Last weekend, I read an excellent article in The Times entitled ‘Bringing up Boys in a Time of Lockdown’ by psychologist Steve Biddulph. What was particularly interesting was that his comments were based on the experiences of families in 32 different countries, all of which are part of his extensive social media network. Although, many of his conclusions are nothing new, it was interesting to note how universal they were, and I therefore felt that it would be useful to summarise his thoughts on how we can help our sons. I then intend to share a few of my own views on how we might be encouraging them to give a little back.
Biddulph points out that there are two age groups that seem to be struggling more than most with a life of lockdown. Firstly 4-5 year-old boys neurologically need to use their bodies in order for their brain to develop. This is driven apparently by a huge increase in luteinising hormone levels, which seems to correlate with increased boisterousness at this age. Little surprise that the second difficult age is boys from 13-14 years, whose testosterone levels increase by 800% at the onset of puberty. As a consequence, parents of teenage boys may be dealing with belligerence and anger when faced with the restrictions. Others may be sullen and withdrawn. These behaviours will also be seen in some girls, but the prevalence of what Biddulph calls the ‘high testosterone’ character is much higher in boys. Although intellectually they can understand perfectly well what is at stake, their capacity for logical reasoning is being overloaded by the rush of chemicals to the limbic system.
It is very easy for us to spend time worrying about how the current situation will affect our son’s academic progress. Biddulph points out that parents who are helping their sons cope best in lockdown are providing structure. I have long believed from my experiences in education that a good routine is important for the vast majority of us (see my blog from January 2019). Left to their own devices, boys tend to have trouble creating their own routines. They prefer long lie-ins, tempered by late nights on social media or gaming, and can often fall prey to chronic procrastination.
We as parents can therefore make a huge difference by helping our sons build a new routine. This is likely to involve a later alarm call, as transport to school is no longer a consideration. However, the Grammar School believes that boys need to start work reasonably early which is why we are retaining tutor contact in the mornings. Biddulph points out that the happiest parents amongst his correspondents are those who are encouraging their sons to get their school work started early, so that recreation can follow later. This does not mean militant supervision (which is likely to lead to conflict among adolescents) but the clear allocation of study time in contrast to down time.
We are also seeking to give boys the opportunity to move into their own interest areas. Biddulph explains that we can learn a great deal from home educators in this respect (home education has been on the increase in recent times). Motivation is particularly important in boys’ progress. This is why they so often achieve best results when an individual teacher notices and nurtures a spark of interest. In these circumstances, we want to give boys a little more freedom to explore. This is why we really want them to engage with the clubs and activities in the virtual Thomas Burton Award. In addition, as we will write in greater detail next week, our Exams week will be changing format as we continue with remote learning, and one task for our Year 7-9 boys will be all about creativity and personal exploration.
Biddulph emphasises that exercise must be an essential part of the daily routine. Joe Wicks has become a national icon for his morning online sessions, and Biddulph also believes that exercise early in the day is an excellent way for teenagers to channel all of their excess energy. Boys are finding that working out with improvised weights or following YouTube exercise videos with a member of the family can be extremely satisfying, helping them feel more under control.
The final conclusion that I would like to share sticks in my craw. I have never been a fan of gaming, ever since wasting hundreds of hours on my ZX Spectrum during the 1980s. However, Biddulph argues that it is actually beneficial for boys to enjoy more time in front of their screen than would usually be acceptable. Multiplayer games with friends (not strangers please) is a way of socialising and maintaining social networks at a time when they don’t have the outlet of a sport or other activity that has previously been their key bonding opportunity. Teenagers desperately need their peers, and gaming can therefore help them to feel connected at this extraordinary time. Let’s just make sure that the school work is completed first!
So what can we be doing in an attempt to cajole our sons into helping us during this period of lockdown?
Well, would you believe it?! The most popular co-curricular club this term has turned out to be ‘GREAT men do housework’ with no fewer than 250 willing participants. We are hearing in the press that altruism appears to be on the rise, and dozens of boys have been raising money for charity or doing little errands for family members or neighbours. Indeed, Mr Parton has launched with Year 7 his ‘Coronakindness 525’ project, challenging his charges to commit to performing 525 Acts of Kindness before Half Term (in recognition of the School’s anniversary). If you don’t already, please follow his Twitter handle to see boys’ progress.
There is clearly an opportunity for us to reset our expectations with our sons over their role in sharing the housework. Cooking has certainly been popular during the last 6 weeks, although my personal experience is that the focus tends to be cakes and that washing-up and cleaning surfaces is somewhat lower on the list of priorities than eating. However, there has never been a better time to teach your son some of the skills that will make him a more agreeable flat-mate or future partner. Let’s be bold! We have little opportunity in the short-term to take pleasure in our sons’ sporting, academic or artistic achievements. Let’s instead prepare to boast to one another about just how domesticated our son has become!