21st Century Boys

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by Sue Palmer

Orion 14.99

Science tells us that, rather than being the superior sex by design, boys are at a disadvantage to girls from conception.  At the beginning of her new book, Sue Palmer describes how some research suggests some research suggests that boys’ potential vulnerability starts in the womb and continues from there.

Though girls have their own issues to deal with as they grow up (which Palmer will tackle in her next book), boys are particularly affected by the cocktail of ingredients which make up what she calls a Toxic Childhood.  Junk food, poor sleeping patterns, a screen-based sedentary lifestyle, the wrong sort of childcare and educational experiences, family fragmentation and the effects of consumer culture are individually, and in combination, are damaging our boys.  They have a greatly increased chance of having ADHD, dyspraxia, Asperger Syndrome and reading problems than girls, and are growing up to commit four out of every five criminal offences.

21st Century Boys is nothing less than a manifesto for change.  Its subtitle ‘How modern life is driving them off the rails and how we can get them back on track’ tells you all you need to know.  Palmer systematically examines every aspect of a boy’s life in Britain today and how it could be improved.  At the end of each chapter she lists actions parents, the community, and politicians can take to effect change.  The book is Interesting and informative, and packed with readable research; Palmer a former head teacher and literacy expert, comes from the sharp end of childhood today having worked with children for over thirty years.

Using convincing statistical data on hard-wired gender differences, Palmer uncovers the basic needs boys have which simply can’t be met in today’s society.  Their inclination to be active and run outdoors is curtailed by lack of space and parental anxiety; their desire to take risks and engage in rowdy behaviour is at odds with institutionalized childcare; and their natural inquisitiveness is stunted by a target-driven education system.

Most interesting is the emphasis Palmer places on the need for intimate emotional engagement in a baby boy’s first thousand days.   Using terms coined by psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, Palmer suggests that whereas men tend to be systemisers or ‘S type’ thinkers, women tend to be empathizers, or ‘E type’ thinkers, interested in human beings, how their minds work, how they feel and how they interact.  A balance between E type and S type thinking is required in society and individuals.  But, she says, “When women moved out of the home and into the workplace they, and everyone else, suddenly ceased to value the traditional female talent for caring.”  S type domination, combined with a digital transformation has lead to the triumph of consumer capitalism to the detriment of human wellbeing.

“Turning a baby into a fully rounded human being isn’t something you can systemize,” says Palmer.  “We have to accept that empathy, emotional engagement and eye contact matter just as much to human progress as systems, status and success.”  She takes the perspective that it takes a village to raise a child; that bringing up children is an important social enterprise which requires support.  Her recommendations to politicians are critical of the statutory regulation of childcare which, she says, “create a mass of red tape that deskills and disempowers individual parents and other adults.”  And she calls for the support of parenting by political and financial encouragement for parents to look after children at home in their first thousand days.

Indeed throughout the book, to meet the needs of baby boys as depicted by Palmer an at-home parent is imperative.  The second chapter of the book is titled ‘How mother-love helps boys grow up bright and balanced…and how modern life can dumb them down.’  Her recommendations for giving boys the best start by talking to them, singing to them, reading with them and plenty of face to face contact require full time maternal care.  Society can help, she says, by valuing the contribution to society made by full time mothers.  Government’s role should be “to place more emphasis on the importance of relationships and less on economic growth, and abandon their drive to persuade women to return to work when their babies are small.”

As Palmer’s investigations move beyond babyhood and into the challenges facing young boys and young men her recommendations continue to depend on someone, ideally the mother, being present in their lives.  Involvement, interaction and intervention (in screen-time, for example) are the order of the day; none of which can be done from a distance, part-time or over the phone with an older child.  While suitable male mentors are of huge importance, even when discussing the rise of gang culture Palmer says, “The best long term antidote to crime is good mothering which research suggests requires very early intervention by authoritative female mentors.”  That is to say, we need to mother the mothers to ensure the best for our boys.

Palmer leaves no stone unturned in her efforts to understand what will make our boys happier; education, outdoor play, diet, engagement with the local and global community, and the positive use of technology.  As she illustrates, with the right support we’re all capable of bringing up bright, resilient boys equipped for the 21st century, but a sea-change in how society regards that enterprise is what’s required first.

Mel Tibbs

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