WHEN I tell people I have two sons, the reaction is often a sympathetic shake of the head. "You'll have your hands full," they'll sigh.

It's not the size of my family that elicits this response, but my children's gender – a fact which reflects the way that we see boys as different from girls. My sons notice it too. They are sad when they come home having heard the rhyme: "Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails, that's what little boys are made of".

As a parent of boys, you are confronted with two visions of who they are and what their future is. One tells you that boys are a problem. They do less well at school, are less likely to go to university, are more likely to be excluded from school, and as adults, to end up in prison, be addicted to drugs, commit suicide and have poorer health.

The other tells you that your blue-eyed boys could still, just, belong to the world of privilege that is manhood, destined to enjoy some of the privilege of their gender. The two seem hard to square.

Neither seems a particularly good vision. Both provoke worry. Both make you wonder if there is a way of raising your boys to thrive, yet be caring and respectful towards others. Both make you wonder if, in all the fretting over the futures of girls, we haven't given enough thought to boys.

So, I was glad to come across Man Up: Boys, Men And Breaking The Male Rules, a new book by Woman's Hour editor Rebecca Asher, which collates the research on the way masculinity is shaped and how we might raise our sons differently.

Of course, some would argue that we don't need to worry about boys. Those at the top of society's heap are still mostly men: they run more companies, occupy more boardroom positions, and feature more in rich lists than women. But there is another side of the tale, there in the statistics Rebecca Asher quotes. “Boys,” she writes, “are four times more likely than girls to have behavioural, emotional or social difficulties and three times as likely to be temporarily excluded from school. 95% of prisoners are male, as are three-quarters of suicides.”

Parents, she suggests, can make a difference. How we raise our boys matters. Asher – the mother of a boy and a girl – says her interest in the “crisis in masculinity” was triggered, partly, by the birth and early childhood of her own son. From the moment he was born, she witnessed the “expectations and assumptions that we make about boys and how that then feeds into what we do with them, how we dress them, what toys we give them, and how it becomes a self-fulfilling thing”. But also, having worked on a project with disaffected young men and ex-offenders, many of whom seemed to have “a very strong sense of what it is to be a man”, Asher was struck by little those expectations had changed in the past few decades.

There is much that I recognised in the research this book throws up. Like Asher, I have heard people say of their sons: “Boys are like dogs – both have boundless energy and bottomless appetites." One fellow parent added: "They just need to be exercised and fed.” I have also been shocked to hear those shouts from the sidelines of football pitches. "Don't be such a girl." Or that familiar phrase, uttered casually by friends and acquaintances: "Man up." Phrases like these, Asher points out, are still used to shame those who commit the humiliating act of not behaving like a stereotypical man.

We have learned to fret over the way society creates girls. One of the big feminist stories of recent years has been the unearthing, by authors like psychologist Cordelia Fine, of research showing that many of the aptitude differences associated with either sex are more the work of nurture than nature. But boys too would benefit if we stopped seeing them through the prism of their gender, and raising them to conform. As Asher puts it: “In just the same way that we box girls into the ornamental, compliant and nurturing corner, we trammel boys into particular ways of being too.”

Of course, Asher is not the only person to have examined this “crisis in masculinity”. Others have charted it and proposed solutions. More often than not they have blamed feminism for the woes of men. “Many men’s rights activists,” Asher notes, “see feminism as the enemy and say that it’s gone too far, and it’s now time for the pendulum to swing back. I think this idea that we’re at opposite sides of the scale and if one’s up, the other one is down, is just such an unproductive way of looking at it. For me, feminism isn’t the problem, it’s the answer.”

Asher had always considered herself to be quite progressive, even “incredibly right-on about gender roles”, so when her first child arrived, a boy, she was keen to avoid stereotyping him. She believed she treated girls and boys the same. Looking back, she realises that in fact, there were subtle, unconscious prompts that she was giving her son: “There were all these ways in which, without even realising it, we were ushering our kids in a certain direction, whether it was just by a look or by a touch, tone of voice, whatever.”

She was particularly struck by research showing that parents are harder on their sons than their daughters. “I think that that has been true for us," she admits. "The idea of saying to your boys to toughen up resonated. I look back with some guilt and remorse. We weren’t hideous Victorian cane-wielders or anything, but just those harsher tones of voice, I think were more prevalent in our interactions with our son than with our daughter.”

Asher cites research showing that “mothers and fathers are less tolerant of displays of emotion in boys, particularly crying and expressions of unhappiness or fear and take a more punitive approach to them than with girls”. Parents also react more negatively to shyness in sons than in daughters. They even talk less about emotions with boys. Asher notes, too, the ways in which we encourage boys to misbehave. Research shows that boys get more attention and are more frequently disciplined for misbehaving than girls, and that this only encourages the behaviour.

Many parents make gestures towards gender neutrality. I was one of them, particularly in the early days. The odd doll or tea-set amongst the cars and robots in the toy box, the occasional garment with hearts on, the painted toe nails. I recently bought, for my sons' Christmas, the elusive Star Wars Rey doll, determined that they should play with a female hero. A friend bought them a nasty-looking monster toy and kept calling it "she".

I would tell my sons they were beautiful and talk to them about feelings of shyness or sadness. Once, I recall being upset to find that one of my sons was hiding his tears over some upset – I told him if he was sad, he should cry. Where had this idea that he should hold it in come from? I wondered too what I had done to create what one parent described as "real boys".

Once my children started school, I found myself increasingly tending to give in, to surrender to the fact that my sons would have more boys as friends, to accept the growing household obsession with football, ignore the continual rough-and-tumble sessions in the living room. For many parents who make gestures towards neutrality, I suspect the early school years are a time of gradual surrender. At that point, when we see our children having to make their way in a world in which gender segregation is rife and the playground social scene revolves around terrifying pecking orders, we find ourselves simply wanting them to thrive and survive. We want them to fit in. When one of my sons recently made a short, boys-only guest list for his cinema birthday party, I went along with it.

Those playground politics are tough, after all. Put together the various pieces of research and you get a picture of the playground in which segregation and social hierarchies are interlinked. Boys who are very masculine are at the top of the male hierarchy. As Asher writes: “All friendships involve jockeying for position to some degree. But it is the criteria for allotting a place on the hierarchy that differs between the sexes. Boys tend to be judged according to very stereotypical, masculine parameters: who is strongest, fastest, loudest and best at sport.”

“Most of us,” says Asher, “have a desire for our children to be accepted, and I think that becomes more acute the older they get. You want your child to be welcomed, accepted and understood by other people and one of the easiest ways we can do that is by asserting how similar they are to other children.”

She offers this piece of advice: “Instead of encouraging our sons unquestioningly to fit in, we should fill them with confidence to be themselves and equip them to take a level-headed approach to the external pressures they will encounter.”

As boys get older and reach adolescence, although the segregation breaks down a little, there’s still enormous pressure on young men not to behave in a feminine way. The word “gay” is frequently used as an insult, not directed just at homosexual boys, but also at straight boys who don't conform to prescribed masculine behaviour. “Gay,” says Asher, “is used to police behaviour, as a warning sign you are straying from the consensus on how to behave.” Even talking to a friend, or having a close relationship, can be targeted as a sign of femininity or "gayness". Hence, boys learn not to share their feelings with male friends, and this has a long-term impact. A 2014 study by Relate found that men in the UK are more likely than women to say that they have no close friends.

Man Up provides a warning to all parents. If we don't like what we see out there in the society of grown men – who in the UK account for 70 per cent of the long-term youth unemployed, some 95 per cent of prison inmates, and commit the vast majority of violent crime – then we need to tackle seriously the culture at this young age. A great many of the men in prison, Asher notes, have behaviour issues linked with mental health problems. “All of that is traceable back to the lack of emotional intelligence that boys grow up with, the fear of showing their emotions and talking about how they feel. It’s going to come out somehow. And unfortunately for some men, it comes out in criminal ways.”

Of course, as Asher points out, the average man, throughout the course of his life, enjoys more privilege and career success than the average woman. But men who fail to gain those advantages are more likely to “fall further”. Ethnicity and class are strong factors. Shane Ryan, chief executive of the charity Working With Men, which aims to improve the lives of marginalised young men, sums it up thus: “The lower you go down the food chain, the more male advantage disappears – poverty is a great leveller.”

One of Asher’s biggest messages is that we need to show more “love, compassion and understanding for boys”. She echoes the American feminist bell hooks, who writes in The Will To Change: “In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are … Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture, males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”

Such a cultural revolution would be beneficial, Asher believes, for women and girls too. “I am absolutely at my heart a feminist,” she says, “and I believe that if we can treat boys better and have more understanding about them, that is going to pay dividends in terms of outcomes for girls and women too.”

Above all, she believes we need to go beyond the “damaging, useless notions of what masculinity and femininity are”. She suggests we need to break free of these two concepts altogether. “Rather than trying to invent a new masculinity – which some people have argued for – why not just forget about it all together? Let’s just think of ourselves as people with no rules, with our own characteristic strengths, attributes, and about how we can be happy."

But breaking free is a huge challenge. As Man Up suggests, almost all of us make assumptions about what a boy is, even before he is born, just as we do with a girl. Reading Asher's book I reflected on the fact that whenever I have felt broody for a girl, it has come with a craving for the sort of more emotionally-textured conversations a girl would bring. What am I then presuming about my boys? Becoming aware of these almost unconscious assumptions is an important part of the journey. That and talking about them, amongst ourselves, as adults, but also with our boys and girls.

Man Up: Boys, Men And Breaking The Male Rules by Rebecca Asher is published by Vintage, £14.99