Friday, June 11, 2010

Boys at risk

It’s time parents confronted the problems boys and young men face, to help them grow into resilient, productive and happy individuals
Any parent who has a son, especially a teenager or pre-teen, must read this.
It’s shocking, it’s confronting, and at times, very sad. But it’s real.
I have just finished reading a book titled What’s Happening to Our Boys? by Maggie Hamilton.
Some of the material is grim, from young boys engaging in sexual acts, to being exposed to graphic and disturbing pornography, to their addiction to computers, and alcohol and drug abuse.
The reality is that boys today are a lot different from previous generations.
Why are boys suffering body image and self-esteem problems? Why do they feel worthless without the latest branded toy, game or item of clothing? What makes fast foods so attractive? Why are they drawn to countless acts of violence on TV, movies and computer games? What impact does our highly sexualised climate, our emphasis on success and money, have on them as they grow? And why are so many boys vulnerable to cyber bullying and pornography?

Hamilton asks all of these questions and more, and after meticulous research, she has some of the answers.
“I’m really passionate about how we shape the future,” she expresses to me over the phone.
“We are living in a performance culture now where kids have to be amazing all the time in everything they do, and the ‘cool’ factor changes all the time.
“We have such a winners and losers culture now that has come our of reality TV which is so destructive.
“But there’s plenty of solutions now, and parents can be put back in charge in a positive way, to protect their kids and give them good information about tricky subjects.”
Childhood and teenage life is changing rapidly, leaving parents exhausted and confused as to how best to tackle the many issues they face.
How does this high pressure environment affect a boy’s confidence, his values and aspirations, his wellbeing, his sense of community, his attitudes to girls and women?
“We assume we know what’s going on, but there’s so much that we’re not getting,” Hamilton said.
“I was shocked when I did the interviews (with the boys).
“They are being super-parented by the same influences around Australia popular culture, big brands, huge money being spent on advertising and marketing, and they are being targeted.”
Hamilton says new technology and popular culture enables a very covert culture to happen right under our noses.
With the growth in new technologies, boys can get their information from peers, computers and mobile phones instead of relying on parents, teaches and coaches to answer their questions about life.
Parents should realise the level to which boys are just as vulnerable as girls, particularly when we live in such a highly sexualised environment.
“They see billboards, MTV video clips, very sexually aggressive and provocative girls, and it makes it very difficult for them to know what is appropriate and what’s not,” Hamilton says.
Shockingly, she says there is a massive amount of underage oral and anal sex going on, and these young boys assume that it’s normal, and not regarded as “sex”.
“The access to porn is very abusive, and some parents think ‘boys will be boys’ but they can see every type of sexual act you can think of, including child pornography, and it’s not just high school students either, we have seen very young boys accessing porn,” she says.
One story she was told involved a seven-year-old boy forcing a girl in his class to have oral sex, slapping her about and telling her he would hurt her if she told anyone.
“Psychologists are concerned that we are growing a generation of sexual offenders,” Hamilton says.
“Boys are not naturally like that, they are not natural predators, they have the same feelings as girls. But what we are doing is we are flattening their empathy.
“Girls are being taught to be sexual objects, while boys are being taught to get as much as they can in terms of sex.
“Parents have to talk to their kids earlier about this stuff, in their own language and create open communication.
“This is an information generation, so you need to talk about emotions more and get them to think ‘I wonder what it would feel like if that was happening to me?’
“We (parents) need to see the signs, give them boundaries and core scripts to be able to say ‘no’,” she says.
But it’s not all bad news.
“Parents who provide a rich family environment, are smart enough to have them involved in different passions that they love such as sports teams, have completely different sets of friendships across the generations, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, those kinds of things dilute the influence that the marketers and peer pressure have on kids,” she says.
“Also, kids involved in some kind of service such as volunteering at an old people’s home, they’re the ones who are doing well.”
Hamilton says despite the grim topics discussed in her book, the real message is one of hope.
“This is the hardest book I’ve ever written because it’s so shocking to think that we’ve let our kids get so exposed,” she says.
“But I wouldn’t have spent the huge amount of time to get this book together if I didn’t feel hopeful... but I also feel we cannot be complacent.
“This stuff is serious and we’ve got to notch it back... we’ve really got to keep our kids close and create the opportunity for them to talk to us about stuff that otherwise they might not.
“Knowledge is power and it puts you back in charge as the parent, rather than running to keep up, and you’ll also begin to understand why kids have an increased amount of attitude.”
Hamilton stresses that it’s also important for parents to catch kids doing the right things, and praise them when they do well.
What’s Happening To Our Boys? is a confronting read, but it’s also a highly empowering tool for parents in order to understand their kids, with tips on what parents can do at the end of each chapter.
There is a lot that boys are up against, and if parents take the time to educate themselves about these important issues, then the more chance we’ll have of creating male role models of the future.
  •  What’s Happening To Our Boys? by Maggie Hamilton, Penguin/Viking, RRP $29.95.


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