Working for an organisation set up to help our boys and young men seems to elicit the strangest of responses. People often make assumptions about our purpose. They may think we are fanatical about men’s rights or are pushing a “pro-male” agenda. If we mention the m-word, “masculinity“, they expect special pleading about how hard all men and boys have it, regardless of male privilege.
Such sceptics are often amazed when they get a closer look at our evidence based work supporting boys and young men in less affluent areas in living the life they aspire to and making a positive contribution to their own future and to the community.
I point out to those who are suspicious of an organisation set up specifically to help young men that this is the other side of the equation to all the great work being done to empower our young women. We understand that work is crucial and we believe ours is just as vital particularly with many young men searching for a sense of purpose and significance in wider society.
I have two boys and two girls and, it was the experience of being the father of a young woman first which led me to observe how we sometimes view young men. I am very proud of my oldest daughter, a quick-witted 28 year old, never afraid to help others or speak out against injustice. I remember the changing reactions the outside world had to her as she became a teenager. Fathers will know what I mean. Walking down the street, I noticed that where once men used to smile at her, now they looked her up and down, or just plain stared. It is a look I understand only too well and I felt very protective.
But what I didn’t expect was that I would experience just as strong a reaction as my boys became teenagers. As far as the outside world is concerned, they seemed to have changed. But unlike my daughter, the perception seems to be that they’re now a threat.
As they grow beyond six foot, the looks they attract are generally a mix of fear and apprehension even on the local streets where they grew up. Sometimes it’s aggression. Yet these are two studious and well-mannered young men still young enough to think it is fun to play pass the parcel along with their 4 year old sister. We have to think carefully about the messages we are sending to young men. If we show them that we only think negatively about them, we risk alienating them at just the time when they face the pressures of growing up. Our charity works with hundreds of young men and we see how vulnerable they are to being corralled into a direction they don’t want to go. In a society which already thinks they are a problem and seeks to deal with them in a punitive manner, they can become scared and frustrated in the search for who they should be and where they fit in.
Some might say this is part of growing up. But unfortunately coping alone with these emotional pressures can come out as aggression. And they often feel threatened themselves.
A study we conducted with young men across nine London boroughs after the 2011 disturbances found that the two things they fear most are the police and other young men of their own age… Has much changed?. I ask this in a time where according to the last Crime Survey for England and Wales young men are still most likely to be the victims of violent crime across the UK, and where according to recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, men and young people are hit hardest by the shrinking of wages following the financial crisis.
And, alarmingly, as Nick Clegg unveils a ‘zero suicide’ policy in the run up to the elections, boys under ten are nearly twice as likely to suffer from mental health disorders as girls and boys are still three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school. That makes it no surprise that amongst the young, 80% of suicides are male.
If we demonize boys, or fail to protect them we miss a valuable opportunity to encourage them to choose a well-informed path into adolescence. Telling boys to “man up” sends them the wrong message especially when it is usually used as an indication that they need to be tougher. It encourages them to feel they need to skip childhood, become a man quickly but also be ready to use force to defend themselves and detach themselves from what they are feeling. This risks pushing them into alliances with people who are known for being able to “take care of themselves” and even to extremist views and actions (in some cases), as they search for a sense of purpose and belonging.
We talk constantly about role models as if they are the answer to all our problems but that approach by itself is a cop-out.
It allows us to shirk our shared responsibility to boys and young men in general. We also allow ourselves to be seduced by the idea of inner city gangs when constant tales of gang warfare just feed the idea of young men in particular as violent and out of control. The real hidden issues here are poverty, discrimination and generations of young men without some of the historical routes to opportunity, self-efficacy and self-worth. Change starts with acknowledging that providing targeted help for young men and considering the facts at hand is the right thing to do morally, socially and even economically.
As I look at my own boys playing party games with their sister on her birthday, I am reminded that they are still just children. We need to try to protect that childhood for all children particularly from impoverished backgrounds whatever their gender. We have to realise that it is “ok” to look after our boys too and help them on their journey in becoming our future men. They need us.
Follow Shane Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shaneryan1