Interview: Sue Palmer - The lost boys

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NOT SO long ago, Sue Palmer was walking through Edinburgh's Queen Street Gardens. She had her dog on the lead and was minding her own business, when she happened upon what she describes as a "dreadfully upsetting sight".

"There were these three young women from a nursery having a chat, and they had nine little children with them on leads," says the Edinburgh-based author, who has published several acclaimed books about modern childhood. "I looked at those children and thought, 'they're getting less attention and time than my dog'. I don't think the women were being uncaring, but the fact that the children were on leads was just symptomatic of the fact that we seem to have comprehensively lost track of one of the most important elements of raising children: personal, loving contact."

She sighs. "And the thing is, it doesn't take a lot of putting right."

Palmer, who has no children herself but more than 30 years' teaching experience under her belt, is a woman on a mission. Author of the well-received Toxic Childhood (2006), a comprehensive examination of the impact of pressures on modern children such as rising childhood obesity figures and violent computer games, the writer has now turned her attention to the world of little boys. But forget any idyllic notions of slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails. 21st Century Boys: How Modern Life is Driving Them Off the Rails and How We Can Get Them Back on Track provides a dismal snapshot of a generation of young boys and teenagers who are increasingly disenfranchised by the society they live in and the parents who have raised them. Indeed things, believes Palmer, are reaching a crisis point.

She cites statistics such as a report by the British Medical Association in 2006 which suggested that boys in the five-to-ten age group were twice as likely as girls to have an emotional, behavioural or mental health problem, while among 10 to 15-year-olds 11 per cent of boys had diagnosable conditions, as opposed to 8 per cent of girls. Meanwhile, young men aged 15 to 24 are most at risk of committing suicide of any age group – in fact it is the second most common cause of death for young men in this age group, while four out of five criminal offences are committed by males. Then there is the tenfold increase in diagnoses of Aspergers Syndrome in the UK, most of them among boys, in the past 30 years, as well as a rise in ADHD diagnoses among boys – for which almost half a million prescriptions were doled out in the UK in 2007.

"If we close our eyes to the problem, hoping it'll go away, these lost boys' plight will become an ever greater threat, not just to themselves but to society as a whole," she says.

So what is wrong with our little boys? According to Palmer, it starts in the womb. "Contrary to received opinion, boys are in fact the fragile sex. Boys don't become boys until the eighth week of gestation. Female is the default gender – so it's almost as though boys are having to make more effort right from the beginning."

However, while that may always have been the case throughout history, Palmer argues that in the 21st-century climate, where working mothers return to work sooner after giving birth than did the previous generations, children are left to be entertained by DVDs for hours on end and everyone is always in a rush, traditional impairments that boys may have always had are now having a more detrimental effect.

Palmer argues in her book that parents don't always give baby boys the same level of physical affection as they would a girl, which can leave boys isolated and alone, unable to make strong bonds with others at an older age and more susceptible to conditions such as Aspergers. While in the past boys might have been sent out to play with their friends, these days it is far more likely that they will be plonked in front of a television or a computer screen, which could be damaging for development.

"We've got screen saturation in our homes now, and we've got lots of ways little boys can and do end up in front of screens. We've got faster and faster in terms of the amount of technology we now use, and we've sort of forgotten that children are still the same creatures they've always been. They're born with these stone-age little brains and in order to bring them up well we have to slow down a bit and acknowledge they exist in biological time not technological time. We're fastforwarding them into the 21st century and that is contributing to an increase in emotional behaviour and social problems."

She also vehemently argues that children should not start formal education until the age of seven, a model adopted in several Scandinavian countries and one she is disappointed has not been entertained by the Scottish parliament, and that this would be of particular benefit to boys.

"Boys need a lot of outdoor activity and play in order to develop the control of their limbs and minds that will allow them to sit down in class. If you have a little five-year- old boy trying to make a den or build a fort, it doesn't matter in play whether it falls down or not, but if we put them under pressure with targets in a classroom, they know this is the grown up world and they've got to please grownups, and if they're not capable of doing that at that age and they fail you've got a good chance of turning them off for life."

For many boys, the pressure only increases as they get older. Jordan Macdonald, from Tillicoutry, is the type of 15-year-old boy every parent hopes for. He recently attained eight 1s at Standard Grade, is currently studying for five Highers including Maths, Chemistry and Physics, plays football with his friends in his spare time and wants to go to university to study chemical engineering. Yet even he says there is pressure on boys his age to look and act in a certain way.

"There's definitely more peer pressure being a boy than a girl," he says. "It just seems that all the guys my age go out drinking and start smoking. Some girls might join in, but the pressure is far more on the guys to do that kind of thing."

Palmer believes this kind of peer pressure can be exceptionally dangerous for young men.

"With teenage boys, the peer pressure is to be edgy – to do bad things that are anti-establishment, anti-education and anti-social. They want an edgy, cool image that comes from media and marketing and computer games."

Macdonald says he'd rather play football with his friends, although he does admit to playing computer games, and often kicks a virtual football around a screen, rather than around a field.

"I play quite a lot of shooting games on the computer and a few FIFA (football] games. It's a really good chance to have a laugh with friends who all have the same consoles so we can chat while we play. I prefer to play with other people than on my own."

Kyle Ward is 16, a young actor who makes his film debut in a Boy Called Dad, which will be shown at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. It's a coming-of-age film, in which he portrays a 14-year-old boy who becomes a father, and Ward says there are a lot of pressures on teenage boys his age to act older.

"There's a real rush to grow up, to get everything out of the way at once. A lot of the pressure comes from older people – a lot of boys my age hang round with older people and they want to be like them. It's difficult to do your own thing because everybody around you is doing the same thing. It's difficult to be an individual."

Despite her doom-laden predictions, Palmer thinks that the future for boys could be "very bright, shiny and rosy".

"I honestly believe that, once we stand back, take stock and recognise that what children need for healthy development is what we've always had – culture, love, discipline, play, communication, language and literacy, and provide those things – we'll get there.

"We've been moving so fast, going at the speed of light in terms of technology, and it's only when things start to go wrong that you realise there's a problem. There needs to be a process of readjustment, and we need to talk about the situation. It can be dangerous for parents to slip into the trap of having parental guilt and to think 'there's nothing I can do about this' and get paralysed. But there's always an answer – we can talk to each other, to teachers, to communities and sort things out together."

Starting, perhaps, with taking those children off the lead.

&#149 21st Century Boys: How Modern Life Is Driving Them Off The Rails And How We can Get Them Back on Track, by Sue Palmer, is published by Orion Books, 14.99