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Boys are not a problem – they're our sons

BOYS, we keep being told, are a problem.

Boys are the ones in danger of losing out. They are more likely to fall between the cracks of society and end up in prison, addicted to drugs, dropping out of school and failing exams. They are the bad guys who rape and beat up women.

I have two boys. They are young, at three and five, but already I have begun to feel that the fact they are boys may be something I have to compensate for. I may have to try harder to make them do their homework.

Perhaps I'll need to compensate for poor literacy skills with extra reading, and exercise endless vigilance to stop them hurtling off the tracks. Not only is the world stacked against them, but, because of their gender, they are more likely to be deemed a problem for that world.

Of course, the world is not stacked against them. This is not, as Hanna Rosin suggests in her recent book, The End Of Men, a girls' world. Rather, if we look at the bell-curve of success, we see that there are more boys than girls at both the top and bottom ends. Boys tend to excel most in academia, get the highest-paid jobs and sit on company boards, but they also tend to be the drop-outs and losers, the ones who don't even make the bottom rung.

One of the ways we see boys as a problem is as perpetrators of violence against women. Today sees the start of a 16-day campaign by White Ribbon Scotland, the Scottish branch of an organisation set up by men in Canada to end such violence.

One of the cultural phenomena we tend to blame for gender violence is porn. My boys are not old enough yet for me to have considered how to navigate that issue. I confess that I wish this aspect of the internet could be censored. Looking ahead, I would prefer that my boys' first fumblings in sex were unfettered by this information. I've looked at what is out there, and it is a disturbing rabbit hole which I very much hope that my sons do not fall down.

However, while porn may create horrible and unrealistic expectations of what girls and boys should do, I would question whether it causes violence. I think the roots of that are very much deeper.

The American feminist Gloria Steinem thinks violence against women may stem from the way our culture teaches men to dominate. She notes, too, how men are "taught that some inevitable qualities of vulnerability and compassion and empathy and uncertainty, sadly, are feminine. Then they [men] suppress them and hate them and feel shame about them in themselves."

Often, we assume that boys simply don't have the same facility for empathy as girls. We suppose that this is somehow in their biology. In her fascinating book, Delusions Of Gender, Cordelia Fine disputes this. She shows how studies of the way men and women interpret relationship nuances have demonstrated that men perform badly in such tests only when they think they are being tested on "social sensitivity", something men are traditionally supposed to be bad at. But they perform as well as women in the same test when told it is about how well they process information.

The facility for empathy in boys is there. But we are failing to keep our boys in touch with it. The attitude that "boys will be boys" too often prevails. And this is particularly worrying when teamed with a notion that they are also biologically predisposed to violence. How much violence we tolerate or encourage in boys is difficult to navigate. With my sons I find myself assuming that fighting is an essential form of boyish exercise and bonding.

Yet research suggests that, come the teen years, peer violence (between boys) is associated with an increased predisposition towards violence to girls. A gentle toleration starts then to seem questionable. If they like to hit each other they may very well like to hit girls.

As a parent, I try to do my best. I try to correct my boys' opinions about what boys are and should do. But the culture is monolithic and, short of retreating to a commune in the woods, inescapable. And I do believe we have to let our children go, send them off to float on that culture. There's a convincing theory that the influence of peers and the wider environment is far more significant than our own parenting.

"The idea that we can make our children turn out any way we want is an illusion," writes Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption. "You can neither perfect them nor ruin them. They are not yours to perfect or ruin.''

So this is not a job entirely for parents. This is also about the more difficult-to-reach peers. In this sense, I believe campaigns like White Ribbon Scotland, who will be going into Dundee schools this week to talk to second and third-year pupils, are doing much-needed work in challenging attitudes that might lead to violence against women.

By using male role models who believe in the White Ribbon pledge against violence, they stand more chance of getting the message across. This is a good starting point. But we need more, we need it earlier, and we need to break traditions passed down through the playground and across generations that suggest to be a boy means to be strong, rough, violent and in control.

Just as we have begun to tell girls they can excel at maths and science, we need to make boys believe empathy and communication are among their talents. It's OK to think about other people's feelings. There are projects such as The Roots Of Empathy which work in Scottish schools to foster these skills. But the edifice of traditional masculinity is resistant. It will not fall, and therefore can never be rebuilt, until we stop shrugging and saying, "Boys will be boys".

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