Raising Boys to Be Disconnected
Are males more prone to violence because boys are more needy?
Posted Nov 18, 2018
Generally, males are more prone to physical violence than girls—as evidenced by ethological, anthropological and historical records—and that is assumed to be related to higher levels of testosterone in men generally. It’s easy to dismiss male violence as innate and inevitable if you read books like Demonic Males (Wrangham and Peterson, 1998) which compared human male violence to that of chimpanzees. But humans are very different from chimpanzees, including in how much more we are shaped after birth (Gomez, Hopkins, Schapiro & Sherwood, 2015). And boys are different from girls.
In comparison to girls, postnatal experience has greater impact on how boys mature. For example, boys have a thinner corpus callosum (CC) at birth than girls. Neuroscientist Martin Teicher (2002) found that neglected boys have a thinner CC than non-neglected boys. A thin CC means that the individual will more easily flip between states, such as flying into a rage.
Diana Baumrind (1971), famous for her categorization of parenting styles (1967) found a style rare among her Western samples—harmonious parenting. Interestingly, this style matches that in our ancestral context as well as that of indigenous societies—indulgent and warm (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Ross, 2006). In such societies, children are raised by caring, attentive adults but have high autonomy (virtually no coercion) and they spend their lives feeling connected to many others of different ages. In the harmoniously parented families, Baumrind found that boys acted more like the girls—calm and sociable. They did not exhibit the aggression and oppositionalism she believed to be “normal” for boys.
Why are boys much more malleable than girls in their sociality?
Male Needs. Boy babies have less built-in resilience than girl babies have, and they mature more slowly (Schore, 2017). This means that to grow well, they need more supportive care for longer: more affection, more self-directed whole-body social play, more responsive comforting care, more years of breastmilk, more supportive community (aspects of our evolved nest, described below). Yet in the USA, boys typically get less of these things than girls do. Boys are often pushed away from a young age and told to buck up ("boys don't cry") and “be a man,” and so they can miss the comforting support they need. Then the culture justifies the missing relational connection as “manly.” But lots of social skills are scheduled to develop before language development (Stern, 2010), so when a child is pushed away (instead of choosing to move away which happens with supportive development), the period passes and there are gaps left in the foundational knowledge base for social life.
Early Care. Many practices that are routine in the USA harm young children. Medicalized birth practices often separate baby from mother, induce painful procedures, give sugar water or infant formula for no medical reason, and subject newborns to harsh lights, smells and touch. Some of these factors may cause harm (Buckley, 2015; Liu et al., 2007) and are contrary to the World Health Organization's Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. Babies are distressed from cultural practices like sleep training, physical isolation (instead of carrying) throughout the day and isolation at night. Such distress undermines social and physiological development (Narvaez, 2014). Boys may be more negatively affected by these species-atypical experiences.
What is species-typical early care?
Humanity’s Evolved Nest. Humans evolved a nest to care for their very immature offspring, who look like fetuses of other animals till 18 months of age (Trevathan, 2011), thereby needing an “external womb” experience till that time (Montagu, 1978). Our evolved nest includes at least the following: (a) responsive care that keeps baby from distress, (b) carrying/holding/affectionate touch frequently, (c) breastfeeding on request for several years, (d) self-directed social play including in the natural world with multi-aged playmates, (e) multiple adult responsive caregivers, (f) positive social support and(g) soothing perinatal experiences (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). All these practices have known positive effects on neurobiological structures that form personality and sociality (e.g., Narvaez, Braungart-Rieker et al., 2016; Narvaez, Panksepp et al., 2010; Narvaez, Valentino et al., 2014).
What happens to young children when their needs are not met? Erik Erikson emphasized the development of trust or distrust in the first years of life. When babies are undercared for (missing the nest) they learn distrust--in self-needs, in relational reliability, in security in the world. They feel cut off from a sense of loving support. They are forced into a sense of disconnection. As noted in the first post, Relational Disconnection as Mental Illness, disconnection is an unhealthy state, one that leads to trouble for the community. In traditional communities, maintaining respectful caring connections are primary for individual and community wellbeing.
Indeed, resilience research shows that supportive relationships are key. Risky behavior by children and youth can be prevented when they have even just one supportive, caring relationship with an adult. When I was a middle school teacher, the teachers of each grade level would keep watch on the wellbeing of every student within that grade, stepping in when disconnection occurred ---from academics or relationships--- to help repair connections. But this is not always the case for many youngsters today. Many do not have adults watching over their wellbeing, even at home where parents are working long hours or otherwise distracted.
Culture. In discussing how culture influences action, Jame Akre (2006) noted some key distinctions between a low-violence culture (Japan) and a high-violence culture (USA): "the dominant other-directed [Japan] vs. inner-directed cultural norm, and prevailing attitudes toward conflict resolution and delayed [Japan] vs. immediate satisfaction of individual needs" (p. 75). These qualities play a critical role in citizens’ propensity to engage in violent behavior. Again, community connection and responsibility to community play a large role in the behavior of individuals.
Notice the men recently involved in murder and attempted murder of fellow citizens. Cesar Sayoc Jr., the bomb mailer of 2018, was rejected by his extended family after his parents divorced. Both he and Robert Bowers (the murderer of Jewish temple goers in Pittsburgh) were disconnected from loving relationships, probably harboring years and layers of disconnection. They found meaning for their lives by immersing themselves in hate media, boosting their self-esteem and sense of purpose by identifying with a “superior” group. Such an externalizing focus (blaming and targeting others) reflects a troubled, in-pain self.
Where were the relationships and community support they needed to grow wellbeing? The industrialized world has gotten used to causing and living with disconnection—it’s one of our famous “freedoms”—from tradition and traditional ties. Everyone is expected to manage on their own, as an individual unit. The individual will get blamed for causing trouble if it doesn’t work out.
The behavior of these men may be partially a result of the cultural neglect of relational connection--until recently deep relational connection was the norm for human social life in every society. Above I noted some experiences that contribute to disconnection (or that undermine the building of connection) in childhood. The field of psychology has accepted such a disconnected life course as normal now. DSM-based psychological analysis takes no interest in the effect of relational disconnection on holistic community health (Frances, 2017). At the same time, no traditional society would have allowed such neglect nor such community damage to pass unhealed (Ross, 2006).
(First post, Relational Disconnection as Mental Illness)
Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.
Baumrind, D. (1971). Harmonious parents and their preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 4(1), 99-102.
Buckley, S.J. (2015). Hormonal physiology of childbearing: Evidence and implications for women, babies, and maternity care. Washington, D.C.: Childbirth Connection Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Frances, A. (2017). Twilight of American sanity: A psychiatrist analyzes the age of Trump. New York: William Morrow.
Gómez- Robles, A., Hopkins, W. D., Schapiro, S. J., & Sherwood, C. C. (2015). Relaxed genetic control of cortical organization in human brains compared with chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 12, 14799-14804. doi: 10.1073/ pnas.1512646112
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Montagu, A. (1978). Learning Nonaggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Narvaez, D., Braungart-Rieker, J., Miller, L., Gettler, L., & Hastings, P. (Eds.). (2016). Contexts for young child flourishing: Evolution, family and society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
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Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Liu, W.F., Laudert, S., Perkins, B., MacMillan-York, E., Martin, S., & Graven, S. for the NIC/Q 2005 Physical Environment Exploratory Group. (2007). The development of potentially better practices to support the neurodevelopment of infants in the NICU. Journal of Perinatology, 27, S48–S74.
Ross, R. (2006). Returning to the teachings: Exploring aboriginal justice. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Schore, A.N. (2017). All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk. Infant Mental Health Journal, 38(1),15-52. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21616
Stern, D. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. New York: Oxford University Press.
Teicher, M. (2002). Scars that won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Scientific American, 286(3), 68-75.
Wrangham, R. W., & Peterson, D. (1996). Demonic males: Apes and the origins of human violence. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.