I was a girl in a boys’ school – it completely affected the way I raise my sons


During the 1980s, I experienced a baptism of fire. I left my little girls ‘school that had just stopped wearing white gloves (thank goodness) and started grade six at the local boys’ high school.

The reasons for this: my distinguished bubble did not have a sixth grade, I discovered my brain during those years and this boys’ school was very academic. I felt it would be a welcome challenge and essential preparation for something like real life before college.

We were only two girls to enter sixth grade that year; I was studying all A levels in humanities and the other girl was studying science. I hardly saw her again.

It was in the 80s, so I was brought up on a diet of strong women on TV with shoulder pads as sharp as their tongues. Entries in my prolific diaries mentioned that there was something called the “glass ceiling” and that the women were going to “break” it.

However, one of the most defining moments in my education, if not my life, was spending two years in a testosterone-laden classroom. It took apart everything I thought I knew about boys.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge advocates teaching children empathy in schools to help boys express their emotions, which also has positive effects on their creativity.

There will be those who take the Mars vs Venus approach and argue that “boys aren’t designed for empathy the same way girls are, so good luck!” I’ve heard this argument several times, usually from parents of daughters.

Boys have a bad reputation. From my own formative experience in this sixth form, I gained an understanding which then influenced the way I raised my own boys who in turn continue to demonstrate a tremendous capacity for empathy.

The lion’s den

I would be horrified if my own daughter experienced some of the things I did – for example, lewd comments and conversations before class started to assess what your “breaking point” was. At the time, I thought I had entered the lion’s den and had to stand up for myself and find common ground. I saw that the daily conversations between the boys which took the form of insults were a sign of their friendship. To any observer, empathy seemed to be absent.

However, once they got over the novelty of a girl among them who could cope, I began to see a different and more vulnerable side. During study times at the library, one of the most belligerent boys of the year, always having trouble or fights, would approach me and start telling me about his love for Joy Division, then ask me how he should address the issues he was having with it. his girlfriend.

He was sensitive and a lot of fun beneath his hardened exterior and that taught me not to judge. Plus, there was an honesty and openness that was a blessed relief from the cliques and intricacies of a girls’ school.

An invaluable experience

When it came to raising my own boys, the insight I had gained over those two years was invaluable. What I was not prepared for were the boxes that boys were immediately put in by other parents. Parents of girls were visibly shivering at play dates as if a wrecking ball on two legs intended to inflict wanton destruction, when a glance across the corner of the room revealed two girls grabbing and silently twisting each other’s hair or wrists.

Some of my friends were disarmed when they took my boys to their car. “He asked me how I was doing and had a nice conversation with me. I could not believe it !

It was not what they expected from young boys. I looked at them puzzled. For me, it was not a miraculous feat; it was the basic courtesy that they saw modeled in them and that was naturally expected of them so that they could function in the world as civilized human beings.

It probably helps that we are big talkers in our house and are physically demonstrative. For us, no emotion is invalid. If you tell a child to stop being upset or pulling himself together, you are telling them they shouldn’t feel. If they learn to crush their own feelings, then how can we expect them to sympathize with others. When we make a mistake (especially adults), we apologize. We are not infallible and we don’t expect them to be.

I will never forget the moment my eldest son, then three, leaned over quietly and patted me on the back as I tearfully struggled to put his little brother to sleep. Empathy was there then and it is there in our boys, if only we could recognize it and nurture it.


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