Daddy's boys

11th July 1997 at 01:00
Men need to spend more time with young male children. Nothing to do with quality: this time it's quantity. Victoria Neumark explains why

When Steve Biddulph, Australian psychotherapist and writer, gave a lecture in London recently on bringing up boys, he offered five tips.

Although aimed at parents, his advice, which specifically addresses the issue of whether boys are "underfathered" in modern society, could also be useful to teachers.

Biddulph starts from the premise that boys need men to teach them - in school and out. He understands the need to vet adults working with children, but is clear on how vital good male role models are, in primary and secondary schools - and on the need to raise the status of people working with young children.

The first requirement is to give young boys enough time - not, says Biddulph, "quality time", which suggests that the adult offering the time is so ineffably superior that any bit of their time is valuable, but quantity time. Time spent doing not much, when companionship and affection can be exercised. Particularly for boys between the ages of six and 14, time spent with adult men is of great use in forming good ideas of what being a man is or should be like. Make sure you get those male teachers on the school trip - and make sure that they spend time with the boys. Above all, make sure that the time is enjoyable: children, like anyone else, are quick to spot when adults are feeling martyred by their obligations and just as quick to begrudge adult resentment.

Next, engage in controlled rough-and-tumble games. Boys do have more physical energy and aggression. The way to harness this so that they grow up into men who enjoy using their body in sports or socially useful bravery (like the fire service), rather than fighting, is to accustom them to physical contact, not to avoid it. From Daddy playing bears with a toddler to coaching for rugby, men have to show that aggression can be built up and taken down without serious harm.

Third, teach them to respect women. As Biddulph says, when they grow up they will probably have a serious relationship with a woman. In that relationship, every couple of years there will be a "truth time", when both parties are six inches from each other's face and yelling. This needs to happen to sort out passions and tensions, but it won't be able to happen if the woman is afraid that the bigger and stronger man may or will hit her. You must not hit someone weaker than you.

Then, honour the tender feelings of boys. Biddulph, born in this country, knows all too well its culture of denying boys' vulnerability, of brushing tears and mortifications aside, of dismissing with a joke another's serious hurts. Don't do it. Take hurt feelings as seriously as broken bones: the difference is, taking them seriously will mend feelings much quicker. And it will leave boys able to feel and not just like lumps of meat.

Finally, get them to do the housework. There should be no tasks which are gender-restricted. Girls can mend cars, boys can cook. And they will need to, because it is going to get more difficult to get girls to cook and clean for boys. Textile technology and home economics should be there for boys just as resistant materials should be for girls.

In all this, he strongly advises parents (and teachers) not to get ground down. Every couple of weeks, says Biddulph, get a massage or any other treat which is just for you. You cannot, as they say, pour from an empty vessel. Children deserve attention which is freely, not grudgingly given. That is the only kind for which you will be remembered.

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