What's so bad about boys?
Ursula Hirschkorn is the proud mother of four sons. Yet friends regard her Barbie-free family with pity. No wonder today's males feel undervalued, she argues
Thursday 27 May 2010
As I trundle to the playground with two little boys scooting beside me, pushing a double buggy complete with screeching twins, I am stopped by an elderly woman. She peers into the pushchair, looks up with pity in her rheumy eyes. "Are they all boys?" she asks sympathetically. "Yes," I reply. "Poor you. Better luck next time," she says as she shuffles off after her dog.
This, I have come to understand, is the reaction that my adored sons almost exclusively elicit. Just by having four children I have marked myself out from the norm, but even worse, all my offspring are male. I cannot count the number of times I have been asked if I long for a daughter, or have been kindly told I could try again for a girl. I often wonder if mothers trailing gaggles of girls inspire the same degree of pity as I do with my brood of boys.
Everyone assumes I must be desperate for a girl, that I must feel lonely and isolated in a house pumped full of testosterone, and no one feels ashamed to tell me this in front of my sons. The message is clear: having boys is a curse, rather than a blessing. How insulting is this to my four beautiful boys?
Once, families were not considered complete without at least one son. The world has moved on since then, but someone along the line, things have swung a little too far the other way. "In today's society it seems to have become acceptable to disrespect men and to criticise male characteristics," explains Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist specialising in families and children. "The public perception of young boys and men is very negative, whether it's male toddlers being boisterous in the playground or teenage hoodies terrorising our streets. This has the effect of making girls seem more prized," she continues.
It is perhaps no wonder that boys can become disaffected, hostile or even violent in a world that is offended by their maleness. But as the mother of four boys I am determined that my sons will never feel that their gender in some way makes them inferior or unwanted. I will sing the praises of boys to all those people who are so dismayed by my Barbie-free family.
I always wanted two boys, two years apart and that is just what I had in my sons Jacob, six, and Max, four. But when I fell pregnant again I was thrilled. Everyone around me was hoping for a girl and when it turned out to be twin boys, the commiserations were quick to roll in. I will admit to being daunted, but only because there were two in there. I knew how delightful baby boys were, so what could be nicer than having even more?
My house may be forever littered with Lego and plastic alien figures from Ben 10; every stick we meet may instantly be transformed into a weapon; and a lazy weekend is a thing of the past with four small boys who, just like dogs, need regular exercise, but I feel lucky to be the mother of boys because one thing they do best is love their mummy. Just as I am about to lose the plot because one or other boy has broken a treasured ornament, trodden mud across a freshly washed floor or thumped his brother and made him cry, they will disarm me with word or gesture that makes my heart contract with joy.
Rather than feel isolated in my house full of men, I am its queen. My sons' usual greeting is to fling their arms around me in a rumbustious cuddle and cover me with sticky kisses. Even my 15-month-old twins, Jonah and Zachary, crawl after me like lovesick puppies. I am showered with affection from dawn till dusk, and often in the early hours when one crawls into my bed after a scary dream.
Has any woman ever been so loved? If she has sons then yes, she probably has. If I have a haircut or buy a new pair of shoes Jacob never fails to notice and tell me how pretty they are. He will make a wonderful husband one of these days.
My sons are not all about running around and getting dirty either. The other weekend I spent hours exploring the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with Jacob, and even though there wasn't a dinosaur or space rocket in sight we had a perfect day. He also combines judo classes with ballet lessons, so I get the best of both worlds – boyish energy and elegant grace, if not a pink tutu – why are mothers of girls so quick to fill their houses with pink tutus?
Despite this evidence to the contrary, there is a perception that girls are somehow more thoughtful, more of a companion to their mothers. "Women tend to want girls more than boys because they think that they will connect better with a daughter, that they will understand her needs more than a boy," says Wheatley.
Helen Brown is the community manager for parenting website, Mumsnet, which she says has seen much heated defence of sons from mothers who are sick of being pitied because they had the "misfortune" to give birth to boys. As a mother of three boys herself, Brown says she has experienced the same prejudice: "When I told my mother that I was having a third boy she said, 'What a shame.' I think she was worried that I would have no one to talk to and no one to do things like go shopping with."
This is because we are swift to slap negative stereotypes onto boys. "Boys are constantly told that they are too boisterous and not as well behaved as girls," says Wheatley. I know that when my four boys are on the loose I attract rueful glances and if I had a pound for all the times someone has exclaimed "You've got your hands full!" I could send all four to Eton.
Of course it hasn't always been so. If I had been married to Henry VIII I would have been his favourite wife by far, bearing not one but four strapping lads, but times have changed and we no longer value boys. Now that women work and don't need a man to support them, male children have lost their allure. "Boys have lost the USP as men are made redundant in our society," explains Wheatley.
The danger of this path is that boys give up hope and feel undervalued and unwanted; they already suffer on many fronts from underperforming at school to experiencing more mental health problems. This is a fate that I fear for my sons and to avert this, I want to wave the flag for boys.
I know many mothers of teenage sons who look on smugly as their friends with girls deal with adolescent angst, while their boys are still offering regular cuddles, and the worst thing they have to worry about is how to prise him off the computer for long enough to do his homework. I know adult sons who are the main carers for their elderly parents or who would never dream of letting a week pass without calling home.
So next time someone gives me that horrified look as they take in my family and breathe "four boys ... " in terrified tones, I intend to smile and say: "Yes, lucky me." Because that's how having boys makes me feel: the luckiest mother alive.
Testosterone means trouble
* Girls outperform boys at all levels from Early Years Foundation Stage to higher education.
* Boys are more likely than girls to have a mental disorder. Among five- to 10-year-olds, 10 per cent of boys and 5 per cent of girls had a mental disorder. Among 11-16 year olds, the proportions were 13 per cent for boys and 10 per cent for girls.
* Suicide, substance misuse, anti-social behaviour, "disappearing" from home, homelessness and a variety of behavioural problems are all more common in males. Men are also more likely to exhibit personality disorders.
* 95 percent of the prison population in the UK is male.
* Young men aged 16 to 24 are most at risk of becoming a victim of violent crime.
* Eating disorders are becoming more common in boys and men.
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