What’s happening to our boys?

In a sequel to What’s Happening to our Girls?, author Maggie Hamilton has written about the world of boys.

What’s Happening to our Boys? is meticulously researched, and draws on interviews with  more than 70 experts including doctors, psychologists, police and teachers, as well as 50 anonymous boys.

The end result is an in-depth and sometimes disturbing window into the rapidly changing life of today’s children and teens. Compared with a generation ago, boys today are born into a high–pressure environment. In many cases, the challenges of technology and pop culture are affecting boys’ confidence, well–being, values and aspirations, as well as their sense of community.

Parenting boys in today’s society can be confusing. What’s Happening to our Boys? presents up-to-date research, asks vital questions and provides numerous tips for parents, carers and educators, in how to create a more promising future for our boys.

Maggie Hamilton spoke with KidsLife.

Based on your research for the book, do you think many parents and carers may not be prepared for the challenges boys face today? 

The 21st century has brought dramatic changes on every level – the power of marketing, pop culture and technology in particular are impacting boys in ways parents aren’t awake to because things have moved so quickly, and because we tend to be more solicitous of girls.

Just how vulnerable are many boys in today’s society?

Our boys are vulnerable to marketing from preschool. We’re seeing a rise in anxiety and lack of self esteem from this young age. They’re vulnerable to an increasingly overwhelming peer pressure. Eating issues are on the rise. The lack of real challenges to boys drives them into unhealthy risk-taking and into the violent world of video games. And, our boys are also vulnerable to the messages they receive growing up in this highly sexualised climate.

Are boys as concerned with body image and presentation as girls?

Body image issues are on the rise for boys – not as acutely as for girls, but this trend cannot be underestimated. It is fed by the great focus on boys by the corporations who now realise this is one of the last demographics they haven’t really exploited as yet. As a result everyone from toiletry manufacturers to entertainment corporations is investing millions. A lot of the advertising around the resulting products is focused on body image. I talked to boys as young as eight who worried about their looks, their wardrobe. Basically boys are going down the same route as girls – a route that girls are painfully aware of.

You talk about a new fragility in the young. What does this mean, and what are the contributing factors?

Childhood is an endangered species – we’re seeing young children needing professional care for everything from eating issues to depression from the age of seven. Looks, possessions and popularity have become the focus, which means there’s little chance of inner growth. So while our children may seem more confident, often this is a veneer. This makes them vulnerable in all kinds of ways.

How is marketing helping to narrow essential life experiences for boys?

Boys in preschool are showing real signs of concern about whether they have the right branded items – backpacks etc. As they grow, this becomes their focus. Most boys have always been wonderfully self conscious about clothes and hair, but the drive to package themselves in a way that will gain acceptance is overtaking the opportunity to chill out, be boys, explore, have adventures, before they deal with these pressures.

Does research demonstrate a link between violence in boys and increased screen time?

There are an increasing number of studies showing clear links between exposure to violent entertainment and aggressive behaviour. Add to this what we know about brain plasticity, and we see how this exposure rewires the brain leaving boys feeling the world is a dangerous place. So they can easily end up with a survival mentality, using violence and aggression when dealing with unexpected or seemingly threatening situations. Our boys are about to inherit a very sophisticated and complex society. They need good life skills to cope with this complexity. Violent responses won’t get them there.

You talk about the complexity of the sexual landscape for boys. What do you mean by this?

From the time boys are aware of the world around them they have high exposure to highly sexualised messages and images – on everything from billboards to video clips on TV. Add to this the questionable lyrics of the music they are drawn to, which are frequently aggressive if not violent towards women as well as highly sexualised, and it’s not hard to see how confusing it is for boys as to what is appropriate behaviour, let alone learning about intimacy, sharing, feelings, etc.

What influences boys most in their decision making?

Peers are the number one influence on boys. Marketing and pop culture also have a big impact. Not all peers are problematic, and some aspects of pop culture are great. And parents need not be powerless. If they create a strong home culture, which is inclusive of friends, allows relaxed discussion about important issues, and is genuinely interested in their son’s world and culture, they help balance out influences that can be destructive.

What are some of the issues that are most likely to stress boys out?

Issues around peer acceptance, body, image, clothing, possessions, hair, girls, and family acceptance are all crucial to boys.

How can dads help to build their son’s resilience?

Dads have a massive positive role to play in a boy’s life. Creating an early open relationship is crucial, so boys know they can talk to their dads about stuff. One-on-one time is an excellent way to cultivate this, as are shared interests. Letting a boy know how much he’s loved and respected is also important. Many boys I spoke with felt constantly judged and found wanting by their dads – this is not a good basis on which to build a strong relationship.

If you could offer parents a crucial piece of advice in raising and protecting boys, what would it be?

Be open, honest and positive. Often boys are left to assume that everything they do is rubbish, and that their parents have emerged from a golden age. Talk about your own vulnerabilities. Problem solve together. Make home a warm, inclusive place. Enjoy being together.

What’s Happening to our Boys? by Maggie Hamilton, is published by Penguin Group (Australia).

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