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The making of a man

The importance of good paternal role models in young men’s lives

First, can I tell you about how I fell into this work? I am old now, but when I started out as psychologist in the 1970s, I only knew that I was woefully unprepared. And in an odd way this helped my patients because they knew from the outset that I was not an expert, but a collaborator, hopefully a good-hearted one, with a real desire to figure out what was going on.

I worked in a pioneering children’s mental health clinic, the Wellington Street Clinic, in Launceston, Tasmania. Launceston then was a working class mill town. Few people had had much education, and yet I soon came to admire them a great deal, their dedication to their children especially. My boss, Dr Colin McKenzie, set a rule that we would only treat the whole family; you couldn’t just “drop your kid off” to be “seen” by the psychiatrist or psychologist. So for the first time – at least in our part of the world – children and teenagers were seen as part of a family system. We didn’t accept the prevailing view something was wrong with the child – even if they were lawbreaking or had behaviour problems, or mental health issues. We believed help might be needed for everyone, mum and dad included.

And so, unusually for this time, fathers were being brought into the equation. As Robert Frost wrote, this made “all the difference”. I could see very clearly that these fathers loved their kids, but were often clueless about how to turn that love into action. Perhaps they had no idea how to play with, or be close to, their children. Or they could only resort to hitting or yelling to manage them. They were repeating negative patterns they had seen in their own childhoods. But the crucial thing was they cared and, given some practical help, they soon became much better fathers. Nobody had ever thought to treat this as a practical problem.

But then there was a darker group of dads, who either did not deign to show up, seeing parenting as women’s work, or hovered in the background with an air of menace. On one occasion I was running a parenting support group for young mothers who were struggling. One of the group was particularly edgy and finally told us that her husband was in the car outside and had a gun. He was not happy about her being there and was making sure she behaved herself. It made me think we really had to help the men, or how could the women ever be safe and empowered?

In the 1970s women were making great strides: feminism was transforming their aspirations, but the men were not moving forward in the same way. I suddenly began to see this hidden but huge problem – that men as a class were dysfunctional. Social movements had reshaped our world many times in recent centuries: the trade union movement, the anti-slavery movement, the environment movement, the peace movement and, the greatest and most historic, the women’s movement. In each of these positive upheavals in the social order there were charismatic figures, iconic books and key organisations that helped to catalyse a shift. But there was also something more – suddenly large numbers of people had simply “got” that things had to change. I have a saying: “a movement is an outbreak of common sense.”

There is always a personal element and, triggered by a family grief that threatened to unravel my own mental health, I realised I had no real male friends – or rather, that those I called my friends had no ability to talk or support me. The deep aloneness of men was something just not talked about. So I set about writing a book, called Manhood. The first sentence is: “Most men don’t have a life.” It was a book about setting men free, just as feminism had been about setting women free.

The response to Manhood in Australia was remarkable; it made me a household name and to this day men come up to me in the street, in airports and hotel lobbies, to say thank you. It touched a major nerve because it brought to light the terrible rifts between fathers and sons in the twentieth century. It prompted men to go back and reconcile with their estranged fathers, to find peace and express love in a way that generation had found so hard to do. I have probably seen more grown men cry than anyone alive! Manhood prompted hundreds of men’s groups to spring up for sharing and support, not just in Australia but also in the UK and Germany. It was badly needed – on average seven men a day end their lives in Australia (the UK rate is about half that, but still a major problem). The idea of rehabilitating masculinity caught hold: not blaming men but searching for the causes of their dysfunction. I saw this with my own eyes in the talks I gave for parents: men would often simply start to weep, astonished at themselves. They were clearly making connections that might enable them to be better parents and partners. Their hearts were softening.

An obvious question arose. What if we could avoid this damage in the first place by starting with the children? (Common sense broke out again.) Raising Boys, written in 1998, is the top-selling parenting book of the 21st Century to date.

A baby boy has an astonishing risk profile, just by virtue of gender – three times more likely to die before 25, three times more likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, and an incredible nineteen times more likely to end up in jail. How had we not questioned this, or asked ourselves why?

Every parent of a boy worried about him, pretty much from the moment of birth, but nobody was given a map of to how to raise safe, healthy boys with understanding of their unique stages and unique risk profile. The world had been on a mission to eliminate gender, with the best intentions. But we were serving neither girls nor boys if we ignored their very different developmental timetables.

The deep aloneness of men was something just not talked about

There were a dozen messages in Raising Boys – their slower cognitive growth, affecting when they should start school. Their need to run around and move their bodies so their brains can grow. Their need for trusting relationships in order to be able to learn. Their need for rites of passage in the mid-teens, to teach respect, accountability and a life-affirming attitude. Above all the need for role models who could show them what “a good man” looked like. How to have backbone, how to have heart.

The most visible and wonderful change as we moved into the 21st century was the emergence of loving, affectionate and engaged “hands-on” dads. Dads who weren’t content to be a walking wallet, but wanted to be close to their children, not a scary gruff figure like their own fathers. Who wanted to be loved, not feared,

by their children. Not alcohol-soaked and abusive. Today we see dads pushing strollers, good with babies, cooking meals with or for their kids, someone their children can talk to and laugh with, who read stories at bedtime. As a result of this, little girls are thriving and safe, and we are seeing a new kind of boy emerge: verbal, affectionate, comfortable in their own skin. Research has shown that these men are not “assistant mothers” but do it in their own way. (My family tells me I cook in a more “chunky” way!) There can be an exuberance and physicality in fathering and grandfathering that creates a sense of safety and relaxation in kids. Boys who see this in their dads, grandads, uncles and male schoolteachers understand respect, safety and making a contribution.

They see that being male is not a shameful experience but has strong ethics. In the past, we underrated role modelling. But boys need to “see good men to be good men”.

What of the other camp: the men who abandon their children and responsibilities? The American Right makes a big deal of this abandonment and their arguments often have a racist tone, but the evidence is that family breakup is driven by poverty and economic stress. We know outcomes are far worse for kids who don’t have dads around, both boys and girls. (Though it’s important to stress that mothers raising boys alone can raise wonderful men, and have done so for thousands of years. But the mothers who I know who’ve succeeded have somehow found ways to bring good men into their son’s lives). Sometimes the answers lie in decent housing, income support, and so on. But much can also be done by affirming the value of fathers through programmes that support and show them how to get it right. We men do not tolerate shame very well; we want to know we are at least somewhat successful as fathers, or we might walk away to save face. There are brilliant programmes in the UK like “Man and Boy” that provide activities for men and their sons to do together, to strengthen that relationship. Fatherhood is a bit like a fire, it has to be kindled and stoked and then it takes off on its own.

It helps to understand the developmental stages across the life of a man. In Raising Boys and Manhood I describe rite-of-passage programmes that have proven very helpful. My core belief is that boys need a structured phase of moving into young manhood, with specific teaching about responsibility and how to integrate into the world of adults and the opposite sex. Without that, we have what we see everywhere – babies in grown-up bodies. (Think of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.) If we challenge teenage boys in the context of close relationships with teachers, uncles, sports coaches and other mentors, they can dramatically change course. The central questions are: what kind of man do you want to be; how do you want women to see you (because women see men very clearly); what is your life for? My aboriginal mentor, David Mowaljarlai, a Ngarinyin man, taught me that the job of men is to nurture life. To be life-affirming; to live for others. The result is a sense of great joy.

The hunger for role models and a masculine identity is so strong that if we don’t provide it, someone else will. The phenomenon – thankfully short-lived – of Andrew Tate was an indictment of how little we have offered young men in the way of caring role models who invest time and energy in their lives. (Tate was interviewed by the BBC recently. It was interesting to see how triggered he was by a woman holding him to account. His blood pressure rose and he began talking very fast in an odd robotic way. It was clear he was having an anxiety attack.) Real men are comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to body build or have trophy women and shiny cars. It’s shameful how we abandon boys to the degree that they are sucked in by this. And as for the rise of bully-men in politics – well that too is a sign of how disempowered and hopeless many blue-collar men feel. We can’t pretend surprise when inequality, corporate profiteering and globalisation smash up working men, who then start reaching for surrogates.

Boys who do not have engaged and caring men around them – such as uncles, youth workers, scout leaders, sports coaches and music teachers – will not transition well in their teens. Most boys do not gain social skills as easily as girls do. If a boy or young man isn’t very good socially and gets really hooked on computer games, he might not spend enough time around real people. So he doesn’t gain confidence with girls. His brain does not develop in the social regions and he lacks emotional intelligence. The pandemic and lockdowns further isolated these boys, taking life online where key elements of social engagement are missing.

Fatherhood is a bit like a fire, it has to be kindled and stoked and then it takes off

And then there’s the tidal wave of pornography. Pornography creates a moral vacuum, or worse, an ethic of deadened hearts. It leads to a sense of disillusionment with both oneself and others; it portrays humans as toys. One of the most important and special times of life – the discovery of young love – is trashed. Girls show up in doctors’ clinics because young men have injured them in their porn-educated ideas of how to do sex.
And then there’s school! I have worked now with hundreds of schools, from the best in the world to some of the most under-resourced. My message is that boys learn relationally: they have to know that teachers like them and know them and care about them personally. A teacher steps into the place in a teenager’s mind (girls too) that exists for trusted family members. If they aren’t engaged at that level, if teachers just don’t care, are too busy or too caught up with box-ticking, boys sense that as hostility and rejection. Secondary schools should be designed so that even timetabling and classroom layout enable kids to have strong relationships with a handful of teachers.

We also need to raise awareness of the third stage of boyhood, aged fourteen onwards, which is when things most often go wrong with adolescent males. In my talks on “Raising Boys”, something that always makes the audience gasp is the fact that testosterone levels go up by 800% at age fourteen. It’s the moment when we simply cannot let dads have all the running, and there have to be other men who step up, such as uncles (and even aunties; I had a wonderful auntie at this age) and other men in the neighbourhood. I love concrete strategies, and one of those is for groups of dads to take their sons away together so they can benefit from talking to other caring men. Dads and sons are often not a good match in terms of interests or their mode of being; this means another man can foster your son’s sense of worth at a time when you cannot. It’s well worth creating time and space where a group of dads mix with all their boys in a relaxed setting over a period of days. And to perhaps do that repeatedly through their growing-up years.

Many parents and teachers cite issues with boys involving conditions such as ASD, ADHD and OCD. Kim John Payne, a British educator and therapist, taught me something really helpful in his book Simplicity Parenting. He explained that we all have quirks or vulnerabilities in our neurodivergent selves and, of course, diagnosis and sometimes medical help is needed.  But often stress and lack of quiet relatedness can turn a quirk into a full-blown syndrome. We need to slow things down.

I always look at whether the pace of our lives helps our mental balance. I have experience of this myself having been diagnosed with Asperger’s late in life and am only now making sense of my teenage years, which were often desperately lonely. I was saved, kept alive barely, by youth workers and teachers who just made sure I was not left out, and who were kind and friendly. And in late teens and young adult life, I was so socially blind. Some very nice girls went un-kissed! I just couldn’t read the signals. I was also often insensitive and clueless and I feel real shame about the hurt I caused along the way. I had a good heart, and that fortunately triumphed, but I was blundering. I wish I could have my time again, but don’t we all! The question of how to steer boys through puberty and their emerging sexuality is always taxing. Especially in the modern age, where boys are only ever a few clicks away from dark pornography.

In discussions with teenage boys, we have found that two distinct paths emerge. The first is the assumption is that everyone wants to have lots of sex with different people (and will be upbeat if they do) but with very low intimacy or relatedness.  Yet we have found that this doesn’t make people happy at all. If it’s done in a predatory way, which is what many boys take from porn, girls soon hate them and find sex unsatisfying – if not downright painful and unpleasant. In places where feminism has not been properly role-modelled in girls’ lives, many young women think they just have to come across sexually to interest or keep a boy. This means at least half of girls report sex being a performance they feel they have to carry out, and not something they have agency or take pleasure in.

We say to teenage boys: yes, hook-up culture exists and some boys use girls for pleasure, not caring about them at all.  You too can be a predator. But if you behave like this, you will be seen, sooner or later, as a creep. If you want to have love, respect and a happy sex life, treating girls as equals and knowing them as people wins every time. This is the second path. When boys are able to discuss sex in this way they end up not having sex with girls prematurely (to the girls’ surprise) saying they want to feel trust and friendship before doing something as intimate as sex. They want to feel something. They want it to be special.

Maleness is deeply woven into the problems of planetary survival

Beyond the personal realm, we should be preparing boys for their role as custodians of the planet’s health and biodiversity and admitting our generation’s failure in this role. The fact is we are committing intergenerational genocide on these kids. They know the facts: that we, the older generation will be gone, and leave them to face living in a hellscape.

(I could not live with myself if I didn’t do something about this. With a small group of friends, I have founded a small NGO called Standing Up for the Young to support the movement for a teenage vote. So sixteen-year-olds can influence climate policy.)

Maleness is deeply woven into the problems of planetary survival. There is a patriarchal attitude that comes from the colonial nature of our countries, that holds the world is for their exploitation. For centuries, boys were raised to be the cannon fodder of empire. That’s where the “stiff upper lip” comes from – boys were essentially being trained to be slaughtered. So there is an immense hidden grief in men, and an immense hidden rage in women (who were also raised to accept losing their sons and husbands). Finally, today, we are seeing better kinds of human beings:  appropriately angry women and appropriately heart-open men, in that flexible, alive, joyful kind of strength, not the brittle kind you see in the old lions. We see that confidence increasingly, in the organisations on the streets, XR, Just Stop Oil, and all the other direct-action groups. We men need a purpose outside ourselves and clearly this is the purpose of our time. We are in the war of our lives to end fossil fuels – the death industry – and to prise its clammy fingers off our lives.

As boys and men, if we have warm open hearts and strong backbones, both ethically and in our behaviour to others, that combination will lead us to care for all of life. We will stand alongside women and fight for human survival. And we will laugh and dance and make love along the way – because you have to celebrate life while you are saving it. Men have been the problem and men can be the solution. Standing alongside women, children, and our brothers, we are yearning, aching for this change.

Steve Biddulph is the author of “Raising Boys”, “Raising Girls”, “Manhood” and “Fully Human”. He is a dad, grandad and husband, and his books are in six million homes around the globe. He lives

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • As a mother of a teenage boy, Steve’s comment that the Andrew Tate phenomenon is ‘over’ made me laugh out loud. I respect Steve a lot, but on this he is way behind the curve. Jailing him has absolutely no effect when his network of accolytes is still there pumping out content every day.

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