Raising boys with backbone and heart 

By Steve Biddulph

I’m sitting in a room with 200 mothers of boys. It’s an all day workshop and we have enough time to really dig deep into what makes some boys turn out well, and some to go off the rails.

I start off in an unusual way – I ask the women a question: What would be their idea of a perfect man? Now, in a room full of young mothers – in fact, any women really – this is a question that leads to some ribald humour. But then we get serious, and I write on a huge whiteboard what they call out.

Soon we have a list of about 40 qualities.  They range from kind, gentle, loving, thoughtful,  through to trustworthy, honest, loyal, calm under pressure, and many more.There is something very poignant and moving about some of these answers.  I’m aware that some of these women are describing things that their present or former partners may not have been.

Many women have had painful and hurtful experiences of the men in their lives, though plenty, of course, have positive and good partners (perhaps just needing a few tweaks!)

The reason I do this exercise is that for parents of sons, it’s very important to know where you are going long-term with raising them to be good men.

The qualities we see in good men are there for one reason alone – somebody raised them to be that way.  In fact, there are really just two main qualities boys and men need to have: Backbone and heart.

Heart is what we most often think of first with goodness – being kind-hearted, caring, patient, helpful, warm, affectionate.  And also open-hearted – able to talk about sorrow, fears, hurts and concerns, in an open way.

For most of the 20th century, men weren’t able to do this and so were often a kind of walking time bomb, either frustrating to be around, or dangerous, since you felt their moods but couldn’t talk about or work through them.The second quality that we want to and can instil in our sons (and equally our daughters of course) is backbone.

Once in a school I saw a small boy stand up for his friend against some huge bullies. He was not strong or tough, but he knew that bullying was wrong, and it lent him courage.

And in fact the bullies backed away, something about that small boy’s moral courage got through to them.

That is my idea of backbone.  Doing what is right.  It also includes being trustworthy – keeping one’s word, showing up, being reliable. Not quitting when things get difficult.  We can actively talk about these things and teach our sons how to do them.

In the recent running scandals about private school boys’ behaviour and attitudes towards women and girls on public transport, it seems to me that these kids had not been given these messages at home, at least not enough to stand up or stand apart from the mob behaviour.

To turn out well, our boys need to be given enough love and care to be empathetic themselves.

To be taught by fathers and mothers to treat others with respect, and see their dads doing that – being warm-hearted, being self-sacrificing, being strong and reliable.  Having the conversations right from little boys (or girls) about what a good human being actually looks like, and behaves like.   So one day their partners will smile and say ‘I married a good man’.  And thank their parents for raising them that way.

Steve Biddulph is the author of Raising Boys, and The New Manhood.