Written by Dotty Winters

Lifestyle

Bringing Up Bollocks

Looking to the internet for advice on how to raise your sons? Be careful out there, warns Dotty Winters, whose own experiences on parenting forums have left a sour taste.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Parenting is one adventure that can compel even the most balanced of us to search for advice in the darkest corners of the internet.

On a recent foray into the Land That Reason Forgot (parenting forums), I happened across a series of threads on the topic of how to parent boys. Throughout these threads I found repeated reference to two well-known parenting manuals, the similarly titled Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph, and Bringing Up Boys by Dr James Dobson.

Anyone who spends time with parents will likely have heard phrases such as, “You know what boys are like” or similar sweeping generalisations.

I’ve often heard the same behaviour described by different parents as being inherently male or female – e.g. “S/he is really into nature/small world play/dressing up because s/he is a [insert random gender].” Periodically my Facebook timeline will offer trite pearls of wisdom such as, “Boy: a noise with dirt on it”, or, “A real woman can do anything, a real man won’t let her.”

God knows the world around us doesn’t help. From stupidly gendered toys to family expectations, we are constantly surrounded by signposts which we internalise and fight against depending on our mood and energy levels. There is no doubt that gender has an impact on who we are, so it makes sense that parents would look to this aspect of identity in order to understand their child better.

Both of the aforementioned, oft-referenced, books make claim to being science-based, although only one seems to reference academic studies and is written by a qualified professional. So, those in search of an evidence-informed approach should find it easy to choose. One small problem, though. The book that uses ‘evidence’, and is written by a qualified psychologist, is the one which is written from a conservative Christian perspective, and is targeted at parenting boys in order to raise them to be good Christian men.

To give an indication of what it means to be a “good Christian man”, here’s a quote from Dr James Dobson recommending another “great read”:

“Regarding [the issue of sexual-identity disorder and what can be done to help], we will turn to the very best resource for parents and teachers I have found. It is provided in an outstanding book entitled A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, written by clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolosi PhD… His book offers practical advice and a clear-eyed perspective on the antecedents of homosexuality. I wish every parent would read it, especially those who have reason to be concerned about their sons.”

Face, meet palm.

“In effect this book is the literary equivalent of asking for parenting advice from whoever you are sat next to on the bus. That’s clearly a ridiculous approach, not least because everyone knows that you don’t need to ask strangers for parenting advice: they’ll give you it regardless.”

The other book, Raising Boys, is much less controversial. Rather than focusing on cementing your offspring into established gender roles, it offers suggestions about how to counter what it sees as innate male traits (it contains revolutionary ideas like cuddling children even if they are boys). While this book isn’t as hands-down offensive as Dr Dobson’s, it is still not based on evidence or science, but merely anecdotes from a family therapist. Now, that might not be an issue if it were based on some assumptions that could be tested, for example his theory on the effect of testosterone surges at various ages, which isn’t supported by the evidence of actual testosterone levels.

If you remove the blindly obvious bits (and if you need a book to tell you that you should cuddle your children, then there are probably other things you should be reading), in effect this book is the literary equivalent of asking for parenting advice from whoever you are sat next to on the bus. That’s clearly a ridiculous approach, not least because everyone knows that you don’t need to ask strangers for parenting advice: they’ll give you it regardless.

Controversy over parenting books is nothing new. From Gina Ford to attachment parenting, the literature has provided parents with endless new ways to feel guilty about their approach. Somehow, these books on gender-based parenting add an additional level of pseudo-science claptrap, and at least one of them mixes this with sinister prejudice presented as science.

Nevertheless, like lots of pseudoscience the approach is based in some truth. Psychologists have long been relatively agreed that there are measurable differences in male and female brains and operation, and taken on aggregate it is possible to cluster some characteristics as more male and more female. But generalisations are, by definition, a poor way to make choices for individuals, and the research is a very long way from untangling the degree to which gender differences are affected by socialisation, cultural factors or even flawed research (see Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, or this helpful summary: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/10/28/the_difference_myth/?page=full).

In short, while we can say that on average males and females operate differently, it is unclear why, to what degree, and whether that is important, and it would be a reach to suggest that these differences mean we should parent differently based on gender.

So dear parent, I recognise and share your struggle to get hold of the very best possible information that you can in order to increase your chances of not screwing up. I know how it feels to worry that you are doing it all wrong, and I know what a comfort it can be to find a book to give you some pointers. But in a world where we are increasingly questioning whether gender is a useful social construct at all, perhaps we can all afford to stop worrying about boy-stuff and girl-stuff in parenting. Let’s raise some little humans.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.