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The best books on Boys and Toxic Masculinity

recommended by Sue Palmer

The child development expert Sue Palmer explains why modern life is making boys more sad, isolated and materialistic.

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Tell me about your first book, Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph.

This is the book I would recommend that all parents read. Steve Biddulph is saying that males have brains that are marinated in a different hormonal mix. Mums and female teachers need to understand this. The book is incredibly accessible and funny. For my own book, 21st Century Boys, I was looking at the influence of modern life on boys and I wanted to try to work out what it is about boys that might be causing them problems. All the statistics suggest that boys have more problems than girls. They are less likely to do well in the educational system. They are more likely to have learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems in their teens.

During my research I also came across the fact that in 2008 the global balance tipped. More of us now live in cities than in the countryside. That’s obviously not good for a little boy who has got in his DNA the drive to run, jump and play. We really do need to take that into account and look at the conditions we provide for our sons. Steve Biddulph has plenty of excellent advice on how to do that.

Boys, as you will hear from my next book choice, are natural systemisers and less interested in people. So it’s very easy for boys to be tuned into screens rather than people. And even when they want to run about they can be kept quiet in front of a screen. The quieter bright little lads can often be drawn to a screen-based lifestyle, which means they don’t develop emotionally as they should.

As part of my research I wanted to find out how important an adult’s time and attention is in a boy’s early development. All the books I’ve chosen helped me gain that knowledge.

What did you discover from your next book?

Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor at Cambridge who researches autism, the condition he thinks describes the extreme male brain. He uses evolutionary biology and what people know about early cognitive development. He says that research shows that when babies are born they are driven to pursue two tasks. The first is to make sense of the material world they live in. The way they do that is to categorise things. Baron-Cohen calls that systemising thought – or S-type thought. Babies are also driven to understand other people because we are social animals. And Baron-Cohen calls that E-type thought for empathising. For evolutionary reasons, he thinks that boys are slightly more inclined to S-type thought and girls to E-type thought. I read this book when it first came out and found it quite fascinating.

But there is a lot of scepticism towards this kind of research.

Yes there is. But I’m convinced of the evolutionary argument, which is: for thousands of years men were more likely to be hunters out on the open plains and therefore would have better visuospatial skills; whereas females were looking after the little ones or were stuck back at camp with the other women, so they had to be better at social skills.

I know that critics say it is wrong to categorise men and women like that, and of course men can empathise and women can do men’s things. But I do think it’s important to be aware of the fundamental differences when you are bringing up boys and girls.

Baron-Cohen makes me interested in the way we rear children in the first few years of life, say up until they are three years old. My next choice looks beyond that at the whole nurture argument.

The thesis of The Nurture Assumption sounds highly controversial.

Yes, Judith Rich Harris looks at the idea that a child who can only socialise with adults is at a disadvantage. They need to be able to socialise on their own terms and get along with their peer group. In the old days most children from three onwards would be socialised by the other kids. Judith Rich Harris makes a wonderful argument that we should be less controlling of our children when they are old enough to play with other kids because they have to learn to develop on their own terms. She thinks that when children are between two and a half to three the need for social inclusion kicks in so they cleave to their own gender group. That’s when boys’ play is different from girls’ play.

I was talking to a nursery worker in Denmark who told me that the boys had made their own special area where they were the “dogs” and the girls weren’t allowed to play. Finally the girls managed to get around it by offering to help look after the “dogs”. So there are ways of working it out!

Some critics would say that books like this give parents an opt-out clause on bringing up their children. If anything goes wrong they can blame it on their peers.

Well, I don’t see it like that. I think you need to look at all these books as a whole in order to form an opinion.

Tell me about your next book.

A Mind So Rare by Merlin Donald is beautifully written and quite fascinating. It’s about the evolution of the brain and the way language is probably the thing that, above all, has made us the successful human beings that we are. Being able to talk changes the way that we think. It makes us more powerful thinkers because it gives us the capacity to think in narrative. When you’ve got language you can tap into the social sphere.

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” He saw the question as inside your head but Donald says your conscious happens through language. You wake up in the morning and think, What is my day going to be like? And at the end of the day you have a narrative of what you did.

Then we have the whole system of encoding language – writing it down which enables people to have access to what everyone is thinking.

How does that relate to boys?

I think that it relates to all of us. But, perhaps because boys are less naturally social, the capacity to lock brains with another human, albeit through literature, helps them to develop. Certainly the neuroscientists tell us that it changes the functional architecture of the brain and makes us more civilised. There is evidence from the Literacy Trust that at 14 one of the best predictors of how successful a boy will be is how much he reads.

It worries me therefore that so many boys are getting tuned into screens so early. Because screens are immediately gratifying and learning to read and write is quite difficult, there is a danger that some boys’ lives become so screen dominated they don’t get the benefit of literacy. And that leads me to my final book.

Creating Ever-cool: A Marketer’s Guide to a Kid’s Heart.

Yes, what we have to remember is that screens are dominated by marketing. Middle-class mummies and daddies might be too polite to mention the gender warfare but the marketing people are different. They drive gender stereotypes. And these are usually the least desirable ones. So for boys, they want to push them towards a screen-based lifestyle because they do seem naturally drawn to it.

In basic terms they see that many boys are driven by a need for status. The marketing people call them deep emotional needs – power, dominion and mastery. In a 21st-century world it is difficult to get that. But, on screen you can be master of your own universe. I think all those masters of the universe on Wall Street were very clever high functioning systemisers, great with a computer screen but who had very few social skills. So there was no one to tell them when to stop.

Parents are anxious that children should become good with technology while they are young, but there are pitfalls. We need to recognise that boys have social and emotional weaknesses that we can help them with. They need lots of language and play and these are under threat in modern society.

Language and literacy are all free but in a competitive consumer society marketers want us to forget about that. And they invest a huge amount of money and psychological know-how to ensure we buy as many products as possible. This book is chilling. The people who work in marketing are brainwashing kids.

November 17, 2009

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Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer writes about child development and education in the modern world. She’s listed among the 20 most influential figures in English education by the London Evening Standard. She lives in Scotland, where she was recently described in The Scotsman as one of the country’s “new radical thinkers”.

Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer

Sue Palmer writes about child development and education in the modern world. She’s listed among the 20 most influential figures in English education by the London Evening Standard. She lives in Scotland, where she was recently described in The Scotsman as one of the country’s “new radical thinkers”.