historical accounts of boyhood – even recent urban ones – involve a degree of freedom to roam that seems unthinkable today.

And this change is very recent – indeed, it’s happened in the last fifteen to twenty years. When I speak to parent audiences, I often invite them to spend a couple of minutes exchanging memories of playing when they themselves were children, then ask for a show of hands on how many of these memories were outdoors. It’s almost always a full house. If I ask whether they were playing without overt adult supervision, the vast majority again raise their hands – especially the fathers in the audience. ‘We’d be off on our bikes [or playing football, or fishing for tiddlers or building forts…] for hours on end,’ they say dreamily, ‘and come back when we were hungry.’ But when asked if they’d allow their own sons the same levels of freedom, they shake their heads.

There are many reasons behind contemporary parents’ reluctance to let their children play out, one of which is a very reasonable fear about increases in traffic. Another is the far less reasonable and generalised fear of ‘stranger danger’, which – in today’s highly anxious climate – parents seem unable to keep at bay, even when they know that child abduction is no more likely today than it was in their own youth. But perhaps the most significant reason for most of the parents I speak to is fear of being thought irresponsible.

In an increasingly risk-averse society, it’s become the mark of a good parent to keep one’s child under careful scrutiny at all times. And as ‘responsible’ parents have increasingly locked their children away, there’s been a change in the attitude of the general public to unsupervised children. In the last few years, communities in all areas of the country have become far less tolerant of boys’ outdoor play, even when it’s not particularly rambunctious.

A teacher in North London told me recently of a small group of boys who were playing out behind her house during the school holidays, making go-karts from bits of junk. She was stunned when a letter was posted through her door by a neighbour, urging her to help move the children on. ‘They may be making go-karts today,’ the letter explained, ‘but they could be vandalising our cars tomorrow.’ My informant didn’t join in the witch-hunt, but enough neighbours did, the boys’ families were contacted and the lads moved on – presumably back into their homes to be propped in front of the TV or communing with a Gameboy for the rest of the holiday.

And yet boys have a deep biological need to be out and about. According to evolutionary biologists, the brains of newborn human babies haven’t changed significantly since Cro-Magnon times, so infant males are still born with the genetic encoding of Stone Age hunters. As they grow, their bodies yearn to rehearse this masculine role: they need to run across fields, clamber through undergrowth, fashion tools and weapons, push boundaries, take risks. If they don’t fulfil these needs, they’re likely to suffer in terms of development – physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively.

Humanity has, of course, come a long way since Stone Age times, not least because of our remarkable and unique ability to pass on our culture to our young. Through the ages this has made the human race more civilised, more democratic and more able to live a peaceful, social existence. Part of the process of civilisation has been finding ways of gradually redirecting little boys’ primitive male instinct to hunt (and fight) along channels that suit the economic circumstances of the day. But it is a gradual process, and can’t be rushed.

Sadly, we seem to have reached a stage where adult citizens have ‘civilised’ themselves out of a sense of shared humanity. In a society driven by individualism, selfish consumerism and rights legislation, it’s easy for powerful groups (such as neighbours with no small children of their own) to assert their rights over those of less powerful groups – and children are the least powerful members of society. Modern parents, frantically trying to deal with the results of childhood toxicity, have responded by locking their children out of sight. But when adults deny children the right to play – out of fear, risk aversion or sheer intolerance – they threaten the long-term health not only of those children, but of society itself.

Even in the twenty-first century, we still have to civilise our young, balancing their natural instincts with the requirements of society. This is what ‘bringing up’ children means. During the first ten years or so, parents and teachers have to bring these Stone Age babies up through ten millennia of human culture, civilising, socialising and educating them for the world they’ll live in. The process has always been more difficult with boys, since prototype hunters are less naturally inclined to social niceties than their sisters, the prototype nurturers. And as our urban, technology-driven lifestyle moves us ever further away from our biological heritage, it becomes even more of a challenge.

The sensible approach – adopted in Scandinavian countries, with their outdoor forest schools and long period of informal preschool education – is to acknowledge boys’ biological drives, and to take them into account, while gradually introducing all children to the sorts of behaviour society requires. There’s a general awareness of children’s developmental needs among parents, politicians and the general public in the Nordic countries that means everyone takes a more broad-minded and tolerant attitude to the under-sevens, especially boys, and play is valued as an essential part of their early learning.

Giving boys leeway in the early years pays off long-term. With time and space to develop physical, emotional and social skills, they acquire greater levels of self-control and empathy. As time goes by, they can therefore be expected to behave with greater consideration to their more venerable neighbours. Meanwhile, those neighbours, having smiled indulgently at the little lads when they saw them playing out as toddlers, are unlikely to feel threatened by them as they grow up. (The early leeway pays off in cognitive terms too – despite starting the formal teaching of reading two years later than we do in the UK, Sweden and Finland regularly top the international league for achievement in literacy.)

The contrast between Scandinavian tolerance of young children’s needs and current Anglo-Saxon practices couldn’t be more stark. In hyper-competitive hard-nosed Britain, public, parents and politicians all seem to feel there’s no time to waste on running about and playing. Our children – especially those wayward boys – must be fast-tracked into ‘sensible’ adult-like behaviour, as soon as possible. And since we’re not prepared either to provide the safe open spaces needed for play, they also have to be fast-forwarded into a sedentary, screen-based twenty-first century lifestyle.

So from their very earliest years, many little boys born in the UK today have little means of fulfilling their instinctive need for activity and risk. They’re plonked from babyhood in front of the television (or, in more aspirational households, Baby Einstein DVDs) to watch other people moving about rather than getting down and dirty themselves.

When they go out they’re strapped into car seats or buggies to transport them safely and swiftly to their destination – researchers have found that British two-year-olds are now as sedentary as office-workers. Indeed, one headteacher in a disadvantaged area of the country recently told me about a three-year-old boy brought to his nursery who could scarcely walk. Frustrated by his tendency to be ‘into everything’ his mother had decided to confine him almost permanently to his buggy. When he wasn’t out and about with her, this could be positioned in front of the TV.

At nursery, boys are corralled with a host of other children, mostly indoors so that energetic play is out of the question. And even outdoors there’s often restraint: toddlers in the nursery down the road from me are now exercised on leads in our local park – three children per nursery worker. This fulfils current health and safety regulations, but leaves their charges with less freedom of movement than the average family dog.

And when proper school starts – which it does in Britain earlier than anywhere else in the world – children must knuckle down straight away to reading and writing. But when they’re denied the rough-and-tumble activity that develops physical coordination and control, many five-year-old boys are simply unable to focus on a book or wield a pencil. They find class lessons, trying to sit still ‘on the mat’ while the teacher explains the mysteries of phonics, bewildering and intolerable. (‘It wastes your time, sitting on the mat’, one little boy said to a researcher. ‘It wastes your life,’ chimed in his mate, dolefully.) So boys who are too immature to settle sufficiently often fail to pick up the basic skills that underpin the Three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic. They then tumble into a cycle of school failure, guaranteed to add to their antisocial tendencies.

Social class comes into this, of course. A boy who lives in a home with a good-sized garden, attends a school with extensive grounds, or goes for frequent family holidays by the sea or in the countryside, will obviously have more opportunities to run off his high spirits. And if his parents know enough about ‘toxic side-effects’ to ensure a decent diet, the right amount of sleep, and feelings of relative security, he’s more likely to thrive than a child who feeds on junk, watches TV in his bedroom till late into the night, and never knows what’s round the next emotional corner.

As well as creating a new educational gender gap, our blinkered attitude to childhood thus feeds the growing – and alarming – gap between rich and poor. This too contrasts strongly with Scandinavia, where the division between haves and have-nots is actually decreasing. It’s difficult to convince politicians and the general public of the connection between a sensible early years educational policy and social cohesion, but my seven years of research into childhood convinces me there is one.

All boys – rich and poor – would benefit enormously from more time and space to develop in the early years. Even though our more well-heeled boys are still, on the whole, managing to overcome the handicap of an early start on formal education, they’re nevertheless missing out on other important lessons learned through play. Despite our country’s current obsession with school tests and standards, academic achievement is not the only measure of a man.

As we move further into the 21st century, our young men will need physical control, emotional resilience and social competence to meet the challenges ahead. And one of those challenges, unless we act very soon, will be dealing with the threat to society posed by Ryan and the growing band of ‘lost boys’, as they follow the horribly predictable downward spiral of school failure, teenage disaffection, violence and crime.

If British society is to keep up with the frantic pace of change, we must acknowledge not just where we’re going to, but where we come from. Every baby born is a link between the future of the human race and its remote, primitive past. And if boys aren’t allowed to be boys – for the first few years at least – a growing number of them are likely to reject the cultural treasures we’ve spent ten millennia acquiring.

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