It's better to build boys than to mend men" is the message touted by educator Barry MacDonald, who takes his Boy Smarts talks across Canada to help parents and teachers think about the pressures on boys and to help them grow into "caring, courageous and ethical men."
When boys are supported and guided better, he believes, it benefits them and everyone, especially the girls and women in their lives.
MacDonald was in Squamish on Sept. 20, speaking to a sold-out audience at the Eagle Eye Theatre. The event was sponsored by the District Parent Advisory Council.
A B.C. resident, MacDonald has written three books on raising sons.
"If it wasn't for Parent Advisory Councils I wouldn't be here or taking this message across the country," he told the audience, adding that for many women in the audience, they learn as much about their husbands as they do about their sons.
The dismissive cliché of "boys will be boys" is a starting point for everything that is wrong with adult approaches, he said, because it does not allow for the needs of boys to be met depending on how they are as individuals.
He considered the biological, educational, social and media influences on boys. "Part of male culture is to be independent and to push back. We need to find positive ways to deal with it," MacDonald said. "... and we need to consider how things have changed for them."
At its worst, this means boys and young men are bombarded with violence in video games and pornography, and discouraged by many current teaching methods — and they are rarely equipped with the support outlets and tools to process these things. A BC Teachers Federation study on gender found that boys outnumber girls 10 to one for severe behavioural problems, while 70 per cent of incarcerated males are illiterate, according to the John Howard Society of Canada.
Something needs to change, MacDonald said, and it must begin with adults.
"Things have changed rapidly; the average 10 year old can download more information than an entire government could 50 years ago," MacDonald said. "(Compared to girls) boys will get up and interact in order to learn about something."
And what can parents do? Learn what their sons are learning, see what they are seeing, and communicate, but communicate in a way that is sympathetic to how their sons think and live. As a rule, MacDonald said, the greater physicality of boys is a good starting point. Kinesthetic learners need to be more active.
He referred to himself as a case in point, as a boy and man whose brain has always worked best when he is moving. Even today, as a middle-aged man, he gets his best ideas when taking his dog for a walk.
"As teachers and parents we have to be wise to that, to building stress. For example, typical (rambunctious) boys demand to have turns (in an activity or play), and as a request goes on unanswered there is less talk and more physical action... And sensitive boys are more likely to be left to hang out to dry. Parents need to also think about their sensitive sons, who are more prone to anxiety," he said.
"We need to accept the boy we've got. We need to let go of rigid ideas of how boys will succeed... strengthening optimism and mutual respect."
So parents of boys should know what they're watching and what video games they are playing.
This also plays out in the overwhelming media pressure for how men and women are portrayed in advertising and elsewhere.
"Our boys are being given very limited choices today. They are meant to be either goofs or hot," MacDonald said.
While he acknowledges "you can't stop culture," he believes the earlier grownups start meaningful conversations with boys about life the better the results.
"If you want to keep them close, you've got to talk to them. Keep it short, to the point," he said. "And don't give up just because they might not respond... Keep the conversation open."