Boys to Men

Author: Movember
Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man 
- Saint Francis Xavier

Obviously this is wise, because it was said by an old beardy dude, who wore robes and spoke Latin (you know, the language they print IKEA flat-pack instructions in). But seriously, if you put aside the fact kids are obviously still learning beyond seven, then old Franny X’s philosophy still rings true – the things we teach our children will shape the adults they become.

Most people would agree they want to raise their kids into happy, well-adjusted young adults (who will piss-off out of the house at 18 and give them some peace!). So why are we still teaching our young boys to emulate an outdated version of masculinity that has contributed to a men’s mental health crisis in this country?

At under eights footy matches all over the country you still regularly hear adults offering boys helpful, 1950’s era advice like: “don’t be a sook”, “harden up princess” and “boys don’t cry”.

We’re so anti-crying there are only three acceptable reasons an Aussie male is allowed to shed tears:
  • When your mum OR dad dies (not both, just whichever one goes first – toughen up, you get an inheritance when the second one carks it!)
  • When your team loses the GF.
  • If you get hit in the nuts.
This is what we’ve been teaching our boys for years, so we shouldn’t be surprised when those boys grow up into emotionally repressed men that struggle with their mental health. It’s time we ditched this outdated and unhealthy approach and started encouraging boys that’s it’s ok to show their emotions.

One person doing just that is Tom Harkin. Tom runs workshops with teenage boys that help them navigate the many pressures they face as they approach manhood. Tom says one of the biggest issues boys face is mixed messages, with some people telling them to be strong and tough and others saying they should be in touch with their feelings.

The workshops teach boys that’s it’s not an “either/or” proposition; Tom is adamant we should not be trying to diminish boys’ masculinity. Instead he tries to show that men can be strong, dependable and tough, but also have times when they are emotionally fragile or feel vulnerable. There is no shame in this and no need to repress these feelings, boys can even cry.

Teenage boys are occupied almost exclusively, by three things: wanking, eating and then wanking again. With this in mind, it’s a huge credit to Tom Harkin that his workshops are connecting so strongly with boys; and genuinely helping to reshape perceptions of what it means to be a man.

But if we’re really going to reshape perceptions nationally, it will take more than just specialist workshops like Tom’s. Obviously parents play the biggest role in guiding young men, but what happens when your sweet, angelic young boy turns into a smelly, grunting teenager? How are parents meant to connect with boys who don’t listen to them anymore?
Psychologist and educator Steve Biddulph says that parents should reach out to other influential males for help. Steve uses the term “surrogate uncles”; which basically means an adult bloke, other than a boy’s father, who can be a positive influence. Steve says that at times, boys will be more likely to listen to these surrogate uncles than their own fathers. Rather than fight this, dads should accept it and surround their sons with blokes they trust, who will help communicate a more balanced view of masculinity.

This school of thinking places the responsibility for changing boys’ perceptions of “manhood”, on all of us. So next time you look down at a young boy, be he your son, brother, nephew or a friend, try adding a few modern words of wisdom to Francis Xavier’s ancient ones: Give me a child at seven – teach him it is ok to be vulnerable and to cry sometimes. Show him that he is loved and that he has the capacity to love back – and I will show you the man.

The type of man we all hope our sons will one day grow up to be.

This article was first published on www.manup.org.au.​