Parents told to nurture a generation of boys who know it's OK to be vulnerable

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The Independent Online

Parents who worry about the safety of their daughters should concentrate on protecting their sons because boys are physically and mentally more vulnerable, according to a leading psychiatrist.

Parents who worry about the safety of their daughters should concentrate on protecting their sons because boys are physically and mentally more vulnerable, according to a leading psychiatrist.

Dr Sebastian Kraemer, consultant child and family psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic, London, has found that boys are being seriously disadvantaged by a society that believes "boys are tougher than girls". He is calling for a change in the way boys are brought up.

In his report, The Fragile Male, to be presented next month at the newly formed National Family and Parenting Institute's first conference, Parent Child 2000, Dr Kraemer will show that social pressures on boys can lead to thoughtlessness, recklessness and out-of-control behaviour. The result is higher suicide rates among young men and poor academic achievement.

"From day one, boys are taught to be and expected to be tough. But the 'boys don't cry' attitude is damaging their development. They need more attention and help than girls early on in their lives to allow them to develop properly," he said. The only way to ensure that boys did not become increasingly delinquent was for parents to understand that boys' greater vulnerability made them more difficult to deal with. Parents need to give their sons more sensitive attention to minimise the risks of problems later on, he said.

"This is not a charter for wimps," Dr Kraemer said. "But we need to ensure that the next generation of men are less damaged and less damaging. Parents understand their are differences between their children but they don't necessarily realise they are gender differences."

There are both social and biological causes for boys being more vulnerable than girls. At birth the male brain is significantly less mature than the female's. Brain damage, cerebral palsy and physical deformities are all more common in boys and death rates are higher.

As they grow up boys on average have more disorders than girls. They are four times more likely to have reading problems, stammer or have hyperactivity disorders. They are also more likely to have accidents, because they are clumsier and less co-ordinated.

In traditional patriarchal societies, such as Bangladesh, where boys are strongly favoured, research has shown that boys are physically and mentally stronger because they are given more time and attention by their elders. "This indicates that powerful social factors rather than biological ones are at work here," Dr Kraemer said. The fear is that unless changes are made in the way men are brought up they will become increasingly ostracised from "information age" society.

"Even though almost all the most powerful positions in politics and business are still occupied by men, recent social changes in post-industrial society do not favour the majority of males," he said. "We need to adopt a modern version of masculinity which is strong but not insensitive."

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