Friday, 20 December 2013

Big boys don't cry...

… but perhaps they ought to.

The rest of us will certainly be shedding tears if the current male generation fails to grow up with a decent sense of what it is to be a man.

Some schools have started teaching 'manhood' lessons, which was the ostensible reason for my invitation to join a BBC Radio Five Live discussion with Anne Atkins and Danny Chaplain earlier this week. If you missed it, you can listen here (ff 38 minutes in for the start of the discussion) and I was pleased to be asked because it's a subject I feel passionately about, both as a father and as a teacher for many years in an all boys school.

Because the sad fact is that too few boys these days know how to be men.

Many have no role model but that's not all - the messages they get from what they see and hear (and maybe read) are utterly skewed. In a way, it's a wonder any boy in our society can grow into a decent, caring, considerate human being. It's far from easy.

And it's not easy being a man these days, either. We - men - aren't what we used to be! Years ago there were definite types - working-class, working hard, watching football on Saturday afternoon and staying in bed on Sunday morning. There were variations on that theme but people - men, boys - knew basically who they were and where they stood.

Now, of course, things are very different and in many ways that's also a good thing. Men these days can be as many different kinds of 'man' as they want. They don't have to conform to rigid stereotypes if they don't want to.

But therein, as Shakespeare would say, lies the rub, Stereotypes are sometimes useful templates, and without them many boys and young men search desperately for some direction.

And where do they get it?

Without a man - men - to measure themselves against, many boys get it - get an idea, an image of what it means to be a man - from sources that are at the very least unreliable and - at worst - destructive and demeaning to women.

Yes, I mean porn. And the ubiquity of porn. And the fact that, faced with porn, boys and young men are at last given the security of seeming to be part of something bigger than themselves, some shared (if utterly skewed) sense of manhood. Porn - and to a lesser extent, sport - form part of the tiny shared language of manhood and, as such, can give impressionable young men an idea of masculine identity.

If only we could talk to each other properly. But that's the underlying problem. Men can't talk to each other. Pub conversations are just set pieces - scripted, with their own inner structures and rules. We grow up knowing what to say and how to say it pretty quickly. Say the wrong thing, or say it in the wrong way, and it can be curtains. Men's talk is more pantomime than parley.

Teaching manhood in schools might be a start but it's up to us all to give boys the chance to understand and discuss what it means to be a man. If that can't happen elsewhere then schools should certainly fill the breach. But classroom lessons aren't a substitute for learning from someone, seeing them, copying what you admire and rejecting what you don't and working out what's good for you.

Big boys might not cry...

... but they sure get through a lot of tissues!

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