Socialising boys to love well.

It was a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that caused me to unravel this weekend.

There was an accumulation of things; some extremely serious incidents at work; some more mundane, but domestic-abuse-focused work tasks in preparation; the personal stories and sorrows of a friend and then along came the gif. On a Twitter feed I’m very fond of.

I have such a soft spot for the Calvin and Hobbes Twitter feed because the cartoons seem to be such an authentic evocation of boyhood. I’ve been a spectator on the boyhoods of my younger brothers (including one who had – and still has – a tiger) and am still observing the boyhoods of my sons. When I read the cartoons I enjoy their humour and the charm of recognition. This is boyhood as I have witnessed it many times, over decades, despite the changes in culture, media, technology, education and expectation in these years. Calvin and Hobbes makes me laugh out loud every time it sketches a scene that I remember, from thirty years ago, or from yesterday.

And then this morning, that image, with that caption, told a story that wasn’t OK, and one that I couldn’t enjoy.

It’s not “young love” when a guffawing boy fells a girl with a snowball. And we have to stop telling boys and girls that it is. I’m a sister to brothers and a mother to sons. I can see there’s a place for rough play in childhood for children of any gender. There are times when it can be exhilarating and fun and there’s no good reason why girls shouldn’t be equal participants. If they want to be.

But love does not cause hurt to the loved one. Ever. People who love you can sometimes hurt you, but its not love that does that. When we tell children that it does, we implicitly sanction abusive relationships in later life. I’ve probably said “young love” in response to rough play myself in times past, but the more I know, and the more clearly I see, the more definite I am: We’ve got to stop.

Hurting someone (other than in a consenting BDSM relationship, which is not the subject of this blogpost) is not a sign of love. It is not a sign of “interest”. It is not “playful”.

Who might think hurting someone is “playful”? Well, a court might be told that punching and hair-pulling are seemingly playful, in a case like this one: where a murderer, who stabbed his girlfriend 90 times had this said about his behaviour.

20141005-120542.jpg Is it “playful” to punch and pull the hair of your girlfriend at any time? No. Let alone when she’s small of stature, has poor eyesight and a learning disability. I think we all know bullying when we see it. But do we name it? No. “seemingly playfully”!? We should call bullshit loud and clear on statements like that.

Someone on Twitter (there’s always someone) wanted to pick over my criticism of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. He – because of course it was a he – told me that this behaviour isn’t gendered. Oh really!? He’s wrong. It may be true that at certain ages girls punch or pull the hair of boys in the same way that boys punch of pull the hair of girls, but our response to them doing so is very different. (I don’t want to re-ignite the discussion, so I’ve redacted the details of the other participants in the conversation). Read from bottom to top.


We tell girls off when they tease. We tell them that they need to be nice. We smile indulgently on boys as they punch, and pull hair and we say “young love”. And that’s what they learn. And that’s how they learn it.

My argumentative Tweetmate went on to seemingly insist that this was one of those unchallengeable forces of nature, saying:

20141005-132835.jpg They wouldn’t know how to express affection appropriately and positively. Boys wouldn’t know.
Why not? Why wouldn’t boys know? Aren’t people affectionate towards boys? Don’t the adults who love them express affection towards them appropriately and positively? If boys don’t know how to express affection without punching and hair pulling, that is our doing as the adults who care for them.

What worried me most at this point was that the critic’s bio told me he worked in childcare. Yes, that magical unicorn of the children’s services world, a man who works in childcare. A male role model for our confused boys. A man with the wherewithal, the interest, and – in fact – the job of socialising our children. Of showing them how, among other things, to show affection and interest appropriately and positively. And he didn’t seem to see it that way at all. It’s hard not to despair.

As @leiselilly says:

And yet it’s not impossible. I thought of the men I know. Many – no, most – of whom would never intentionally harm someone they love. My father, my brothers. Most of my past boyfriends and lovers. My husband. Even my first husband (whom a divorce lawyer once told me I should stay with because he didn’t drink, gamble or beat me).

It can’t be that hard, can it? For boys to learn to love well? Where does tenderness come from?

So I wondered “aloud”:

20141005-150214.jpg And was delighted to get some immediate and positive responses from men who had something worthwhile to say about it.

I asked these Tweetmates if they wanted to say more, so that I could add their thoughts on raising boys to this blogpost.

I’m adding the second reply I received here:

This is from restorative practitioner and Tweeter @alastairRP As you can see, he’s clear that it’s possible to raise boys in a way that enables them to express love.

What do you do when you are driving along and you see a small group of boys or a group of small boys walking together and you see them jostling each other; perhaps one of them is grabbing another in a headlock or aggressively exchanging punches to the upper arm. I know what I want to do. I want to pull up alongside them wind down the window and simply say “if you like him that much tell him or at the very least just give him a hug”. In reality what I do is drive on by ruing a missed opportunity.

Working as I do as a restorative practitioner in schools – mostly primary but not exclusively – such opportunities present themselves regularly and I am lucky to be in a position not to miss them. I’ve worked for over 20 years with young people damaged by their life experiences in some way, disaffected and unable to take their place in society. Often they dont stand out, you cant see that there is anything different about them until they try to express themselves. When words fail, and they often do, and the frustration and anger at their inability to both understand and express themselves spills over then for most I have spent time working with aggression isnt far away. I’ve seen the harm and felt the hurt that young men feel and the damage this does to them and those around them.
Too long we have heard “thats what lads do” “its just boys being boys”. NO IT ISNT. We must collectively challenge this widely held believe, this excuse to have to do something better for our boys, our young men. We owe them that, otherwise the behaviour will perpetuate, together we need to show them a less harmful way to understand and express their emotions.

Bringing restorative practice into primary schools gives hope that we can begin to do this. Hope that we can begin to show young men that there are more ways to expressing anger than to lash out, hope that they can better understand themselves and hope they can be equipped with the knowledge skills and confidence to talk instead however uncomfortable this might feel at times.

Is it too much to think that one day we can pass groups of young males walking along and see them showing each other how much they enjoy each others company in a way that makes us pass by feeling just a little warmer inside.

Here is the first of those replies, from restorative practitioner and Tweeter @PaulW_Chambers. It’s lovely.

Things we wished we had said

A friend I’ve never met recently asked me if I would be kind enough to drop her some thoughts on socialising boys to love well; with kindness, gentleness, generosity and respect. Immediately I wondered if there is anything more difficult or something that makes us more fragile than when we have to communicate our feelings to or for each other? Failure to do so often leaves us in abject emotional poverty. And yet maybe by embracing this failure hope is offered, particularly for a generation of young men.

Let’s face it men are pretty crap when it comes to emotional literacy. When I walk onto a prison wing, or estates riddled with alpha male teens or even a training room full of police officers full of testosterone and I tell them they are beautiful, nine times out of ten a tumbleweed moment ensues.

Listening to our lives, it’s touch, taste and smell takes us to that dangerous landscape of the human heart where we come face to face with our humanity and what is reflected isn’t always easy to look at. So when my friend I’ve never met asked me, for my thoughts for some reason Jonny Cash blew across my bow. Someone who wrestled his demons all his life, that’s why so many adored him, why he was so loved – a broken man trying to piece his life back together.

And there’s the secret, the broken man with the gaze that pierces. The gaze that looks beyond behaviour and grabs hold of your heart; your compassion – something quite distinct from empathy. I believe compassion can be taught allowing both the heart and the brain to light up.

Once you’re real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand. Being real with boys, young men and giving them part of yourself brings change in behaviour. I remember working with a guy serving 5 years inside telling me once that the guards treated him like a dog and so that’s what they got. Meeting him once a week for over a year and filling his world with kindness, gentleness and respect brought about a remarkable change.

The restorative soul in me works loosely around this pattern:
The experience (concrete/personal) links to
Reflection (observation/examination) links to
Forming (concepts/ideas/values/principles) links to
Practice (testing/earthing/action)
And back to experience (good/bad/boring) and we can learn from experience…we can.

Knowing how we feel and putting words to it then deciding what to do and say.

We have to not only understand those kids who oppress, but try and walk in their shoes, walk with them, journey into their darkness and together walk out the other side soaked in a dearer wine.

That means, cups of coffee, bacon sandwiches, visits in police cells, deafening silences, aching hearts, disappointments. It means tears before laughter, actions not words, practice not theory. It means being the complete opposite of how everyone else treats those who most have given up on. Encouraging boys to believe that they deserve and others deserve a better future than the ones they are creating by true, honest and open communication about coming to terms with demons and a youth or social worker becoming a true friend.

A lad who I worked with many years ago recently said to me, ‘The times I remember were when you made me feel more important than anything else and I wanted to pass that on and make other feel as good as i did.’ The natural fall out of silence is that people become accustomed to not talking about important issues and if we respond to emotions alone we often regret it all, and this is the barrier I try to break through and not to be left with the things we wished we had said.


6 thoughts on “Socialising boys to love well.

  1. So many other things socialise boys, in ways that are far removed from tenderness. For me it was rugby, boxing, parachuting, skiing and all manner of testosterone-driven competitive sports and games… Getting the balance right is the hardest thing. I have 5 sons and started out trying to keep toy guns and other weapons out of their toy box. It was a “losing battle”, as I soon discovered!

    • I think in relation to socialising boys to LOVE well, with kindness, gentleness, respect, generosity, tenderness etc. the key issue is not whether boys are encouraged to enjoy sports or other activities which are physically demanding or require mental toughness, but whether they are shown love, and what love looks like and feels like. It’s about being clear what actions are loving and which are not.
      Women play rugby, box, parachute and shoot. My love of rugby is no secret – I grew up in a rugby-loving household and my brothers play hard. But they (generally) don’t treat relationships as a competitive sport in which they have to dominate the other person and (generally) neither do I. There’s a time and a place for all these feelings, actions and emotions and we help our boys to understand this is so by being clear about the distinction between those times and places.
      It should be (it is!) possible to socialise our children to be competitive in sport and cooperative in relationships.
      The key thing we need to do is love our boys well, with kindness, gentleness, generosity and respect.
      They are the way they are because we are the way we are.

  2. Can’t add much here – but i would say boys need their families – have to say mothers really – but fathers too – early on – to really spend time with them. I guess girls do too. But your relationships and values really are formed very early on. And I would say its basically a love of life, and the simple things in life that help you to then value relationships later – as they say – the best things in life are free !

    And also the Steve Biddulph book Raising Boys is good too.
    As you say – worrying that someone working in childcare isn’t nurturing relationships – thankfully the nursery my kids went to (2.5 hours a day !) was very into doing that.

    I would also say just on the Calvin and Hobbs thing, yes certainly it shouldnt say “young love” ! but in my experience “girls ruled” the primary school environment and often make the boys lifes a misery. I would say this is because of the feminised nature of that environment. Boys were also not appreciated as often their drawing skills/neatness of writing is not as advanced at that stage – and sometimes the telling off from the teachers can be severe – to the point of I know of a boy who refused to draw again from age 6 onwards after being ridiculed by a teacher.
    But yes girls can be tormenting – obviously not all – but bags being pulled off chairs etc – and always going to the teachers to “tell tales” and manipulating etc. Again – no doubt the ones who do these things are not brought up correctly – or I often find – I hate to say – but its the kids with two full time working parents often – the ones who don’t hear the tales at the school gate – so you can keep on top of what your kids are up to.

    • I can’t agree with an analysis which makes girls and women responsible for boys’ behaviour.
      I know Steve Biddulph’s book well, and how very prescriptive it is about how women / mothers’ role. You’re entitled to your opinion about the book’s value, but I disagree.
      I do think that adults of any gender (whether they have a parenting role or not) are role models for our children and I stand by my final remarks; they are the way they are because we are the way we are. If we take responsibility for our own behaviour, instead of attributing it to others, they will learn to do the same.

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