by Steve Biddulph AM

Bringing up boys in a time of lockdown

This strange new life we are living is a challenge for all parents, but it’s those with boys who are telling me they are finding it particularly tough.

I am in contact with 140,000 parents of boys in 32 countries through the Facebook community I set up several years ago to link up readers of my Raising Boys books, and in recent weeks it has provided a fascinating snapshot of the effects of the coronavirus crisis on family life.

Scientific research tells us why boys might be struggling more with a life of lockdown. Neurologically speaking, boys need physical movement and space, plus plenty of structure and routine – all things in short supply at the moment.

Two age groups seem to be affected most: boys in early primary school and those from 13-14 onwards. Again, science tells us why this might be the case.

Two age groups seem to be affected most: boys in early primary school and those from 13-14 onwards

Boys around four years old are particularly restless; neurologically, they need to use their bodies a lot in order for their brain to develop properly. They crave movement for this reason. Around this time, there is also a change in their bodies which makes them especially energetic; they lay down Leydig cells to ramp up testosterone production later on, which means a huge increase in luteinising hormone levels. In a sense, this is the start of the puberty process. We don’t know if this is connected to the often observed increase in boisterousness at this age, but I suspect it is.

Hormonal changes explain the difficulties faced by boys from 13-14 onwards, too. Testosterone levels increase by 800 per cent at this age, and they are biologically impelled to be out and about and letting off steam. Little wonder that parents of teenage boys are feeling the pressure. Some parents are reporting that their sons are belligerent and angry about the restrictions, chafing to get out with friends. Others are sullen and withdrawn, refusing to come out of their bedrooms, and there are the inevitable fights over schoolwork. Of course, some girls are energetic and active by nature, and they will be struggling too. It’s just that more boys than girls tend to have this ‘high testosterone’ character.

I have noticed that the parents who are doing well seem to have several things in common. First, they are providing structure, which, according to neuroscience, boys often have trouble creating for themselves. They have found that a routine makes for a happier and more balanced day. They differed on whether they allowed their sons to lie in bed in the morning or made everyone get up at the same time. (Incidentally, this crisis may be the first time for decades that teens get the 10 hours of sleep that researchers argue they need, especially if they are allowed to get the benefit from sleeping slightly later).

a routine makes for a happier and more balanced day

But all had found their own sequence to the day. The key is exercise, early on in the day to channel all that energy. YouTube exercise videos are popular, and boys are finding that working out with improvised weights, doing it together with dad or mum or a sibling, can be satisfying for its own sake, and help them feel chilled and settled for the rest of the day.

Successful parents are also encouraging their sons to get any mandatory school work done early, so more fun things can ensue. They are not militantly supervising online schoolwork, at least not to the point of conflict, but simply allocating time for it in the flow of other things. Often, schoolwork isn’t all that motivating for boys even when they are at school, and the schools handling it the best are those limiting their expectations of parents. Some schools were attempting to upload the whole curriculum on to parents to teach at home, but are now walking back from that, having met some serious ire from parents that this was not remotely possible to achieve, especially if they were working themselves. Maths and literacy is core, and really, that is plenty.

The more that boys can move into their own interest areas, the better they will learn. Experienced home school educators tell us that boys progress best when they can make and do, and follow their own interests that naturally bring skills and motivation to learn along with them – a kind of collateral learning.

After a couple of hours of schoolwork, most boys are heading for their games consoles; online gaming with friends is the main social outlet for boys in isolation, so most parents are allowing way more screen time now than they would have in the past. Parents should not feel bad about this: multiplayer games with their friends (not with strangers) is a way of socialising and maintaining their social networks, especially now that they are not playing or watching the sport that may have provided a bonding experience in the past. Boys and girls, especially teenagers, desperately need their peers, so we should expect social media and gaming to be a huge part of their lives at the moment. In fact, without the internet this would be a terrible time. But it’s best if you can make sure they have exercised and finished any schoolwork first.

time spent with parents, especially for pre-teens and teens, can improve everything

It can really help, too, to encourage your children connect with members of the wider family off their own bat. In a very touching Facebook post, a teen boy was now talking daily online to his grandmother who was in poor health, recognising she may not come through this crisis.

As the weeks go on, you may find gaming time levels off and boys seek other forms of entertainment. Several parents pointed out that their sons, who had previously never read much – a trend that has alarmed educators for several decades – went through a period of boredom and then suddenly discovered the joy of books and were spending hours a day quietly immersed in novels.
In fact, in among the challenges, many parents are finding it a surprisingly sweet time. There is a chance to really talk, to relax together, and get closer to their kids than in the normal craziness of modern life. Whether intended or not, relaxing together can build mental health and a family vibe that we are doing this together. There is a feeling of shared purpose, with kids part of the team and not merely the consumers of parental care for a change.

give them an active role in caring for the family through household chores and cooking

It’s really beneficial for them, as well as for you, to give them an active role in caring for the family through household chores and cooking. Boys who learn the satisfaction of service to others grow in self-worth at the same time. Many families in lockdown are getting their kids to make meals in equal share with adults. One mother explained that she allocated one part of the meal to each of her three sons. She is teaching them how to work from recipes but has stayed nearby in a friendly supervisory way, so it didn’t feel like they were being abandoned (and also to prevent disasters). Her boys were rather proud of themselves and wanted to try new dishes.

Another positive to come out of this crisis is that parents who travelled a lot for work are suddenly at home all the time. As long as they take a companionable approach and don’t revert to being aggressive or controlling, their presence is incredibly beneficial to children. Research shows us again and again how time spent with parents, especially for pre-teens and teens, can improve everything from their mental health and sense of security to their academic grades later on.

Of course, in families where relationships have not been that great even in the good times, this is going to be a time of crisis. It might be that we need online mentoring for boys with no role models or just plain stressed and lonely, in families that have trouble being relaxed together.

But overall, it might be a time when a lot of what we value most comes to the fore, and our kids remember the year of the virus as a rather special time: a reset, a reclaiming of what family is supposed to look like and feel like, and that might be something that lasts.

 

Steve Biddulph is the author of Raising Boys in the 21st Century

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Steve Biddulph AM is an Australian author, activist and psychologist who has written a number of influential bestselling books; and lectures worldwide on parenting, and boys’ education. This article is about