Big boys don't cry

The latest findings examined by Reva Klein

Pre-school boys are at the height of their abilities when it comes to having close friendships and talking about those relationships. After that, it can be downhill all the way. As they get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to detect social skills such as responsiveness to others, attentiveness and articulation of feelings.

An intensive study of half a dozen four and five-year-olds revealed a surprising ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships and to reflect on them. However, this soon dissipates as they come to feel it is unsafe to make themselves vulnerable to others.

From sensitive and loving little boys they quickly move into a phase of pretension, where they assume a veneer of toughness to show the world that they're made of sterner stuff than girls.

The group of boys in the study formed themselves into "the mean team" to distinguish themselves from the girls, who were "the nice team". One boy who revealed that he liked to play with girls was worried that if he was found out he'd be kicked out of his gang.

As well as it being tricky to protect young boys from this peer culture, there is a concern that the preoccupation with macho pretence makes it difficult for boys to concentrate on literacy.

Carol Gilligan, Harvard University, and Judy Chu, New York University. E-mail: genderstudies@ gse.harvard.edu

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