What little boys are made of?
How do little boys differ from little girls and do you need special skills to bring them up? Steve Biddulph explains in an extract from his highly acclaimed book, ‘Raising Boys’.
Janine is pregnant — seven weeks pregnant — and very excited. She doesn’t know it yet, but her baby is going to be a boy. We say “going to be” because a foetus doesn’t start that way.
It may surprise you to know that all young creatures start life being female. Boys are mutated girls! The Y chromosome that makes a baby into a boy is an “add-on” chromosome which starts to act in the womb — to give a boy the extra bits he needs to be a boy and to stop other bits growing. A male is a female with optional extras. That’s why everyone has nipples, though not everyone needs them.
In Janine’s baby’s tiny body, at around the eighth week of pregnancy, the Y chromosomes stir in the cells and testosterone starts being made. As a result of this new chemical presence, the baby starts to become more of a boy, growing testicles and a penis, and making other more subtle changes in his brain and body. Once the testicles are formed (by the 15th week they are fully developed), they start to make testosterone too, so he becomes progressively more and more masculine.
Right after birth, young Jamie will have as much testosterone in his bloodstream as a 12-year-old boy! He has needed all this testosterone to stimulate his body to develop male qualities in time to be born. This “testosterone hangover” will result in him having little erections from time to time as a newborn.
By three months of age, the testosterone level will drop off to about a fifth of the birth level, and throughout toddlerhood the level will stay pretty low. Boy and girl toddlers (I’m sure you’d agree) behave pretty much the same. At the age of four, for reasons nobody quite understands, boys receive a sudden surge of testosterone, doubling their previous levels. At this age, little Jamie may become much more interested in action, heroics, adventures and vigorous play. His dad may well find that this age is a good one because Jamie can now play ball games and they can do gardening together: they can interact in ways that were not possible when he was little and helpless. At five years of age, the testosterone level drops by a half, and young Jamie calms down again, just in time for school! Enough testosterone is still around for him to be interested in activity, adventure and exploration, but not especially interested in girls. Somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, the level starts to rise sharply again. Eventually — usually around 14 — it will increase by some 800% over the level of toddlerhood. The result is a sudden growth and elongation of his arms and legs — so much so that his whole nervous system has to rewire itself. In about 50% of boys, the testosterone levels are so high that some of it converts into oestrogen, and breast swelling and tenderness may be experienced. This is nothing to worry about.
How boys’ and girls’ brains differ
Twenty years ago, we rarely acknowledged differences in the brains of boys and girls, for fear this would imply gender inequality. Today we know that there are numerous differences, and by understanding these, we can build on boys’ and girls’ strengths and address their weaknesses, so both can be the best they can.
At birth, the brain is still only partially formed and only a third of its eventual size. It takes a long time for the brain to be completed. For instance, the language part of the brain is not fully formed until about the age of 13, which is why it is so important that boys are kept up with reading through the primary school years.
From very early on, gender differences are evident in the unborn baby’s brain. One difference is that a baby boy’s brain develops more slowly than a baby girl’s. Another difference is that the left and right sides are less well connected in a boy. Boys tend to attack certain kinds of problems (such as a spelling quiz or word puzzle) using only one side of their brain, while girls use both sides.
Boys are not inferior — just different
Having a well-developed right side of the brain, as boys tend to do, has many pluses. As well as having mathematical and mechanical abilities, males tend to be action-oriented. If they see a problem, they want to fix it. The right side of the brain handles both feelings and actions, so men are more likely to take action, while women tend to mull over something to the point of total paralysis! It requires extra effort for a man to shift into his left hemisphere and find the words to explain the feelings he is registering in his right hemisphere.
Germaine Greer has pointed out that there are more male geniuses in many fields, even though many may be imbalanced characters on the whole, needing someone to look after them (usually a woman)!
In an era when advertising and the media mostly portray men doing bad or stupid things, it’s important to remember (and to show boys) about the men who built the planes, made the art and music, laid the railroad tracks, invented the cars, built the hospitals, discovered the medicines and sailed the ships that made our world so wonderful, safe and interesting. There’s an African saying, “Women hold up half the sky.”
But, clearly, men hold up the other half.
A new kind of man
The world no longer needs men who can wrestle with buffaloes or cut down trees with a flint axe. In the modern world, where manual or mechanical labour is less and less needed, we need to take that masculine ability and energy and redirect it to a different kind of heroic effort. This means adding language and feeling skills to the thinking and doing skills of boys — making a kind of “superboy” who is flexible across all kinds of skill areas. If you think about it, the great men of history — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Buddha, Jesus — actually were like this. They had courage and determination, along with sensitivity and love for others. It’s an unbeatable mix, and it is certainly needed today.
Rough-and-tumble games: what’s really going on?
There’s a unique father behaviour that has been observed all over the world. Dads (along with big brothers, uncles and grandpas) love to wrestle and play rough-and-tumble games with little boys.
They can hardly resist it. The men and the big boys get the little boys and throw them about. The little boys come running back and say, “Do it again!”
Sydney counsellor Paul Whyte puts it very plainly: “If you want to get along with boys, learn to wrestle!”
For a long time nobody understood why this was so — especially mothers, who are usually trying to calm things down, while dads seem likely to stir them up all over again! But it’s been found that what boys are learning in rough and tumble is an essential lesson for all males: how to be able to have fun, get noisy, even get angry and, at the same time, know when to stop. For a male, living with testosterone, this is vital. If you live in a male body you have to learn how to drive it.
The big male lesson: Knowing when to stop
“If you’ve ever wrestled with a little boy, say a three or four year old, it always starts out happily enough. But often, after a minute or two, he “loses it”. He gets angry. His little jaw starts to jut out!
He knits his eyebrows together and (if you haven’t spotted the warning signs yet) starts to get serious and hit out with knees and elbows. Ouch! A dad who knows what he’s doing stops the action right there.
“Hoooooold it! Stop!” Then a little lecture takes place — not yelling, just calmly explaining. “Your body is precious [pointing at boy], and my body is precious too. We can’t play this game if somebody might get hurt. So we need a few rules — like, no elbowing and no kneeing or punching! Do you understand? Can you handle it?”
(Here’s a tip: always say, “Can you handle it?” rather than “Will you keep to the rules?”, which sounds kind of wimpish. No boy is going to say “no” to a question like, “Can you handle it?”.)
Then you re-commence. The boy is learning a most important life skill — self-control. He’s learning that he can be strong and excited, but can also choose where and when to back off. For males, this is very important. In adult life, a man will usually be stronger than his wife or partner. He must know how to not “lose it”, especially when he is angry, tired and frustrated.
For a marriage to survive, it is sometimes necessary for partners to stand nose to nose, while saying some really honest stuff. A woman can’t have this kind of honest and intense discussion with a man unless she feels absolutely safe with him. She needs to know she will never be hit, and he needs to know in himself that he won’t hit. (In some marriages, it’s the woman who is the violent one, the woman who needs to make this commitment.)
A real man is one who is in charge of himself and his behaviour. A real man can be furiously angry and yet you feel utterly safe standing right next to him. That’s a tough call. But it begins in this small way, play-wrestling on the back lawn.
Extract from Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys Fourth Edition, by Steve Biddulph, RRP$39.99. Finch Publishing. Distributed by bookreps.co.nz.