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Awkward or absent: the problem of boys

17 March 2023

There is much in the news about toxic masculinity. So, how can churches get it right with boys, asks Nick Harding


IN THE UK, we are seeing many challenges around the behaviour of boys and young men, which is often referred to a “toxic masculinity”.

Andrew Tate, a “media influencer” whose views are described as misogynistic, amassed up to 4.5 million Twitter followers and is thought of as a hero by many young men.

The projected expectations of what is described as “toxic masculinity” are that males should be aggressive, strong, active, daring, tough, heterosexual, emotionally inexpressive, and dominant. Such attitudes and behaviour among peers and family members, media and marketing, when reinforced through social media, lead to a dangerous example being set. It is important to start early with young boys to address these issues.

The problems in society are problems that we face in the Church, too, and as the Church we must do what we can to address the issues around toxic masculinity with our boys and young men.

If we have any, that is. In children’s and youth work of all kinds, be it Messy Church, youth groups, or “traditional” Sunday work, much of it is populated by girls and led by women. Why are boys so often missing?

For a start, we’ve got to get to grips with what boys are like, and what the Church looks and feels like to them. We need specifically to seek to reach boys so they have the opportunity to hear and respond to the message of Christ and be excited by it, thus avoiding continuing our slide towards male-free churches.

As we look at any issues connected with gender, there will, of course, be exceptions, and, as the Church and society grapple with toxic masculinity, we are also aware of issues around gender identification and sexual orientation that contribute to a confused picture, with no easy answers. But, for now, we will generalise.


BOYS develop differently from girls, with innate differences as well as cultural pressures. Avoiding gender stereotyping could be positive — or a potentially harmful attempt to diminish difference.

Steve Biddulph’s recently updated book Raising Boys (Thorsons, 2018) is essential reading, making it clear that boys are different. As babies, boys are less able to recognise individual faces and interpret the messages in facial expressions. Boys need to bond closely with their mothers in the early years, but need a father-figure (or father-figures) to look up to as they get older. That boy-and-man relationship is essential in helping boys to develop into rounded, balanced men.

Boys’ brains develop more slowly than those of girls, affecting maturity, understanding, memory, and intellectual ability. The right side of the brain is thought to control the more logical and practical functions, while the left is more artistic and emotional. Boys are wired differently, having (in simple terms) fewer connections across the brain than girls. This affects the way they interpret, and creates difficulties in the way they respond. With fewer connections in their brains, a combination of intellectual understanding and emotional response is difficult.

Testosterone helps boys to become boys, and has particular surges in boys aged about four, and, later, at the onset of puberty. When testosterone is working in a small boy, he will become energetic and permanently on the move, and absorbed in aggressive and energetic physical play. When testosterone hits later, boys face the challenges of a changing voice, hair, and smell, acute and often painful self-awareness, and a growing interest in sex.

Testosterone also means that boys do not want to fail or be compared unfavourably with their male peers. In her book 21st Century Boys (Orion 2009), Sue Palmer makes a strong argument for boys to do “boy” things: to run about, fight, and to be free to play.


THE approach of the Church to boys is often in some ways similar to the statutory educational theory of the last few decades of the past century, which encouraged teachers to treat all pupils the same. We are now aware that, for years, the poor educational achievement of boys has become a serious issue, and there is a growing awareness that boys need to be taught differently.

So, where can boys “be boys”? Is that possible in a forum where there are girls present — or does their presence encourage boys to perform or cover up their vulnerabilities? And can that “performance” lead to the development of a toxic-masculinity culture?

The Boys’ Brigade allows each company to make its own decision about whether girls can attend. The Scout movement decided, in 2007, that all groups should be open to girls. It seems self-evident that boys are not going to join Girlguiding or Girls’ Brigade; so girls have a place where they can be themselves, but boys have not.

Does your church provide opportunities for girls to get together without the distraction of boys? Similarly, does it provide opportunities for boys to grow and develop faith without the distraction of girls? This doesn’t have to be all the time, but some separation can help.

We’ve already noted the increasing concern about what boys face in society, and how it can damage their development. But it is worth noting that there is a contradictory range of influences on boys: from toxic masculinity to the stifling nature of a “cotton-wool culture” that restricts adventure and risk.


Boys often see men as people who separate from the family, who go around in male groups — to play in sports teams, watch football, or go to the pub, getting into groups that they need for survival and security. Boys often also see men separating from women and from family: for example, staying at home while the women and children go to church.

Once a boy starts to grow up, he’s going to want to be like the man he knows — who, more often than not, from a simply demographic viewpoint, does not go to church.


WHAT do boys need in churches? Input. Boys do not enjoy reading as much as girls, and find a short amount of text much more accessible. So, the Bible, with 66 books and thousands of pages, becomes a huge hurdle. If we want boys in the Church, we need to help boys to learn and grow in faith in a way that they find helpful, using good and appropriate resources. To do that, it is necessary to:

  • examine carefully the programme, activities, and plans to make sure that there is plenty of variety and fun included. All planning needs to be considered through the filter of: “How will boys relate to this?”
  • look at the design of the materials being used. Those who produce commercial church resources naturally aim for the target market (girls), and the main purchasers (women). Boys respond better to primary colours, angular pictures, and cartoons;
  • check that boys are not required to read too much: they are likely to find this difficult in public;
  • consider how input can include targets, and small achievements, to help boys with their motivation;
  • remember: the attention span of an average boy is about one third that of an average girl;
  • make sure there is plenty of teaching about the miraculous, amazing, and supernatural from scripture. Boys need an adventure. Faith is one!


BOYS need help to worship and reflect in a way that they find easy and natural. Church worship and faith development tends to focus on strong connections between the practical and emotional elements, which for boys is challenging.

Some more pointers:

  • think carefully about how boys are asked to share and express their feelings in public, being aware that many will find this embarrassing;
  • consider the worship and responses you require of boys — is too much being asked of them?
  • challenge stereotypes that we see of Jesus as a boy, often based on Victorian morality;
  • teach the truth of the radical Jesus, true man as well as God, as someone they would want to follow;
  • split the group sometimes, to allow for periods when boys and girls can worship, interact, and think separately; and
  • reconsider how boys are expected to respond in worship, avoiding “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” type worship songs.


THE saying “Boys will be boys” has a basis in fact. Churches need to understand the natural way for boys to behave, providing opportunities for freedom but within necessary boundaries.

If we expect passive, subservient boys to keep still and “be good” for long lengths of time — and admonish them if they don’t — we are effectively telling them that the church, or the youth group, is not a place where they are welcome as they are. Instead:

  • make sure that boys have activities where they can let off steam;
  • remember that more boys than girls have additional needs such as ADHD and autism, that affect behaviour and concentration;
  • challenge gently and firmly, any signs of misogyny within the group, making clear that manhood isn’t about those attitudes;
  • be aware of the natural falling in and out of friendships — boys often repair them quickly; so be there to help the repair;
  • reconsider the standards of behaviour you require, making sure that boys do not get excluded simply for behaving as God intended;
  • have a clear and negotiated code of behaviour that boys agree to, as this helps to give them responsibility; and
  • think about the rites of passage provided by your church to help boys move into Christian manhood. Is it possible to set targets and aspirations with rewards?


WE NEED to counter the challenges that boys face in our society by providing church communities where the men are active, and boys have responsibilities that challenge them and allow risk.

Boys may view a church and see it as a place designed for women and girls, with a passive, largely female congregation, pastel decorations, and plenty of flowers, and, increasingly, female leaders. This situation is perfectly healthy, but boys could do with some help to recognise it as normal by seeing men around who accept it.

Church, after all, is not the only place where male role-models are scarce. In primary schools in Britain, only 15.5 per cent of teachers are male. Nearly one quarter of dependent families are brought up by a single parent — only ten per cent of these by the father.

It is important, then, to:

  • provide opportunities for boys to spend time with other boys, and develop their own peer community;
  • encourage men to play more of a part in children’s ministry, within appropriate recruitment and safeguarding structures;
  • involve boys in doing practical things around church with men: cleaning days, repairs, setting up for events, and so on;
  • make the church a place where boys can be given responsibility, use their skills, share decision-making, and feel a sense of belonging;
  • • encourage men in the church to take their responsibility for their own and other children seriously;
  • • consider sport as a way to reach and nurture boys; and
  • • actively recruit men to work with children and young people.


THE lesson of the numbers attracted by Andrew Tate and other influencers is that boys are looking for a role-model. To address this, we need men in our churches who live out their Christian lives as themselves rather than a sanitised “church” version of themselves — showing how strength and compassion can be combined, and willing to support and mentor boys.

Unless we tell the story of the real and radical Jesus, who remained strong in the face of opposition, pain, and death, we won’t offer boys a Jesus that they would want to follow.


Nick Harding trains and writes on safeguarding, and children and family ministry. He has written resource books, serves his local community as a magistrate, and is an LLM in the dioceses of Derby and Southwell & Nottingham. He is married to Clare, who is the head teacher of a large primary school, and they have two grown-up sons.

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