Raising boys? Help yourself to some gender stereotypes
Steve Biddulph’s bestseller on bringing up boys takes us on a trip back to the 19th century.
It was as I stood waiting in a queue in the local department store that the book caught my eye. Jiggling my baby son in his sling and pushing my daughter’s pushchair along, a row of blue and pink books swam into view. Their pastel covers beamed up at me next to the checkout, their covers stamped with photogenic children gazing open eyed - middle-class and white; dimpled skin and Boden t-shirts. Raising Girls and Raising Boys loudly proclaimed the titles. Obviously there was a knack to this - one I needed to learn.
I wish I had been forewarned. Parenting is hard job but it is also tribal. Mother pitted against mother in a struggle to raise their children the correct and legitimate way. Black and white; four legged vs. two legged; routine vs. attachment; Penelope Leach vs. Gina Ford - I knew I would have to pick a side. What I didn’t initially expect was how my feminist principles would also be under attack. This was an examination not just of my children but me - my class; morality; worldview; politics. So like any good middle-class girl preparing for a test, I read the books.
The book that had caught my eye that fateful afternoon is a popular one. Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph is regularly recommended from the pages of The Guardian to Mumsnet; his policy work implemented through school curricula. Its author is a well-travelled speaker regularly courted in the UK and Australia - a modern day messiah on raising that most difficult of beasts - the boy child. His subject is big business and plays to a common modern worry. What should we do with our boys? Every newspaper and news bulletin is full of the problems that the parent of a boy will encounter. Raised suicide rates, drug abuse, criminality, sexual violence, poor exam results - it’s hardly surprising that parents want a magic pill. The problem was now personal to me. A few short months before, as I lay in the ultrasound suite in the hospital looking at my squirming baby son inside my belly, I found myself wondering how I would manage with what suddenly looked like a complex conundrum rather than a child. How would I bring up a son who was respectful towards women, considerate, who would understand and uphold my feminist principles? Screw that. How would I prevent him ending up in prison, dealing skunk, overdosing on painkillers in a suicide pact? In a way that my daughter had never worried me, my son opened up questions about my parenting that scared me and drove me to pick up the magic pill. Biddulph went in the shopping basket.
In Biddulph world, men are men and women are women. Women stack the dishwasher while hubby reads the paper. Biddulph’s philosophy for happiness is simple. Be heterosexual, be middle class and make sure you marry your man. Once these ideals are fulfilled the stage is set. Mother is nurturing and gentle - her passion wholly centred upon domesticity. In his essay, ‘Stand Up to Your Wife’ in his book, Manhood he claims that strong women will “feel able and willing to bear a child”. The magic is such that Biddulph claims to “have known fertility problems to disappear through this work - as if a woman’s body would not bear a child until her mind knew it could and would protect that child”. Meanwhile the man must “stand up to his wife”. New Man is boring - “I’ve met dozens of strong, capable feminist women, who tell me in the confidentiality of the counselling setting, that they have finally found the sensitive, caring, new-age man they thought they wanted and they are bored stiff! They are starting to drive slowly past building sites, wondering whether to whistle!” he chuckles. Scrape the surface and modern empowered women are the root of the problem - emasculating men, confusing boys and subverting the natural order of things. The temerity is astounding. Women have demanded change of men and now are unhappy with the result. Like modern day Pandoras, they’ve opened the box and unleashed a modern-day catastrophe.
Once Biddulph has dealt his masterstroke, denying similarity and emphasising difference between the genders, his vision continues apace in Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different - And How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-balanced Men. Boys are mathematical. Girls are empathetic. Boys are physical. Girls are passive. Boys are passionate. Girls are obedient. Boys find it difficult to communicate effectively. Girls take any chance to discuss their feelings. Once the book is debated by its readers, the stereotyping reaches still further dizzying heights. Readers muse on the ability of their son to use the remote control as evidence of a deeply rational and mathematical mind, while another mother is convinced of the essential nature of gender difference by her daughter’s liking for dresses. Everywhere difference is posed as natural. Everywhere ‘natural’ is posed as unchanging, immovable and essential. Males emerge as a separate species - their skills, attitudes and passions antithetical to their female counterparts. Who could deny the obvious? Men and women are different, their brains fundamentally differently wired, their circuits incompatible and what can be expected of and by each sex, different as a result.
Biddulph’s panacea was simple. My worry and fear could be dulled if I simply accepted the obvious - that my feminist principles would harm my boy. I should accept that boys will be boys. It would be exceptionally naïve of me to expect the feminist-friendly son I craved. In fact, it would be actively harmful. When I dressed my son in my daughters pink cast-offs I was wounding his psyche, when I let my daughter play with cars and train sets, I was encroaching on his space. Masculinity was an endangered state and must be defended against ‘girl’ at all costs. Boyhood was undeniable, but it was also a delicate flower. Nature, it seemed, needed to be nurtured into existence.
Biddulph goes so far as to suggest that boys need to be rescued from their mothers. In describing the Lakota tribe - a “story from the heart” no less - he talks approvingly of how boys were prevented from “falling” into the world of women by being prevented from speaking to their mothers for two years. Mothers are the problem with boys, he suggests, leaving them “uninitiated”, “immature” and “dependent”. Do women encourage men to be this way through such deficiencies in them? What is the mechanism? What infects boys from the company of women? Why is it the case that what is exemplary in the female is a failing in the male?
The rhetoric of Victorian misogyny has been transplanted - labelling the son, but deftly reflecting back on the mother. Patchy science is collapsed with lazy stereotypes in order to fuel, essentially, a defence of the status quo. In Stephen Jay Gould’s essay ‘Measuring Heads’, a critique of biological determinism, he is clear as to the reasons for this compromised belief: “Self-interest, for whatever reason, has been the wellspring of opinion on this heady issue from the start.”
Compare Biddulph’s critique of emasculated, “immature” and “dependent” boys with the 19th century anatomist Paul Topinard who, while researching sex differences in the brain, blithely stated that woman was “lacking any interior occupation … (her) role is to raise children, love and be passive”. A fellow anatomist, similarily researching sex difference, Gustave Le Bon went further in 1879: “There are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to gorillas than to most developed male brains… They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.”
The rhetoric and science of sex difference has an exceptionally dark past, but one that is rarely acknowledged in Biddulph or any of the texts that he references. Instead, rather prissily, he reminds us “there are more male geniuses… in an anti-male era it’s important to remember that men built the planes, fought the wars, laid the railroad tracks, invented the cars, built the hospitals, invented the medicines and sailed the ships that made it all happen.” 2000 years of systematic oppression and neglect of female education is swept away as an inconsequential detail. Scratch the surface and the old Victorian eugenicist’s arguments against female emancipation surface. Men are geniuses; women clean their socks - after all, according to Biddulph, they need someone to “look after them” after a hard day saving the world.
Somehow I felt as if I had stepped into an alternative universe. The men described to me by Biddulph were not like any of the men I know, like and love. I know men who can talk the hind leg off a donkey; talk articulately about their feelings and understand mine; multi-task; cook; show affection; concentrate; who like music and art as much as engineering and science; who read novels; who gossip and bitch; who can cradle my son in their arms as gently as ever I could. All the things that Biddulph told me would come unnaturally, where I would need to do the running, seemed curiously easy to the men I know.
Science also seems reluctant to back up the facts as Biddulph believes them. Recent research at the University of Massachusetts suggested that at birth male and female brains are the same but that care received from parents has an enormous effect on development and structure. It was the first research of its kind to find epigenetic structures influencing the gender differences in mammals. We already know that boy and girl children are treated differently from the moment they are born and, increasingly, the care that a child receives in its early years is found to influence everything from future behaviour to hormone levels. Meanwhile, stereotypes are found to actively influence individual’s achievement in everything from academic to sporting performance. The human brain, it seems, is not the fixed rigid structure so beloved of the just-so story tellers of gender difference.
So why the desperation to cling to such stereotypes that can be so damaging and limiting to children? Why the compulsion to edge women back to home and hearth? Biddulph is certainly not alone in clinging to such an ideal. From day one I knew that the first question I would be asked about my baby was the sex. Babygrows and nappies were strictly colour-coded and their correct use rigidly adhered to. Kindly passersby recoiled in horror on discovering that my pink clad son was not, in fact, a girl. An idle browse on Hamley’s website alerted me to the fact that I had no choice - on entering I found I had to choose - boy or girl - if I was to search for any toy at all. Other mothers tutted when I allowed my daughter to play with their sons - didn’t I know that the big strong (toddler) boys might hurt her? Somewhere I had crossed the line and was now marked as a dangerous subversive.
It is not the case that Biddulph is disliked by many mothers. Biddulph’s strength is that in appropriating the language of gender equality and ‘respect’ for girls and women, he simultaneously uses the logic of sexism. Perhaps such myths and gender tales are comforting. Long engrained and part of the fabric of many’s parenting and upbringing, they are a comfortable rock in a changing world. They play to a fear that equality has gone ‘too far’. My feminist nature revolts however. I can’t find the science. I certainly can’t find the smoking gun. I can’t stomach the stereotypical assumptions. I can’t bear to see my children caged in gender stereotypes that limit both sexes as human beings. I want change but I also want something revolutionary. For once I would like to hear someone say the (apparently) unsayable - that perhaps at the root of it, men and women really aren’t all that different at all.
Reprinted with permission from The F-Word.