Don't you know that it's different for boys?

Jack Straw wants to sort them out. A charity is also on their case. Little wonder, says Angela Neustatter
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BOYS are failing at school, lagging behind girls with their degree passes and watching girls getting jobs over their heads. The only lead they have, we are told, is in crime and violence - so much so that this week the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, tagged them a "priority" case for urgent action.

So what are we to do with boys? We don't like their laddish behaviour, being a football fan is tantamount to becoming a lager lout; if they flex their muscles rather than opening their hearts they are all brawn and no sensitivity. Then there are critics who claim that they are turning into wimps, thanks to single mothers and a lack of father figures, not to mention the feminists who are raising boys to play with dolls not guns, and bringing up girls to play with trains. As one mother observed: "We pity women with two or three sons and celebrate heartily when a friend has a daughter."

So concerned is the charity Parent Network that next week it is holding a major conference, "Raising Boys", where Steve Biddulph, the Australian family therapist and best selling author of child-rearing books, will warn us that we must no longer assume that boys and girls are equals. It might be unpopular with feminist notions of child development, but Biddulph is categorical: boys are different to girls. Oh, and they are not difficult at all, if we can just remember this basic fact.

Biddulph will talk about the importance of a Dad as role model (or if there's not a Dad around, a male friend) who can have contests of strength, play-fight and test physical prowess on the sports ground, how they can help boys feel pride and pleasure in their strength while also learning the difference between that and aggression.

As a mother of two sons who, from the moment number one emerged into the world kicking, wriggling and seeming to flex diminutive muscles, have been uproariously physical, noisy, energetic, testosterone-driving characters, I believe Biddulph is saying something important. My sons were born at a time when feminists - including me - were challenging everything to do with male culture and trying to bring up shining examples of emancipation.

One thing that was absolutely not acceptable was the boy child who took swaggering delight in his physical strength. But, like someone with a dirty secret, I silently delighted in this and still do as they leap and cavort across the sitting-room floor throwing themselves into karate positions, wrestling with their Dad, towering over me and flexing inflatable pectorals. They so obviously feel good about their big strong bodies and being admired for this most primitive and fundamental maleness when it is shown off without harming anyone. That satisfied, they can also afford to let a soft side show.

A measure of the success of feminism's battle for equality and feminists' determination to bring up girls to feel good about themselves came last year with Adrienne Katz's impressive work, "Can-Do-Girls", showing that they are doing even better at school and university, in work and in self- esteem. Key to this was approval at home for the kind of young woman they were becoming.

Conversely, those who were not approved of did far less well. Which brings us back to boys, who now live in a climate that tells them just about everything they grew up believing boys should be is devalued or despised. Many see fathers out of work with badly punctured confidence, and the girls they are growing up among are unimpressed by the things they have assumed they should be.

Vic Seidler author of Man Enough (Sage), who has worked with men's groups for years, knows the feeling: "There is a feeling of cultural dislocation. As young men, we can no longer rely upon what our fathers taught us." While Angela Phillips, mother of a son, who explored boys' dilemma in The Trouble With Boys (Pandora) says: "Growing up male is hard - very hard.

It seems to me that we have been so busy concentrating on girls and their rights and needs, that we are failing boys and we need to get back to enjoying who and what they are that is different. Part of what is different is physical prowess - that has been true as long as homo sapien has strutted the planet.

Charlie Lewis, a Lancaster University lecturer who has worked extensively on boys' behaviour, wisely points out: "The boy who can feel his physical body is enjoyed is far more likely to be able to get close to women and to other men, and to want to do well in other ways than the boy who feels what he is at the most fundamental level is unacceptable. But the trouble is, we've come to fear what boys are."

Of course, building up boys in a constructive way isn't only about pride in their physicality. They need to feel valued in many ways, they need Dads who can show them how. Women have done their bit to help girls rush ahead. Now it's time to give our sons the encouragement they need. Forget the New Man: Let's hear it for Real Boys.