The medicine our boys need now

Dr Ray Swann, Deputy Headmaster and Head of Crowther Centre

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said recently “We must get this house in order” — but we can’t address toxic behaviours without changing the underlying narratives that drive those behaviours. It all starts with how we teach our boys about respect.

For the past 20 years, I’ve mainly worked with adolescent boys. I have walked trails with them, listening to the bubbling brooks of conversation, and talked around the campfire. I’ve seen them achieve and seen them fail. I’ve witnessed amazing parenting and guardians who have walked alongside these boys and those who have preferred the remote-control option.

Over this time, we’ve seen big societal changes including vital shifts towards inclusiveness. But this is being undermined by the elephant in the room. The boys I work with now, like all kids, are out of their depth navigating an adult world of pornography, a lack of clear boundaries, with no stop cues. There are reels, reams, and feeds all designed to harvest their impressionable openness. All of this occurs without supervision in a handheld device with hours of battery life: discrete and personal.

So how do we teach our boys to grow into healthy men for our age? Our boys are pumped full of images of conquests through superhero-inspired movies, driven by archetypes of the lone, unfeeling champion. Anything that doesn’t fit his ultra-masculine world is “weak”: softer characteristics, connections, love, compassion.

Let’s focus on the kinds of conversations we need to be having with boys at home, at school and among themselves. If we don’t let our boys talk, mistakes and all, they won’t change and grow.

According to Robert W. Blum of Johns Hopkins University in the US, parents and guardians need to continually “monitor” our adolescent boys. This happens by establishing clear boundaries for technology (phones are switched off after hours) but also picking up on the casual, sexist dialogue we see every day all around us, describing how we feel about it, and in turn inviting a response.

Research has shown children start to figure out as young as 3 that masculinity is “hard” and femininity is “soft”.

To grow into healthy adults, our boys need to be connected to their feelings and to others, they need to be motivated by good values and they need to be authentic, values-based beings.

Dr Ray Swann is host of the Understanding Boys podcast, Head of Crowther Centre, and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne and an educator of boys for more than 25 years.

This opinion editorial, was published in the Herald-Sun on 30 March with the headline, Let’s help our boys be softer

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