A child psychiatrist reveals the best ways to nurture boys.
Last summer, my six-year-old nephew was determined to master jumping from the swim dock into the water. A bit shy by nature, he waited until my older daughters were elsewhere, and I was in the water to catch him. On his first attempt, he threw his arms around my neck and whispered into my ear, "Hold me tighter!" When I later related this story to our assembled family, my nephew chastised me: "Uncle Kyle, I told you not to tell!" Although he actually hadn't, the message was clear: don't tell that he'd wanted holding—tight holding.
My heart sank. Here was a wonderful young boy ashamed that he feels or needs something perfectly okay to need and feel. With a loving, doting dad and skilled elementary teacher for a mom, I knew they weren't preparing him for a life in the World Wrestling Federation, but he had begun school last year and, in this little scene, seemed to have started his training to be a man.
Why do so many boys seem to feel that being thick-skinned, tight-lipped, dry-eyed and in-your-face is the best way to live life and conduct meaningful relationships? Is it because boys are naturally tougher? The reason is precisely the opposite. Boys are more vulnerable from the beginning to the end of life. The male fetus is at greater risk of death, infection and medical complication at birth. By six weeks of age, boys have begun to fall behind girls developmentally. During their early years, they are more susceptible to poor parental care. By adolescence, girls out-perform boys at school, and boys are four times more likely to die by suicide. As adults, males live shorter lives, are more likely to die violent and accidental deaths, are more susceptible to cancer and the list goes on. This is not the profile of a stronger sex.
As a practicing physician for twenty-five years, I've become increasingly worried about the premature shutdown of boys' emotional, moral and spiritual development. I suspect a growing causative link between boys' stronger potential for violence, paternal abandonment and the way we as parents, teachers and society collude with our boys' "need to be boys" before they become fully socialized.