Raising our sons to be the best expression of themselves — whether they are outgoing, strong ‘alpha’ boys or more gentle, sensitive lads who seem to have a greater capacity to care — requires them to learn about ‘the line in the sand’.
This is the metaphorical line between what is appropriate and acceptable, and what is not.
Things have been changing quite rapidly in the healthy raising of our boys and it seems that the line has become a bit blurry for many.
Looking at the results of the latest National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) Youth report, it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do in teaching boys and young men about consent, sexism, boundaries and how to behave more respectfully towards girls and women.
Much of what was considered okay 30 years ago is largely unacceptable now and yet we still need to respect many of the biological, hormonal and physical differences that exist between a statistically significant number of our boys and girls — not all boys and not all girls, but enough of them.
With greater understanding and guidance, I believe if we start early in life we can have a big impact on raising our boys to not only clearly see the line in the sand but to shift attitudes and behaviours significantly.
The line on movement
Given that many boys need plenty of movement to create enough positive neurochemicals to feel good and reduce stress, it makes sense why so many boys wriggle, fidget and walk around randomly in our early childhood settings, primary schools and secondary classrooms.
Sadly so many of these boys are made to feel bad and naughty when they are unable to keep their bodies still. More and more educators are realising there is a fundamental need to build more movement into their classrooms, which is of course beneficial for girls too.
We need to teach our young lads about the need for healthy boundaries while acknowledging their biological need to move.
We can teach them that they may quietly tap their foot on the floor, or jiggle their legs or maybe they could choose to do some random doodling to help them stay seated when the teacher needs them to do so.
Random walking around classrooms can be crossing the line and leaving the classroom without permission is definitely crossing the line.
The line on physicality
One of the things that causes a lot of confusion, particularly for mums of sons, is the incredible physicality of boys’ behaviour when they are together.
This can mean lots of slapping, jumping on each other, wrestling, shoving and pushing. And yes sometimes boys get hurt.
Michael Gurian explores the phenomenon called “aggression nurturance”. Essentially this means that being physically aggressive is a very normal part of boys’ growth and development – with other boys. Gurian is very careful to clarify that aggression in this instance is not violence. There are some who believe that boys have a higher tolerance of physical pain than girls and that would make sense given how rough their play can become at times!
When boys are being physically, playfully aggressive towards other boys (again we are not talking about them being physically violent), they are actually seeking connection just like most girls do through conversation and cooperative play.
The first line in the sand that boys need to learn about this is that roughhousing or rough and tumble play is normal when they are trying to connect and have fun with other boys.
However, if either boy feels wronged or disrespected then this form of play can change from being aggressive to violent, because the underlying intention now is to hurt rather than connect. That is crossing the line.
It is important to explain to little boys that this form of often physically rough play is generally only acceptable with other boys rather than girls. Of course there are some girls who really like this form of play and I was one of them but most will find this form of play unwanted, unwelcome and unacceptable.
It is really important not to punish boys when they unintentionally hurt another boy when they are playing in a physical way. Given that the instinctual drive of males that continues from caveman days is to kill mammoths and be fearless, then this form of play is coming from a deep biological and possibly archetypal origin.
“The male approach to friendship and love is often different from female – males often emphasize challenge and the pursuit of valour together, and this kind of bonding is crucial to human survival and thriving.”
— Michael Gurian, Saving our Sons (2017).
Remember not all boys want to play rough and it’s important to let your son know that and that a challenge can be a building a cubby or digging to China can be incredibly bonding too.
If you have a boy who struggles with violence and excessive aggression nurturance, Gurian says many of these boys are found to be having problems with neuro chemicals or neurotoxins or they have experienced a trauma of some kind. It can warrant a deeper exploration of a boy’s health and world.
Also, I would just add here that establishing “The Only 3 Rules That Matter” early and being consistent with this in your family can really support you to set healthy boundaries with your children and have a point of reference when they do break the rules.
The line around stuff
Many little boys can struggle in early childhood settings and early primary school if they decide that something they have created a strong attachment to is used by other children – so they may lash out. This is crossing the line because it doesn’t belong to them even though they have become very fond of it. This will need some careful emotional coaching so they can see that they are unable to treat that thing as being only theirs.
The same can go with some friendships. For a whole lot of reasons boys can struggle more than girls to create friendships. Sometimes their jealousy over someone else playing with their friend, can end up in violence. And remember violence is when aggressive play has an intention to hurt.
This line in the sand in early boyhood is one we all have to invest heavily in. Friends don’t belong to you. Just as later in life, girlfriends/romantic partners also don’t belong to you. They may choose to be in a relationship with you and yes they will treat you as though you are special but if the relationship ends, they don’t owe you anything.
So managing friendship rejections early in life and helping our little boys understand about ‘ownership’ is incredibly important – for some boys it may even reduce the potential in adulthood for stalking, harassment and physical violence towards those who have chosen to end a relationship with them.
Emotional coaching early in boyhood will also help them understand the intensity of big ugly feelings like jealousy, envy, frustration, sadness and fear.
A little boy needs to know these are normal human feelings and that there are things that he can do that can help process these feelings rather than needing to intentionally hurt others. Please be mindful that a lot of boys and men prefer not to talk about these big feelings but rather process them over time in their own way.
Boys need to know that feeling lousy after we have been emotionally hurt, excluded, treated badly, misunderstood or feel disrespected is completely normal.
It is not a sign of weakness, however it can create a sense of vulnerability that can be quite frightening for our little mammoth hunters.
It can also be helpful to explore the notion of payback – which is another often-problematic conditioned response to righting a wrong that belongs to the old male code.
There is more and more evidence from neuroscience that can show that girls’ and boys’ brains function quite differently and so it makes sense that some of their behaviours will also differ. This is not only in how they play and the need to move, it is also in how they see ownership, or what is mine.
Some research purports that boys have higher levels of the hormone vasopressin and this is a hormone that can increase the sense of bondedness – a bit like oxytocin does in females. This hormone has been linked with feelings of territoriality, which was obviously important back in primitive times. So when testosterone and vasopressin flood our boys this may trigger a strong urge to claim what is theirs.
I have been explaining to parents for a very long time that often boys have a deep sensitivity toward some special things – this can be favourite T-shirts, soft toys, certain pieces of Lego, a large stick under their bed or maybe a favourite picture book.
In a way, these things have a much higher value placed on them by a boy. They can sometimes act in really inappropriate ways to defend what is theirs. Helping them to identify their special things and to possibly put them away from siblings or visitors to their home can be really helpful.
It can also be helpful teaching them to share and take turns by playing plenty of games at home that let them practise these things – and how to lose well – in the safe circle of family.
The line in adolescence
Let’s take a look at this form of playful, often physical connection I wrote of earlier as our boys emerge into adolescence and manhood.
Sexual harassment happens to both boys and girls. In locker rooms and change rooms, boys often flick towels at each other’s genitals mostly in a harmless attempt to create light-hearted connectedness.
Obviously not all boys enjoy these antics and increasingly are voicing their dislike – which is about that healthy boundary again – however it seems it is still considered a part of the norm. Again, this is why we must talk to our boys about respecting others’ boundaries at an early age to shift this norm.
Recently I was chatting with Steve Biddulph for an upcoming episode of my new podcast about his updated book Raising Girls in the 21st Century and he was talking about the issue of sexual harassment in schools here and overseas.
Sexual harassment towards girls from boys in high schools in the UK, Australia and US has become very problematic.
The easy access to pornography and violent gaming seem to be major contributors to this culture of girls being seen as commodities. In the US, one in 4 girls are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18 and 2 out of 3 girls are harassed, according to the latest data collected by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The groping, the unwanted touching, the pulling of bra straps and the forcing of male bodies against girls’ bodies in stairwells and hallways is a clear sign of crossing the line. What may be okay between mates – and seriously 14-year-old boys are continuously shoving, slapping and touching other boys in our schools – is seriously not okay when it is directed at girls.
Teaching our boys about this when they are little is now essential not just recommended and it will certainly help to curb this behaviour when puberty arrives in all its glory!
Schools need to be very proactive in getting this message across and so working with parents to ensure these social challenges are both recognised and made to be seen as clearly unacceptable is critical if we are to change this behaviour.
The excuse ‘I was just having fun’ is absolutely not acceptable either and when boys can hear from girls how it makes them feel in a safe respectful environment, real change can occur.
If left unchallenged in our porn-riddled world the worst can happen where boys – immature men – still feel it’s ok to use girls as sources of entertainment without any consideration of how demeaning it is for girls.
The case of the Australian cricketer in the UK is a horrid example of how frightening this pattern of behaviour can become if not challenged in boyhood, when this young man and some of his friends were using girls as bait in a sexual conquest game.
Another really important line in the sand that boys need to understand is around the verbal dynamics of male communication. Teasing and banter are generally a part of healthy male relationships particularly in our Australian culture – indeed in our family my four sons still continue to do this as grown men. Nowadays it is light hearted and creates a great sense of family connectedness. I am often the butt of the jokes and I know again that the intention behind it is about laughing together and family connectedness. I also give as good as I get!!!
Understanding the unique nuances of human communication through conversation takes time and practise to learn however and this is not easy in today’s screen world where many of our children and teens are simply not using as much verbal communication as previous generations.
Most girls are far more competent at emotional literacy and verbal communication much earlier than our boys and so often boys’ verbal silliness can actually be quite immature because they are more immature!
Little boys can come up with some hilarious stuff and they often tease each other using their unique ‘toilet style’ humour which includes bums, poo and farts! As parents we have a busy time to help them work out where the line in the sand is around the appropriateness of this verbal banter especially in the public domain.
Nicknames are also very common in the boy world and indeed in the man world. Funnily enough for some men they save their most derogatory names for the men they value the most.
So name calling, and put downs which are technically forms of relational aggression are often not problematic between boys who are friends. Of course there are times when they are problematic – when the intention is to hurt and that becomes bullying – and many boys need guidance early on to know the difference between the teasing and banter that connects, and the teasing and banter that is hurtful and often shameful.
Just like with physical touching, our boys need to learn that boy to boy teasing is very different to boy to girl teasing (although both require you to be able to read when you’ve crossed the line!).
Lisa Damour in her excellent book Under Pressure explores the verbal sexual harassment that many girls are experiencing today.
Again, maybe the influence of easy to find pornography has given boys more words they can use that are disrespectful towards girls.
Girls are being called ‘sluts’,’hos’, ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’, or being asked for ‘nudes’ or to perform sexual acts. When they push back and call boys out on this disrespectful verbal abuse, they are often told they are being ‘too sensitive’ or that they are overreacting.
My hope is that many boys may be seeing this through the same lens as boy banter – as a form of light-hearted mocking – without realising how incredibly scary, menacing and disgusting it is for girls to be spoken to like that.
It needs to be nipped in the bud in our schools and in our homes. All grown-ups have got some serious work to do to ensure that boys know that there is a line in the sand around disrespectful verbal communication regardless of their intention – and we have plenty of badly behaving adults on the internet who are not helping this cause.
We need to start as early as possible to prevent this happening during the adolescent journey to adulthood. Girls need to be respected for being assertive and holding boys to account for this inappropriate behaviour, not threatened and harassed and insulted for speaking up. Boys also need to know it’s OK to speak up against harassment and that needs to start at home with role modelling. We have much work to do!
Sadly when girls report sexually aggressive behaviour whether physically or verbally they can still find themselves in the hot seat questioning what they were wearing or how they were acting that may have ‘invited’ such abuse! We need to remind both our boys and our girls that sexual harassment isn’t about the victim, it is about the perpetrator. They are the problem.
Thankfully there are some excellent long-term mentoring programs now going into schools that are having these conversations with our boys. The best of them are lengthy and embedded in the curriculum and they echo what traditional communities did well – adolescent boys being mentored by older men, not necessarily punished but rather coached.
Such programs are challenging these unhelpful behaviours in respectful ways. Programs for girls are equally as important to let them know that it is unacceptable to be treated in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable. They can also help girls navigate the enormous pressure of sexualisation that is being felt by girls at younger and younger ages.
Schools need to step forward and be a part of the solution because much of the awful behaviour happens on school grounds or on public transport on the way to school. Even more importantly, in changing unhealthy attitudes towards girls and women, we need to create opportunities for boys to not only hear about… but invite them to become the change agents through taking action, as they do in programs such as Walk the Talk.
The most important place to start educating our boys about the importance of the line in the sand is in our homes from loving mums and dads and carers.
You must be careful not to shame the way that most boys interact with each other, however we need them to know that the line in the sand really matters.
Sometimes they’re going to cross it and with loving guidance they can take that as a learning opportunity so that next time they can make a better choice. We must step forward now to stop this disturbing and concerning shift in nasty behaviour.
Mothering Our Boys: A Guide for Mums of Sons
Maggie shares her insights, her reflections, and (as always) her humour around mothering boys in this book that will help you be the mum your son needs you to be.