During the week I was chatting to a nurse who was just back from maternity leave. Her toddler was at nursery and happy to be there, enjoying the new experience of water play and sharpening his negotiating skills over the megablocs with other determined toddlers. She was amused to receive a class progress report on her eleven month old son at the end of the first week.
I shared my experience of an early years nursery manager who took me to one side and reported, apologetically, that my older son was a potential gangster liable to extort tribute from innocents; a likely mass murderer addicted to violence with no control over his high energy pugilism and an incurable recidivist to-boot. It was Reservoir Dogs writ small for the nursery.
When the nursery manager reported this, I was shocked. After a few moments of guilt and wondering what I had done wrong, I was ready to pick up the phone and put us all into family therapy tout suite. Then, realising the absurdity of judging a three year old, I began to wonder about how and against whom my energetic youngster was being measured? After some discussion and careful listening it dawned on me that he was being measured against girls’ behaviour or rather that abstract construct the ‘female norm’.
I realised that whilst the world was and is dominated by male power, in the nursery it is the female norm that dominates. Boys at that time were, and still maybe, measured against the normally, lesser physicality of most girls, the behaviour of normally, quieter girls and the normally more advanced social development of girls. Boys, if they don’t measure up are found wanting. Very wanting, in my son’s case. To be fair the norm will be applied to girls who fall outside expected parameters of girl-like behaviour too.
As time went on I realised that few nursery carers, in my experience, ever got boys. Few junior school teachers ever got my uncomfortably articulate and insightful first son either. A distasteful experience for them, I always thought. Thank heavens then for the all-boys secondary school which manages with skill and good humour to turn out some well-mannered, witty and pretty acceptable human beings. But these are other stories.
All of this came into sharp focus when I read Rosalind Wiseman’s new book Masterminds & Wingmen which is about the world that boys inhabit. Rosalind does get boys…and has interviewed many teenagers to create the book and built on her own experience of having two boys of her own. Her experience rings so true that I cannot resist quoting her. I have laughed out loud, recognising exactly these thoughts and deeds. There surely cannot be a mother of sons who hasn’t shared this experience:
See also her video http://rosalindwiseman.com/ which is funny and engaging and which, alongside a range of worrying demographic data about boys also looks at the serious issue of teenage suicide, a topic very much in the news in the UK at the moment. In the UK in 2011, the Samaritans report, (using the Office of National Statistics data), there were 134 teenage boys between 15 and 19 who committed suicide and 60 teenage girls in that age group. An unbearable number.
In the end this is a long game. If we can understand our sons more and somehow finds ways of reaching them as teenagers, with dignity, respect and humour, then perhaps permanent lines of communication will be forged between boys themselves and between boys and their adult carers. The benefits go wider and may impact on the health of our communities and the working world. I have often expressed the view that as Diversity and Inclusion practitioners we have forgotten to include the male gender in the work we do to achieve balance in the workplace (see my blog here).
And maybe, just maybe the boys will achieve their voice, something that men in the workplace tentatively suggest that they do not have currently. Boundaries may be renegotiated. They may develop a better understanding of what it is to be male in a world which demands a set of circumscribed behaviours to qualify as a male. My elder son, on reading (some of) this piece observed the Rosalind’s work is observing a change which has already taken place. That may be true to an extent but sometimes it is helpful to place the spotlight on a social change that most of us have barely noticed. In the end though the greater good is that in creating that habit of openness for men life could be made more bearable for those who suffer in silent despair in later life and who see no hope for themselves in the future.
Oh and how has my pugilistic and homicidal toddler son turned out?…A wise and handsome head on young shoulders, thank you. Here’s to your splendid self, Bob!
Post script to sons when they eventually get round to reading this:…and No! just because I have written about you I don’t love you more than Ed, and yes Ed, I will write about your loveliness at some point too, sorry 🙂 Mum xxx