My half term reading material came from the comedian Robert Webb, half of the television duo Mitchell and Webb. I have long enjoyed their comedy, particularly (as a linguist) for a scene where a language pedant assassinates his work colleagues one-by-one for making grammatical mistakes, such as the confusion of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’. However, Webb’s autobiographical book, ‘How not to be a Boy’ has a much more serious objective: to puncture the gender ‘rules’ that society has invented for itself about how boys and girls ought to behave. In the Webb household, this is known as ‘The Trick’: “the trick that makes boys unhappy and girls get rubbish jobs” as put so eloquently by his five-year old daughter as she leaves home for her school non-uniform day dressed as Spiderman.
Before you go out and purchase the book to read for yourself, I should issue a health warning about bad language. As is the case with many comedians, Webb’s language is often distinctly ‘fruity’ and please therefore do not pursue further if this offends you! However, I found the work extremely moving as he examines, with enormous poignancy and insight, the damage that can be done when young boys are encouraged to behave in ways supposedly befitting their gender. Each chapter has a title reflecting a stereotype about men: “Boys aren’t shy”; “Boys love sport”; “Boys don’t cry”; “Men are good at directions”; “Men understand women” as the author explores how his own life experiences contradict each stereotype in turn. He argues persuasively that no child is born with preconceived ideas on how to act but that, from an early age, boys are conditioned by the adults in society to conform to expectations which, very often, do not make them happy.
Of course, some of these stereotypes suit us just fine: two of the five above reflect me very accurately – although I won’t tell you which! However, the stereotypes that encourage boys to suppress their emotions are wholly unhealthy. Society looks down on boys if they cry when upset, if they admit to being frightened, if they show pain. Bizarrely, it seems to be acceptable for boys to show anger, and surely this is why boys are more likely to be victims of violence: the suppressed emotions manifest themselves as anger. I only realised this relatively recently when I attended a conference organised by the International Boys’ School Coalition, of which the Grammar School has long been a member. One speaker showed this YouTube clip of a young boy undergoing a vaccination – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2–nt3bxC2Q
I find this incredibly upsetting. This is a very little boy who, in common with most children of his age, finds the experience of a needle entering his skin to be very painful. We hear his father off-camera encouraging him to be brave. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but he then goes too far: “big boys don’t cry”; “be a man!” Why can’t this little boy be allowed to cry and to receive a big hug from his daddy? Why does he have to be taught at this early age that suppressing his emotions is the ‘right’ thing to do? Interestingly the nurse/doctor administering the injection is also very happy to go along with the stereotypical narrative. The father exhorts him to chant “I’m a man” as he grits his teeth in order to hold back the tears. When the boy finally manages to control his pain sufficiently to speak, what is the emotion that comes out with the words “I’m a man”? Anger – pure and simple.
As you are aware, we have launched our GREAT men initiative this term in PSHE:
Growth mind-set Resilience Emotional Awareness Talk
In the first of this week’s whole-school assemblies, Mrs Foster spoke to boys about the importance of talking. Her focus wasn’t on this occasion the need for boys (and men) to discuss their problems rather than keeping them in, but instead on the importance of communicating generously with one another. Adults often complain that the youth of today are no good at conversation, sometimes bemoaning the fact that communication only ever seems to take place in a virtual world across an electronic device. It is important for all Grammar School boys to understand that, whatever the line of work they will eventually find themselves in, communicating with clarity and warmth will take them a long way. Intelligent people in positive environments generate good conversation, and listening and asking pertinent questions are more helpful than speaking merely about one’s own life and opinions. She taught boys a conversational trick that I thought I would share, namely to repeat back what the other person has said, i.e.
Did you do anything interesting at Half Term?
Yes thanks, what did you do at Half Term?
Well, I went to London and stayed with my cousins.
You stayed with your cousins?
Yes, they took me out to some great restaurants, but the best bit was …
If you have a relatively uncommunicative son, see if you can train him thus before the next time that his long-lost relatives visit.
I am keen to encourage boys to speak in assembly and this week one of our Year 11 boys took the plunge, bravely choosing the topic of ‘crying’. It’s no easy task speaking in front of an audience of over 1000 people, including your peers, but Jared did an amazing job on Thursday explaining, with humour and clarity, how cathartic tears can be for us in helping to digest our emotions and to reboot. I would like to encourage you to be wary of any reflexes we might have that make it difficult for our sons to express themselves. In our own childhoods, we may well have been told at regular intervals to ‘man up’ but we now understand how counter-productive this can be. There is a reason why suicide is men is three times higher than for women. Women are more ready to speak to friends and family and surely there is truth behind the old adage “a problem shared is a problem halved”? Our boys need to learn that there is no need for all of their emotions to come out as anger. If not, they will not become the good partners and fathers that we would wish them to be. I will end with Robert Webb’s conclusion:
“Men will struggle to treat women as equals if we haven’t learned to look after ourselves; to recognise our feelings and take responsibility for our actions. We should remember what we knew all along: that we are allowed to be fully human, fully compassionate, fully alive in the moment and fully committed to friendship and love.”