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Boys will be boys… and that’s ok

USC Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel has released a new book that challenges the concept of toxic masculinity. WORDS: Leigh Robshaw.


Boys will be boys… and that’s ok

USC Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel has released a new book that challenges the concept of toxic masculinity.

The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is now part of the zeitgeist and according to Dr Michael Nagel from the University of the Sunshine Coast, it’s bad for boys. The Associate Professor in Child Development and Learning has set out to challenge what he says is society’s war on boyishness in his new book, Educating and Raising Boys.

Using recent advances in neuroscience as the framework for his book, Dr Nagel examines how the hardwiring in boys’ brains leads to behaviours that are often labelled bad, wrong or disruptive by parents, teachers and society.

“Terms such as toxic masculinity don’t help boys as they’re trying to work their way into manhood,” Dr Nagel says. “It’s how we can foster what I call positive masculinity, rather than pigeonholing them as toxic.

“Toxic masculinity purports that every time a male does something poorly, that’s representative of all males. If a male is abusive, that’s representative of that particular person, not all males. I don’t like using the term toxic masculinity – let’s just call out the individual cases.”

The book is an extension of his 2006 book Boys Stir Us: Working with the Hidden Nature of Boys. A companion book on girls will come out later this year as a follow-up to It’s a Girl Thing, first released in 2008.

Dr Nagel says recent advances in medical research and neuroscience have opened up a new world of understanding that explains different intricacies between boys and girls by looking at the unique structural and chemical differences in the brain of each sex.

“Revealing data suggests the brains of boys maintain certain characteristics that may impact on their emotions, approaches to learning, personality and temperament, sense of identity and overall sense of wellbeing,” he says. “For example, on face value the research suggests that the fidgety and impulsive tendencies of boys may be linked to the levels and processing of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Regrettably, many boys are often chastised for an inability to sit still or calm down when they are only engaging in an innately boyish way due to the chemical milieu of their brains.

“One of the biggest things people have difficulty understanding is the physicality of boys,” he says. “They always seem to be in perpetual motion. That’s a product of the neurochemicals and hormones in their body. At around nine or 10 they have surges of testosterone and they have about seven spikes a day for the rest of their lives. When you have a surge of testosterone, sitting still is not easy. You see boys acting physically and you automatically assume it’s a negative behaviour; you are condemning them. School is still very sedentary and we expect boys and girls to act the same.”

Dr Nagel is concerned that over the past few years, the Prep curriculum has changed from one of play-based learning with a lot of movement, to a more academically designed curriculum.

“From 2014 to last year, there has been an exponential increase in suspensions and exclusions of four-year-olds in schools,” he says. “Developmentally, boys are behind girls until their eighth or ninth birthday. If you put a four-year-old boy in a Prep classroom and get him to sit at a desk, he’ll get frustrated. When a four-year-old boy gets frustrated, he doesn’t put his hand up and say, ‘excuse me, I’m feeling frustrated’, he lashes out. My suspicion is there are a whole lot of boys being penalised because they’re being asked to do things they’re not developmentally ready for.”

Dr Nagel says the brains of boys and girls also process positive and negative emotions differently.

“In boys, the part of the brain where emotions happen is not well connected to the part where verbal processing and speech happens – unlike in girls,” he says. “All too often a boy’s behaviour is misread as arrogant, stubborn or introverted, when in fact his ability to describe his feelings or actions is not immediately accessible.

“Not being armed with this sort of information leaves educators and parents without the requisite insight to counteract a boy’s emotional difficulties and opens the potential for mislabelling his lack of engagement in learning or his reaction as a behavioural issue.”

Dr Nagel is aware his book may draw criticism in today’s climate of political correctness, particularly around sex and gender. In the first chapter of the book, he addresses the belief that gender or sex is fluid, saying this is a sociological concept, rather than a biological one.

“I had to dedicate the first chapter of my book to teasing out what it means to be male or female biologically, what is transgender, what is intersex,” he says. “What I’m concerned about is people have thrown out the science – 99.99 per cent of all humans have either XX or XY [chromosomes], which tells us whether you’re male or female. People who dabble in sociology would have you believe gender is assigned at birth – it’s highly problematic.

“I’m not trying to perpetuate some notion of males being better than females, or somehow there is an advantage to being male or female. But I’m deadest certain once my book gets into various domains, I’ll get emails saying ‘you’re a misogynist’, ‘you’re trying to perpetuate stereotypes’. It’s not that at all. It seems we can’t just have a conversation about this. I’m not suggesting transgender doesn’t exist. I’m suggesting it’s a small percentage of the population and we don’t understand it very well. By the same token, we know a fair bit about boys and males – shouldn’t we be talking about that as well?”


Leigh Robshaw is a journalist who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years. Originally from Sydney, she has lived and worked in London, Tokyo and Latin America. She joined the team in 2012 and is MWP's deputy editor. Writing, reading and travel are her greatest passions.

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