Steve Biddulph, Australia's manhood guru, isn't surprised that scientists think girls may have a gene for social interaction. His own work on boys bears it out. Toni Turner reports
He is only just three years old, yet already Tim has him rolling on the rug roaring and grunting, locked into a wrestle. The flat's small, the dog's excited and Susan feels claustrophobic. Anyway, she does not want her son taught to be a tough guy and this noisy bit of macho fun is something she could do without. Tim senses his partner's annoyance and, as he also only sees this wrestling with his small son as nothing more than a bit of fun, he turns on the television.

But according to the up and coming guru on manhood, Steve Biddulph, both parents should think again, because early play-wrestling can be an important part of a young boy's social development. In fact, he says it could help their son to become a well-adjusted young man instead of a dysfunctional teenager. It's a claim that has captured the attention of British parents following the Jamie Bulger tragedy and the despair about what is going wrong in a society where young boys are involved in rapes.

In Britain on a lecture tour organised by Parent Network, Biddulph, a family therapist for 16 years, is currently looking at how Western society nurtures boys and what makes a well-adjusted man. He has written two books on the subject, Manhood, "an action plan for changing men's lives", and Raising Boys, a practical guide, due to be published in his native Australia in August.

Biddulph has come to the conclusion that men in Western society are in bad shape, and he cites the now familiar statistics about male suicide, men's failure in relationships, boys' behavioural problems and male violence to prove his point. "Open any newspaper anywhere in the Western world and you may as well call it male problems - muggings, suicides and rapes."

Hence, Biddulph is unsurprised by the news this week that scientists believe there may be a gene for social interaction which is only inherited by girls. He believes that this could explain what he and others have been observing for some time. But he warns against being dogmatic about the differences between the sexes, saying that comments such as "boys may not have this gene in order to enable them to fight battles like Gallipoli" unhelpful, because it suggests that boys are insensitive and don't experience fear.

Instead, Biddulph believes this research shows that some social situations might be more difficult for boys, and that we should take this into account in their education. For example, he says, "At school it is just not good enough to tell a boy 'you are stupid' or you are being naughty'. You have to teach boys what to do. You have got to help them to see ways of making friends."

According to Biddulph, positive masculine qualities don't just appear, they have to be learned from men who learned them from other men. He cites the Xervante people of the Brazilian rainforest, who have eight stages of manhood and spend up to 40 years learning to be a man. These men, he claims, "produce perhaps the most balanced men on earth, straddling the qualities we should be valuing and seeking to promote in our boys - strong and tender, brave and compassionate." And it is here, in the very early stages of a boy's development, that play activities, such as wrestling, can be crucial, offering fathers a way of helping their sons feel good about their natural instincts, while teaching them to control their emotions.

Biddulph teaches fathers how to play-wrestle with their young sons to make what he insists are subtle, but important and symbolic shifts in the boys' interaction with other people. "Inevitably, a child wrestling on the carpet will hurt an adult by being too boisterous. If this happens, the father stops the action and says clearly to the boy, 'You're too precious and I'm to precious to be hurt. Will you be careful while you are fighting not to hit or hurt?'" This process, says Biddulph, involves teaching boys how to master their energy and anger, how to set limits to their aggression so they can control their emotions.

Critical of male stereotypes, Biddulph still insists that we must formulate a concept of "positive, passionate masculinity" to give our boys some sense of inner worth. He goes so far as to say that today's men are one- dimensional because they have not explored and learned to value and control their inner feelings. "Most men don't have a life. They grow from boyhood, their bodies get bigger but they don't have the inner changes to match. Instead, they learn to pretend and grow into phoney men who put on an outer show for protection. Confused and numb, with huge, untapped energy, they feel there must be more but they do not know what the more is."

Consequently, boys are growing up in a negative atmosphere, amplified by the progress women have made in recent years. "The women's movement has meant that most women today know who they are and what they want. They act from inner feelings and spirit while men are left pretending to have a life." But he does not blame women for the state men are in. In fact, Biddulph wants men to learn from the women's movement, to get in touch with their inner selves, to learn to value their manhood and teach their boys in the way women have taught girls to value womanhood.

This won't be easy, especially in a society that, according to Biddulph, has lost the art of fathering and "created the most under-fathered society on earth". Boys, he points out, spend most of their time with women in the home and at school, while the breakdown of extended families and communities means they no longer have access to surrogate fathers or male mentors in the shape of older boys or uncles.

In Raising Boys Biddulph concentrates on why he believes boys and girls are different and why boys are under-achieving in the classroom. Research on brain development in boys, he claims, explains boys early learning difficulties, and he suggests that we should consider sending them to school a year later than girls, who develop physical co-ordination at an earlier stage.

Baby boys, he says, are often treated more harshly than baby girls when they need more caring because they are more prone to mental illness relating to depression. "It seems baby boys are less finished when they are born, so that a mother should be thinking, "Now, I really need to talk to this little fellow otherwise he could become a teenager that I cannot get through to."

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