The image of their fathers

Boys need positive male role models and paternal approval, but a new book takes the argument further: boys can only be raised by men, and mothers should step aside. Deborah Holder begs to differ
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The Independent Culture
"I HAVE two boys to bring up," the Princess of Wales stressed in her high-profile Panorama interview. But according to a powerful voice from across the Atlantic, men and only men can raise sons properly. If mothers don't move over and make room for dads, sons will emerge soft and confused; by remaining close and involved, mothers may squash their aggression, resulting in murderous or suicidal men.

The proponent of this theory is Don Elium, co-author of Raising a Son, a bestseller in the US. Others in a spate of books about bringing up boys include The Courage to Raise Good Men by American family therapist Olga Silverstein, Mothers and Sons by Australian Babette Smith, and Britain's entry, The Trouble with Boys by Angela Phillips. Some writers approach the topic from a feminist standpoint. Women, they argue, having put their energies into providing a non-sexist upbringing for their daughters and fighting discrimination at school and work, have reached an impasse. Girls may be able to get their foot on the career ladder, but they will still have to wash up and change the baby when they get home. As for relationships, girls' expectations have been cruelly raised while male consciousness has not. There can be no real advance until everyone moves forward.

The Men's Movement, meanwhile, has also turned its attention to boys, seeing the father-son relationship as the key to its search for the "wild man within". All, regardless of gender or political stance, are aware of the growing list of depressing statistics about boys and young men: they are five times more likely than girls to commit suicide; responsible for the lion's share of car accidents and violent offences; predominant in special classes for disturbed children; more likely to truant and drop out of school early; and far more likely to be the victims, as well as the perpetrators, of crimes.

Most of this has been known for years, but there have been more recent revelations. Girls are now reported to be taking over in the classroom, catching up in even traditionally "male" subjects like maths and sciences. There are now predictions that the majority of jobs in the future will go to girls as an emphasis on "female" skills in the workplace flourishes. The statistics might not reflect the real balance of power, but they have certainly made the headlines.

Sexual politics aside, women with sons want to free them from the emotionally stunting stereotypes which, they believe, left their fathers unable to communicate. They want to be able to talk with their sons as adults. Mothers don't like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the house any more than they liked Barbie.

For all these reasons, people have found themselves asking "What about the boys?" - and books have appeared from all corners of the globe to tell them. Nurture enthusiasts tell us baby boys are handled less; parents, especially fathers, find it less acceptable for sons to play with dolls than for daughters to play with trucks. Meanwhile the nature lobby points to physical differences in the brain that make girls better at communicating and empathising, and boys more interested in objects and doing. Both sides agree testosterone plays a role, but disagree on its significance. According to Elium, "It is one of the most powerful manipulators of behaviour the world has known".

Raising a Son starts innocuously enough. "We are so busy trying to make it financially or trying to 'find ourselves' that we have delegated the parenting of our sons to the institutions of culture," Elium writes. "We are leaving the job to day-care workers, teachers, TV writers, movie and rock stars, gangs, the neighbours and sometimes even the courts and detention centres."

His recommendations are hardly new. We need to change the emphasis of our work-crazed lives, away from material wealth towards quality of life. "Mothers may have to sacrifice a career for a limited time ... fathers must ... give more time to their families by changing the priorities of the work structure. It may mean we turn off the TV." Fine, but what about the realities? Most couples need to have two incomes to survive - not just to satisfy career aspirations. Even the keenest fathers will find it hard to change their work hours without the political will at the top to make this feasible.

Elium feels boys need to know who is boss, what the rules are and whether they will be enforced. Only fathers can make and enforce these rules, he argues, because only men understand what it is to be a boy. In recent years, boys have been made to feel guilty about their natural aggressive impulses, "ashamed they can't act more like girls". His wife agrees, claiming that women, especially feminists, are terrified "masculinity will run wild and become life-threatening". They don't understand what it is to be a boy, and should step aside.

How does all this relate to the experiences of ordinary parents? Surely they learn about gender differences without the benefit of a psychology manual like this. "I was initially baffled by my son's destructiveness and aggression," says Suzanne, mother of Aiden, six, and Siobhan, eight. "My daughter was very different. But you accept your children for what they are, and there were fabulous aspects to his boyishness, too. Little boys are emotionally very direct and loving, as well as physically affectionate: Aiden is funny, and full of breathtaking energy and fearlessness. I'd never try to crush any of his maleness, but that doesn't mean I condone his aggression as inevitable 'boys will be boys' behaviour. You try to redirect all that physicality, and temper it with empathy for others while encouraging all those giving qualities that are usually conditioned out of them."

But women aren't blameless in all this. As Babette Smith points out, some mothers genuinely believe males need less affection than females. "Many interpret their own rejection as an expression of male emotional strength; some men bear lasting scars inadvertently caused by their mothers' stereotypical assumptions about males."

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine many mothers trying to squash their sons' maleness. There is far more evidence of boys being made to feel ashamed of "female" traits. I've yet to hear a boy teased for being masterful and macho, but frequently hear the derisory "sissy".

Between five and eight, Elium says, boys "cross the bridge" from mother to father. They crave male attention, wanting to please their fathers at all costs, their self-worth coming from their fathers' acceptance and praise. In an ideal world, maybe. More often, a boy's lifelong insecurity springs from his father's lack of involvement and praise. Elium never addresses why so many mothers are single, and whether no male role model at all is better than a bad one.

He uses a version of Freud's Oedipus theory to explain why mothers must distance themselves from sons: son wants mum to himself so badly that he considers doing away with dad; guilt ensues, followed by the realisation that the best bet is to bond with dad; by learning to be like him, he can in time attract someone like mum.

It is here that things can go wrong, Elium says. The son's neediness for the father unconsciously stimulates the father's grief at his own lack of fathering. He conceals this with anger - an easier emotion to display than grief - which he directs at his son. The son in turn does not separate properly from the mother or establish a healthy relationship with his father. Like father, like son.

The worst fate that can befall a boy is to be "stuck" on the mother's side of the bridge. "To some extent," says Robert Bly, a leading figure in the US Men's Movement and a great influence on Don Elium, "the young man, each time he leaves a woman, feels it as a victory, because he has escaped from his mother." This is all very bad news for mothers in general - and single mothers in particular.

Olga Silverstein, author of The Courage to Raise Good Men, confronts the realities Elium sidesteps. "The fact is, a lot of women have no choice but to raise sons alone. To say they must have male help is ridiculous." She arrives at a very different conclusion to Elium's: boys need more attention, not less, from their mothers. "Mothers have abandoned their sons because they think they can't raise them well," she says, "or they will turn them into sissies if they maintain a close relationship. But if mothers pull away, who is the boy left with? Nobody. He raises himself, and we are now seeing the results."

Silverstein's message is realistic and optimistic. Boys get into trouble, she says, because they can't relate to people. Communication is the key, and mothers can pass on this skill. That's not to say there is anything better than a good mother and a good father; it's just that this isn't always available. Never mind hunting and fishing with the men; it is this closer relationship with mother, and the skills that spring from it, that can help boys redirect their aggressive impulses. Boys will separate from mothers of their own accord, Silverstein believes; making them secure in the relationship will make this easier. As every parent knows, it is the insecure child who clings.

"We have broken the gender barriers when it comes to girls and careers," Olga Silverstein says. "Now we have to let boys back into the family emotionally. To say they can't be helped because of their nature is a great rationalisation. But I refuse to accept it, because if you do, there is simply no hope for the future." !