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Let’s unpack that

How to make sure you don’t raise toxic sons

As the gender wars become ever more entrenched and politicised, bringing up boys in the post-MeToo era can feel like an impossible task. Ruth Whippman, the author of new parenting manual ‘BoyMom’, tells Helen Coffey why we urgently need to teach young men vulnerability and connection if we want to change society for the better

Saturday 08 June 2024 06:58
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Boy Mum: If the ‘future is female’, where does that leave sons?
Boy Mum: If the ‘future is female’, where does that leave sons? (Getty)

Nobody wants to raise a sex offender,” Ruth Whippman tells me, wryly, as we chat over Zoom. I laugh because it’s so darkly funny – and so true.

Whippman is the author of a new book, BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity. Her reasons for writing it were straightforward – she’s a mother of three sons herself. “I was heavily pregnant and about to give birth to my third boy right when #MeToo exploded,” she says. “I already had all these pregnancy hormones, and then was amid this complete rolling horror show of bad news about men. And I had a lot of very conflicted feelings.”

As a liberal feminist, she was excited about women reclaiming power and finding their voice. As a mother of boys, she was terrified. “I felt really frightened about the future, kind of defensive and protective of my sons,” she recalls. “The whole conversation about men and boys at the time was so negative.” Whippman wondered what it would be like to grow up as a boy under the shadow of all that negativity; wondered how easily the feeling of being “attacked” for your gender could curdle into anger and even radicalism.

Especially in the US, where she had relocated to from the UK with her family, gender seemed increasingly to be drawn along political battle lines, spurred on by the infamous “p***y-grabbing” President Trump. Right-wingers supported the rights of men and boys; left-wingers were for raising up women and girls. Meanwhile, more and more stories were coming out about powerful men using their positions to abuse women, a la Harvey Weinstein, and a backlash against feminism was seeing the rise of persuasive misogynist influencers such as Andrew Tate and online forums like 4chan.

“I realised that we’re obviously doing something wrong on a systemic level with how we’re raising boys,” says Whippman. Hence the sex offender comment. Equally, no one wants to raise a school shooter, or an incel, or a paid-up member of the manosphere spouting toxic, misogynistic bile online. Further down the scale, no one really wants to raise a perpetual manchild with “failure to launch” syndrome who seems stuck in Peter Pan mode, unable to finish their studies, get a job or move out of the home – the traditional markers of adulthood that young men are increasingly struggling to achieve, according to research. And all of it is part of the same systemic societal disease, argues Whippman.

While narratives around women and girls have become increasingly expansive – challenging toxic gender stereotypes; telling us we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything, that “the future is female” – she argues that, for men and boys, they have stayed curiously stunted and stagnant. The “boys will be boys” mantra is a case in point – an assumption that the male gender is wired a certain way, incapable of change or growth. “Even liberal people will say ‘Boys are like dogs’ – you know, you just need to feed them and take them for walks and wear them out,” says Whippman. “Or you’ll hear that boys don’t like reading, boys don’t like school. It’s almost like boys are just really limited.”

In the book, she argues that we are in the midst of a “half-finished revolution. We need to do for boys what my mother’s generation started for girls: to truly dig into the subtle and not-so-subtle forces of socialisation at work, to attempt to expand our sense of who and what boys can be.”

Ruth Whippman is mother to three sons
Ruth Whippman is mother to three sons (Ruth Whippman)

A lot of it boils down to the ancient “nurture versus nature” debate: are there fundamental genetic differences that make many boys more violent and animalistic in the way they play, less able to sit still and listen quietly, avoidant when it comes to forming deep, empathetic friendships? Or is the way we raise sons fundamental to why they often end up so different from their female peers?

As you might expect, the conclusion is far from clear cut – but Whippman presents much compelling evidence that the way we respond to and socialise boys from the moment they’re born massively affects their development (and lack thereof) alongside genetic predispositions.

There are, admittedly, very real biological differences that make an impact – though not always in the ways we might expect. Whippman cites research that shows boys’ brains develop more slowly and in a different order from those of girls, with the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for emotional self-regulation and impulse control, developing up to two years later in male children. Even in the womb, male foetuses are bathed in testosterone while females are not, a factor scientifically proven to lead to “increased rough and tumble play in childhood and aggression in adulthood” when tests have been done on rats.

But perhaps most surprising is the fact that male babies are biologically more sensitive and emotionally fragile than young girls. Interviewing Dr Allan Schore, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences at UCLA, Whippman discovers that the right hemisphere of the brain – largely responsible for emotions, relationships and non-verbal communication – “is more than a month ahead of a baby boy’s in development and resilience” by the time a baby girl is born.

Young boys as a whole receive less nurturing and positive attention than same-aged girls, by a significant margin

Dr Allan Schore, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences

“Boys’ brains are more immature and vulnerable, and they mature more slowly throughout childhood,” says Schore. It means baby boys are scientifically less proficient at emotional regulation than girls, cry more often, and find it harder to calm down. They even produce higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, when separated from their mothers.

What’s particularly sad is that, despite boys having a “greater need for their caregivers to comfort them and help them regulate their emotions”, what they usually get is the opposite. This is where the nurture part of the equation starts to kick in: from day one, research has shown that, in most of the Western world, “young boys as a whole receive less nurturing and positive attention than same-aged girls, by a significant margin”. They are less likely to be touched, soothed, chatted to, and picked up when they cry.

As children grow, patterns become increasingly entrenched. Parents are more likely to patiently sit and read with girls than with boys – which could be a key factor in why girls currently outperform boys academically in the Western world across nearly every measure – and talk to them about their feelings. While sexist tropes about girls’ toys and stories have frequently been called out, highlighting the plethora of pink and sparkles and depictions of girls as “kind” while boys are “brave”, there has not been a similar reckoning on the other side.

Whippman points to the saturation of violence and battle-related products aimed at boys, Lego being a great example. The historically gender-neutral company launched a “Friends” range aimed at girls in 2012, which drew strong censure from feminists. “Little attention was paid by critics either to the lack of representation for boys in relational roles in the new girls’ sets, or to what was happening during the same time period to the sets marketed to boys,” she writes. And what was happening was weapons: in 1978, hardly any of the sets featured weaponry; now, nearly a third of sets do. “While girls got Friends, boys got enemies,” says Whippman.

Boys’ toys have been increasingly weaponised
Boys’ toys have been increasingly weaponised (Getty)

The same is true across stories – a fundamental way we grow up understanding the world and our place within it. Whippman gives the example of a very obviously “girly” magazine she flicked through while waiting in line at a newsagent. It included a story about a girl who had a tricky social situation to navigate – she’d been invited to two parties at the same time but didn’t want to let down either friend. She came up with an elaborate plan so she could attend both events so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Whippman was stunned; she suddenly had the revelation that she had never, ever seen a similar type of story aimed at boys. A story that put them at the centre of a relational dilemma, where they had to manage expectations and consider others’ feelings. Instead, boys’ tales seemed limited to battles and adventures and vehicles. “Once you start looking at it through that lens – the way we stereotype boys, and the lack of role models for boys in relationship roles – you realise it’s just everywhere. Or, rather, it’s not everywhere. It’s missing.”

Boys’ lack of access to books, films and TV shows that place them at the heart of relationship-driven narratives could help explain why they end up with very different friendships from those of their female counterparts. Whippman highlights a study that found boys up to age five were “as capable as girls at reading emotions and forming close friendships. But by the time they reached six or seven, they started to subscribe to more classic notions of masculinity and become more emotionally distant from friends.”

Interviewing numerous young men for the book, Whippman found a common thread, despite their differing circumstances – friendships with other men or boys tended to be shallow, surface-level, and defined by banter and one-upmanship rather than deeper emotional connection. The boys themselves didn’t want it to be this way – but they didn’t know how to change the often competitive dynamic.

By far the biggest indicator of whether a person will be healthy and happy is the presence of deep, authentic friendships

Conversely, Whippman cites an in-depth piece from The Economist about the lives of teenage girls, based on interviews with dozens of young women across the US and Europe, which found that their friendships were a different beast entirely. “The intensity and closeness of girl-friendships is an experience that many women feel shapes their lives,” it read.

This feels core to the whole issue of not only toxic masculinity, but the epidemic of male loneliness and increasing male suicide rates (suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45). Research has consistently shown that by far the biggest indicator of whether a person will be healthy and happy is the presence of deep, authentic friendships. This has even been found to be a predictor of a more successful career and a longer lifespan.

The issue seems to have become even more pronounced in the age of the smartphone, when children and young people are spending an ever-increasing amount of time online and seeing friends in the real world less and less. Within this context of social isolation, the appeal of characters such as misogynist influencer Tate and his ilk starts to make more sense.

“Many boys are barely out of the Lego battles stage when TikTok and YouTube algorithms start showing them masculinity content,” says Whippman. She shares terrifying figures: a 2023 survey found that 80 per cent of British boys aged 16 to 17 had consumed Andrew Tate content; this cohort was more likely to have heard of Tate than of the British prime minister.

Andrew Tate spearheaded an online movement of misogynistic influencers
Andrew Tate spearheaded an online movement of misogynistic influencers (AP)

How does Whippman broach the subject of Tate with her boys? “I think it’s always better to talk about these things with kids,” she tells me. “But the danger is that you have your Andrew Tate conversation, and then it’s over and it’s done in isolation. What I found when I was writing and talking to boys is it’s part of a much bigger picture. Boys get sucked into those things when they feel unheard and unseen in the rest of their lives.”

She argues that it’s about making boys feel seen, heard and loved, recommending consistent engagement with boys about their emotions in the same way we do this with girls. Male role models starting those conversations, rather than always leaving it to female caregivers, can be particularly beneficial. Think about it: if the only people who ever ask boys about their feelings are women, it perpetuates the ingrained idea that emotions are “women’s business”, not men’s, setting a blueprint for future relationships along gender lines. Whippman also advocates encouraging sons to emotionally interact with their male mates – not only to improve at sharing their own emotions, but to learn to actively ask friends how they’re feeling and offer support.

Overall, despite everything, she’s hopeful for the future. “I feel really hopeful that we can make change,” she says. “We just need to listen to boys a bit more, and give them space to express their feelings and to just be... people.” She perhaps puts it most compellingly in the book: “It all seems like some kind of Greek myth. Boys and men automatically receive substantial material life advantages by virtue of their maleness, but at the cost of their morality, their freedom to access the full range of feeling and connection.” It seems like it’s finally time to change the script. If girls can be anything, surely so can boys – and that includes vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, and capable of deep, authentic friendships.

‘BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity’, published by Quercus, is out now (RRP £20)

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