Some time ago a good friend of mine sent me an article by Mic Dover called, ‘Once Were Toddlers’ from a monthly magazine ‘Sydney’s Child’, www.sydneyschild.com.au
The article was all about the New Zealand based Good Man Project. The idea for the project grew out of a conversation between a college headmaster and ex-prison manager. The manager, Celia Lashlie, had been working with at-risk young children when she was shocked to see recognisable preschool versions of familiar prison characters. She is now famous in New Zealand for a speech she gave in 2001 in which she stated,
“There is a blond angelic-faced five year old sitting in a classroom in New Zealand and he is coming to prison . . . on his way, he will probably kill someone.”
Shock headlines hit the TV, radio and newspapers and Lashlie became a household name for a few weeks, but she has survived it all to write a best selling book on the topic. Here is an extract from Sydney’s Child about the Good Man Project.
‘One of the main project activities has been informal conversations with boys. The information gathered has provided a feast of food for thought. For instance, says Lashlie, it soon became clear that
“of all the adult males in an adolescent boy’s life, his father is the least likely to be his chosen role model”.
Yet, digging deeper, the same evidence found that,
“No matter what he is saying or how he is behaving on the surface, your son is hanging on [his father’s] every word, he is looking to see how a man should act . . . it doesn’t matter what you actually do together, there is just one thing he wants – dedicated moments of your time”.
Central to the project’s findings is the concept of the ‘Bridge of Adolescence’. Parents are asked to visualise their son’s journey from childhood to manhood over a bridge. Who is on the bridge is the crucial point – traditionally it has been the mums. However, the Good Man Project suggested,
“the key finding of the project could be the importance of getting the mothers of adolescent boys to withdraw and fathers to come forward – physically and emotionally”.
But it doesn’t have to be a father – male mentors can be uncles, elder brothers, mates’ elder brothers, coaches, teachers or even trusted friends of the family. All they have to be is male and prepared to give their time in order to help the boys cross that bridge safely.
Of course, for many men, this is easier said than done, whether for practical or psychological reasons – and in the case of absent fathers, there’s not always a handy male hanging around who a mother would trust to be a good role model.
How the young men interviewed saw role models was illuminating. There was a definite split between men they admired (sportsmen, musicians) and men they wanted to be like (men they know personally such as grandfathers, uncles, elder brothers, teachers, coaches). There also seemed to be a third category – men who possessed the things they wanted (wealth, cars, power). But chillingly, more than 66 per cent said they did not want to be the sort of man their dad was. But this figure changed enormously if dad “could get back his sense of humour”.
So the project then asked the kids to come up with definitions of a ‘good’ man, as opposed to a ‘hard’ man or a ‘real’ man. The three most common answers involved the words trust, loyalty and humour. Close behind were laid-back, motivated, honest, has dreams and goals, hardworking, generous, compassionate, humble, self-reliant, respected and has respect for others.
The project also considers ‘emotional literacy’, a phrase that can put many men off from the word go – just what does it mean? Lashlie prefers ‘emotional confidence’ and defines it as the ability to ask (and answer) reflective questions without feeling that this is something males don’t do – in other words, a ‘female’ activity.
“To be honest”,
“some of the dads find this much harder than the sons.”
Hand in hand with this skill is a word or language bank that contains vocabulary other than ‘yeah, nah, maybe, gay, cool, yeah right, oh man, whatever’.
But how do we get teenage boys (and their dads) to feel comfortable using words such as safe, relaxed, satisfied, optimistic, resentful, connected, empty, trapped, infuriated, peaceful, puzzled, gullible, hesitant, lonely, forgiven, guilty, fantastic, energised?
One starting point could be discussions about dad’s childhood, which can naturally lead on to a son’s thoughts about his own. We are not talking here about those ‘kids have got it easy these days compared to when I was a boy” -type lectures, but about thoughts on how families have changed – gender roles for instance – and asking good questions. What was good, what was bad, what was the best or worst thing that happened today? Anything that may cause your boy to pause, reflect and summon up words to describe feelings.’
The usual reaction you get from your teenage children is that you as a father are not needed any more and yet the reverse is the case. Celia Lashlie’s words are indeed a powerful description of the true feelings of your teenage children.
You are important to your children’s future.
To quote Lashlie,
“No matter what he is saying or how he is behaving on the surface your son is hanging on [his father’s] every word, he is looking to see how a man should act.
Just make sure that you are there for them.