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Boys will not be boys

By Cassandra Wilkinson - posted Tuesday, 19 June 2012

A year ago my family and I moved from a house next to a river into a flat in the middle of the city. Our choice to get three hours a day back from the traffic to spend with our kids came at the expense of a lot of climbing, jumping, swimming, diving and canoeing.

Like many families we are struggling to find places and activities in the city that allow our kids to be wild things. And like many families we look around the parks, playgrounds and beaches and wonder where the wild things went.

Many boys in particular are not really allowed to be boys at all. The 'no war toys' rule is one creeping incursion I can't get my head around. A colleague of mine was recently called to her son's school to be counseled that her son was pretending his school-approved toys were guns. It's like chastising a dog for eating your sandwich when you weren't looking – of course he turned the Jenga blocks into something fun and good on him for not waiting for somebody else to solve his problems.


Back in 1995, the Daily Telegraph ran a headline 'HSC Fails Boys'. Like many women I joked they had the nouns arse about. Having journeyed through school at the tale end of the Puberty Blues era, I was bemused by the raft of hand wringing inquiries that followed after the first year girls 'beat' boys on the year 12 test. Some submisisons to these inquiries including the 2002 commonwealth inquiry into the education of boys posited that the future would hold no place for traditional men.

So I guess I selfishly only really paid attention when I found myself holding a tiny son one morning. Thinking in the interests of my daughter had come easily perhaps because as my friend Katherine remarked 'we come from a long line of women' but also because as a feminist I had been preparing to protect her my entire life.

Standing up for my son has been harder in some ways because when my daughter wants to be wild she is encouraged as breaking out from female sterotypes but when he wants to be wild it can be seen as aggressive, distracted or dangerous. I encourage any play he enjoys which usually includes guns, light sabres, swords and a full body Optimus Prime outfit. So while with my daughter's friends I am careful not to be the mum who let them watch South Park; with my son's friends I try not to be the mum who let them hunt each other with plastic bowie knives.

My son is allowed to play with real knives too and although he cut a finger fairly deeply on his first try with his sister's swiss army knife he was excited and happy to be instructed on it's proper use (don't open everything all at once…). The keenness of his desire to learn something genuinely challenging focused his mind quite nicely.

Wildness is vital in children but it is especially so in boys. Whatever your politics, the educational research provided for all these reviews makes this plain. Boys are increasingly reported as 'misbehaving', being 'immature', or 'lacking concentration'. They are much more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD or more recently labeled as sitting somewhere on the 'autism spectrum'. Tellingly autism expert Simon Baron Cohen (cousin of the famous Sacha) has described autism as a form of 'extreme male brain'.

The symptoms of preferring the literal, autonomous, technical and repetitive to the intuitive, collaborative, empathetic and adaptive could also describe in many ways what has happened to education. Wrote learning, subject specialisation and acceptance of facts has been reduced in favour of general comprehension, critical thinking and collaborative learning. My daughter was recently tested on 'persuasive writing' which even as someone who does it for money I struggle to see as being as important as maths. In short the education system now favours the skills on the female end of the continuum and therefore exposes in sharp relief the 'failings' of those on the male end of the continuum.


I found that school does not favour 'toughening up' any more either when I unsuccessfully lobbied to have a simple plastic slippery slide preserved for my son. The equipment was deemed too dangerous. My columns encourage regular contact from parents whose children have been denied wild play including being banned from running, cartwheels and tag. Injury is now against the rules. Which consequentially means timidity and caution are being taught as certainly as 'persuasive writing'.

I favour wildness for my son because valour, courage and daring reward all children. But I also favour wildness for him because he is a boy. Whether found in a man or woman, the extreme male brain and even the garden variety male brain is capable of things that a far rarer in those men or women who fall on the female end of the continuum. In a negative way one might say this is the instinct to war, domination, ambition, greed, power and lust. Perhaps but it is also the mind that relentlessly pursues a single goal, insight, symphony or Olympic medal.

We often say of the great leaders we admire that they didn't care what others thought of them. Churchill said we should be judged by the quality of our enemies. How many stories of success are punctuated with episodes of failure, isolation and loss that could only be sustained by someone who is seen as unreasonable in the eyes of joiners and sharers.

People often quote but I don't think we really appreciate the truth of George Bernard Shaw's observation that "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I hope earnestly, therefore, to raise unreasonable children – to raise if you will Wild Things.

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About the Author

Cassandra Wilkinson is the author of Don't Panic - Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Cassandra Wilkinson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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