Male vulnerability in terms of health and wellbeing has been well-researched. This research continues to bring forward evidence that little girls develop faster and more thoroughly than little boys from conception.
Even before I became a mother of my four awesome sons, I spent a childhood with my little brother who was much gentler and often less brave than me. Maybe this helped me to realise that boys are not inherently tough, even though they have a larger amount of muscle than girls. Physical strength is one thing but mental and emotional strength that can impact cognitive abilities and linguistic capacities is something else.
Twenty-five years ago, Steve Biddulph wrote his first book about boys called Raising Boys and in it he explores this same notion of fragility, especially in little boys under five. Statistically, boys die in-utero at a higher rate than girls; they die at birth at a higher rate than girls and they die in the first 12 months of life at a higher rate than girls. This situation continues through life, however, there are lots of other reasons why this discrepancy happens so let’s start at the very beginning of life.
Technically, every embryo starts off female and sometime in the first 12 weeks of life, the massive flooding of hormones stimulates the embryo to either stay female or become male. Fascinating information to start with.
In Steve Biddulph’s latest, updated edition of his book, Raising Boys in the 21st Century, he explores a 2017 review of empirical research from highly regarded neuropsychologist Alan Schore, which suggests that the marinade of testosterone in-utero seems to slow down the growth and development of the male baby’s brain.
On top of the influence of hormones and social experience, Schore presents evidence that something else is happening in our baby boys’ development. His ground breaking work has shown that the delay in brain maturation makes boys more vulnerable in the long run to social stress (attachment trauma) and physical stress via endocrine disruptors or toxins in the environment. He goes on to say this “negatively impacts” their right brain development.
Basically, this impacts our boys’ social and emotional functioning, and their capacity to cope with stress.
The first thousand days from conception to the age of two are incredibly important and we need to nurture all babies and care for them as lovingly and calmly as possible. For our boys, though, it seems they are even more fragile, especially when it comes to attachment and bondedness — which influence our primary driver in life, human connectedness.
Belonging is another way of explaining attachment, which is the relationship between a key adult and a child, and then their wider community. Babies, toddlers and children need to have primary attachments – ‘big people’ they can trust to nurture and care for them. These people help guide and teach them all that they will need to know in life so they can become independent, capable adults.
It is helpful for parents of babies and toddlers to have a circle of caring adults who can share in raising children. This allows for support, guidance and respite, which helps every parent, especially tired mummies, cope with this intensive time.
For children who are in long-day child care, the early years’ educators who form a loving, caring connection to them are technically a source of primary attachment, often called secondary attachment figures.
If you take a look on YouTube at videos from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, they explain the concept of ‘serve and return’ interaction between a child and their significant adults, where children reach out for interaction and, when adults respond, it assists essential brain wiring to occur.
Attachment is the ‘super glue’ that holds a child in close proximity to a parent/caregiver. A child is meant to pursue proximity, which means being close to their big person so that they feel safe and are safe.
Attachment is as important to healthy child development as eating or sleeping. Indeed, in much of the most recent research, strong attachment and bondedness can be shown to be the most significant influence on emotional wellbeing, mental health and physical health for life and so if our little boys have a tendency to be more prone to the damaging effects of poor attachment, then this needs to be the number one focus of all parents of new baby boys. Maybe this needs to be spoken of in the prenatal classes given that we know the long-term negative consequences of this in our sons’ lives.
This new review of interdisciplinary research by Schore supports the major premise that Biddulph made 25 years ago, where he wrote that he believed our young boys were more prone to separation distress and anxiety, and that they could become emotionally shut down as a result of feeling abandoned. This is also supported by research that shows that male adolescent violence is now strongly linked to neglect in early childhood, particularly a lack of physical and emotional nurturing (and, indeed, a lack of play).
These are things that we can fix with awareness, knowledge and, most importantly, action. When we invest heavily in nurturing them, helping them to understand big, ugly feelings and teaching them ways to make better choices warmly and compassionately, we can change the future lives of tomorrow’s men.
This is an edited extract from Mothering Our Boys: A guide for mums of sons by Maggie Dent. Maggie is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, and host of the new ABC podcast, Parental As Anything.