Interview With Maggie Hamilton Author of “What’s Happening to Our Boys?”

Having four sons, the title alone was always going to draw me to this book

What’s Happening to Our Boys? AT RISK How the new technologies, drugs and alcohol, peer pressure and porn affect our boys.

What’s Happening to Our Boys by Maggie Hamilton is a follow up to her best selling book What’s Happening to Our Girls? From the first week of this book being published Hamilton was having parents ask (plead!) to write one for boys, which Hamilton has now had published. The book is extensively researched and draws upon interviews with over 70 experts including doctors, psychologists, police and teachers, as well as 50 plus anonymous boys.

But Hamilton herself gives you are a warning about the book:

Some of the material covered in this book is shocking, but it’s important to realise this is the toxic atmosphere many of our children encounter daily.

I felt prepared after noting the warning, but after reading the first few chapters, I felt despondent – the tales from the boys and the experts seemed to portray such a hostile environment for the healthy growth and development of my boys. My eldest son is 11 so we have started the journey into many of the areas Hamilton tackles, but to date our experience has not reflected the “at risk” elements detailed in the book.

So I went back to the introduction and reread this very important statement that then allowed me to really appreciate the message of the book:

Not all boys are into the risky behaviours canvassed here, but as they now grow up in a ‘performance culture’, where ‘out there’, often harmful behaviour is seen as cool, most boys are highly aware of what their peers are up to, which soon normalises their worrying behaviour.

Some of the examples given in the book are extreme, but in a world were technology makes dissemination of information instant and often permanent, our boys can become desensitised by the reoccurring images and messages that they see.

At the end of each chapter Hamilton offers guidance for parents on how they can try and counter these images/messages and lists tips on how to create a nurturing, healthy and supporting environment for your son. I had the incredible pleasure to interview Hamilton and her genuine concern and respect for boys was so refreshing to hear.

Planning Queen (PQ): The book is filled with current research and studies, which are well documented in the notes at the back of the book. I am interested in finding out a bit more about the boys interviewed for the book, eg their ages, selection for interview, cross section of demographics?

Maggie Hamilton (MH): They boys were across a broad section of socio-demographics and was a random sample of over 50 boys. I had learned from previous interviews with my other book What Men Don’t Talk About and used contacts from schools, youth groups etc. The boys were aged from 10 – 22.

PQ: Many parents see the branding of clothes, food, bedroom decor, bags etc for very young children as harmless, but in the book you state that this is not the case but actually damaging to children, why is this?
MH: The results are being shown in preschools – a significant drop in imagination and creativity. Preschool teachers interviewed all noted the decrease in open ended play and increased anxiety from children about what they wear and their possessions. They are learning that “I am loved by how I look and what I own”. The marketing of these products seems benign, but marketing makes black look white and the hooks are in and the kids are demanding to buy stuff. By avoiding the trend to have branded everything parents can actually make their life easier, they are not being begged to have the latest this or that and aren’t running around to satisfy this need to consume.

And then there is this example on page 22 of the book from one preschool teacher:

“When we have show and tell boys want to bring their latest purchase – a Bob the Builder truck or whatever. The whole point of show and tell is to talk about something interesting that has happened, something they’ve found in nature, something they’ve made.”

PQ: There is a constant message in the book that an underlying problem for many of the risks for boys stem from “lack of excitement and empowerment of real life adrenalin”. What tips do you have for parents to help them create some of this in their son’s life?
MH: In the past communities used to celebrate this developmental stage of boys, they taught them life skills, they were acknowledged and involved. This is no longer the case. We need to be involving our boys in community projects, acknowledging their achievements and successes and creating situations for this to happen. Try contacting your local paper or library to help give a profile to the achievements of boys in your local area.

PQ: Much of the advice for parents at the end of the chapters is proactive as opposed to damage control, things like forming scripts for tricky situations they might find themselves in with friends (alcohol, sex, cars). What else can we do?
MH: Boys are saying that they want help to develop strategies on how to deal with these issues. They don’t necessarily want you solving their problems, but they want guidance on ways to work through them. Parents can also help by being aware of their son’s passions, explore them with their son, so that these issues aren’t all consuming. Encouraging him to make a number of friendship groups is important as it can also dilute the peer pressures and helps to build up resilience. Fostering friendships for boys across generations also helps. They have different stories, different takes on situations and different people to acknowledge and encourage them.

PQ: With technology you talk about being aware of what you kids are seeing, setting limits, phones away at night. For someone like me who is yet to have their kids start any of these things, do you have recommendations on what age is it ok for kids to have things like MSN, facebook and mobile phones? I am currently getting a lot of the “everyone else does” from my son who is in year 6.
MH: It is hard to see how these can be avoided once boys enter secondary school as this is such a large part of how they communicate. However this can also be a point for discussion about not joining the push for sameness. About how this makes it so easy for companies marketing to children. How much of the cool factor to have these things is actually a clone factor. Sometimes there is need for kids to experience being outside the square, this can help them grow as an “individual” and find their own leadership.

PQ: There seems to be a prevailing view of groups of boys – that they will cause trouble, be rough etc which I find really concerning. For example at local pool for swimming lessons recently, a soccer team was having a swim training session. While waiting for this to start a group of about 10 boys set up their own game, in a defined section, it was loud and boisterous, but good natured and fun. It made me smile, but many parents were frowning and looking towards the life guards willing them to break it up. How can we change this type of attitude to one which is more understanding that that is the play that boys need?
MH: We need to bring them in so they feel like part of community. Understanding that boys have a huge capacity for good and remembering that we ourselves don’t come from a “golden age”. We need to remember stories of our youth and share stories of mistakes and how we didn’t always get it right. Then explain that we know they won’t either. We need to catch them doing the “right thing”and acknowledge that it can be very hard to the right thing.

Thank you so much to Maggie for the interview, it gave me many moments to stop and think about how I interact with my sons not only now, but how I will in the future.

What’s Happening to Our Boys? gives parents a critical insight into the many pressures that boys growing up now face. It arms us with strategies that we can implement to help prevent our sons falling into the at risk behaviours documented in the book, which can so detrimentally effect their development and growth into the “good man” they could possibly be.