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From birth to six: the gentle years

Posted by Tweddle | 02/08/11


Why boys are different – and how to help them become happy and well-balanced men

Extract from Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph


From birth to six: the gentle years


Babies are babies. Whether they are a boy or girl is not a concern to them, and needn’t be to us, either. Babies love to be cuddled, to play, to be tickled and to giggle; to explore and to be swooshed around. Their personalities vary a lot. Some are easy to handle, quiet and relaxed, and sleep long hours. Others are noisy and wakeful, always wanting some action. Some are anxious and fretful, needing lots of reassurance that we are there and that we love them.


What all babies and toddlers need most is to form a special bond with at least one person. Usually this person is their mother. Partly because she is the one who is most willing and motivated, partly because she provides the milk, and partly because she tends to be cuddly, restful and soothing in her approach, a mother is usually the best equipped to provide what a baby needs. Her own hormones (especially prolactin, which is released into her bloodstream as she breastfeeds) prime her to want to be with her child and to give it her full attention.


Except for breastfeeding, dads can provide all a baby needs. But dads tend to do it differently: studies show them to be more vigorous in their playing – they like to stir children up, while mothers like to calm them down (although if fathers get as deprived of sleep as mothers sometimes do, they  too will want to calm baby down!)



Gender differences begin to show


Some gender differences between boys and girls do begin to appear early on. Here are just a few discoveries researchers have made:

• Boy babies are less aware of faces.

• Girl babies have a much better sense of touch.

• The retinas in the back of boys’ eyes are differently made, so they see more movement, and less colour and texture.

• Boys grow faster and stronger, yet they are more troubled by separations from their mother.

• Boys in toddlerhood move around more and occupy more space.

• Boys like to handle and manipulate objects more, and build high buildings out of blocks, while girls prefer low-rise.

• At preschool boys tend to ignore a new child who arrives in the group, while girls will notice and befriend him or her. And sadly, adults tend to treat boys more harshly: studies have shown that parents hug and cuddle girl children far more, even as newborn babies. They tend to talk less to boy babies, and mothers of boys are likely to hit them harder and more often than they do girl children.

This is sad because boys need the very opposite, to be taught gentleness and shown lots of laughter and physical closeness.


Learning to love


If a mother is the main caregiver, a boy will see her as his first model for intimacy and love. If she builds this close bond, then from toddlerhood on – if she sets limits with her son firmly but without hitting or shaming him – he will take this in his stride. He will want to please her, and will be easier to manage because the attachment is so strong. He knows he has a special place in her heart. Being made to wait or to change his behaviour might baffle him, but he will get over it. He knows he’s loved, and he will not want to displease the person at the centre of his existence.


Mum’s interest and fun in teaching and talking to him helps his brain to develop more verbal skills and makes him more sociable. Boys need more help than girls to ‘catch on’ to social skills.


If a mother is terribly depressed, and therefore unresponsive in the first year or two of her son’s life, his brain may undergo physical changes and become a ‘sad brain’. If she is constantly angry, hitting or hurting him, he will be confused over whether she loves him. (Please note, this is constant anger we are talking about, not occasional rattiness that all parents feel and show. We aren’t supposed to be angels as parents – if we are, how would our children learn about the real world?)


Those of us who are around young mothers have to be careful to support and help them, to ensure they are not left isolated or overwhelmed with physical tasks. A mother needs others to augment her life so she can relax and do this important work. If we care for young mothers, they can care for their babies. Husbands and partners are the first rank of help, but family and neighbours are also needed.


Published with permission from Finch Publishing

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