If adolescent boys could tell their mothers one thing, what would it be?
“Chill out, and stop asking so many questions,” says Celia Lashlie, who posed the question to large groups of boys while co-ordinating the recently completed Good Man project, which facilitated discussion with and between boy’s schools of what makes a good man in the 21st century.
“They want their mothers to understand they know she’s there, and that she cares, and that they will talk to her if something big happens in their lives – but they also need some space from her on their journey to manhood.”
That’s not to say our young men should be left to their own devices – quite the contrary, says Ms Lashlie. “What they do need is a lot less molly-coddling from mum, and significantly more time spent with the ‘good men’ in their lives.”
The revelation is one of many to come from a significant number of “insightful and inspiring” conversations held in the course of the Good Man project – the result of an “energetic” discussion at a Head of Boy’s School Conference in Nelson in 2001 which discussed the themes of what makes a good man, and what does it mean to be a young man in today’s world?
The outspoken and straight-shooting Ms Lashlie visited the last of the 25 boy’s schools involved in the project throughout New Zealand, in March last year. After formerly working as a female prison guard in male prisons, Ms Lashlie is no stranger to the devastating consequences facing “too many” young men, for whom prison is a rite of passage – “a place they come to prove they are men.”
“The validity of being male appears to have been undermined in recent times – a reality echoed in male suicide rates, male imprisonment rates and the road toll. The challenge was presented to tap into the potential that exists within schools to identify more positive rites of passage – that celebrate manhood and maleness. The result was the Good Man project.”
She hopes her report ‘It’s About Boys’, written following the project, will influence the future direction taken by boy’s schools in the education of their students.
“While I will continue to work on projects in schools, I think it is men’s business to take the findings of the Good Man project forward. I don’t want to be seen as a woman telling men how to do it. As a woman I have had the privilege to observe and comment on what a man’s world looks like.”
The impact of the study will reach further than the education system – it will also provide much-needed information for parents, as they negotiate adolescence with their sons.
“A theme that emerged very quickly during my visits to the schools was that a great many mothers are over-involved in their son’s lives, while many students said they lack a real relationship with their father. We witnessed the importance of mothers withdrawing, and fathers becoming more involved at this critical stage in their son’s development.”
Easier said than done for many mothers – who struggle as their little boy grows into a young man they don’t recognise, and with whom communication may become more difficult.
If a mother asks her adolescent son how his day was – “good” might be as good as she gets. But “good” is not good enough for many mothers, who continue to question their sons until they are satisfied with his response, says Ms Lashlie.
“There were some sad moments for me in the discussions with students when I realised the degree to which the shutting down of communication appeared to be attributable to the well- meaning questioning of mothers. After many conversations with mothers during the study, it seems we convince ourselves that if we keep talking to him, all will be well. It matters not that he doesn’t willingly answer us – that just makes us more determined to keep asking the questions.”
She says many of the boys do have something to say, but as they lack an adequate emotional word bank – they can’t find the words to express themselves.
Ms Lashlie wishes she was armed with the information she has now as her own son entered adolescence.
“The concept of the bridge of adolescence occurred to me a number of times during the raising of my own children. I knew I could walk onto the bridge with my daughter, as she was becoming a woman, and I understood her journey, but when it came to my son, I didn’t know whether I should be on the bridge at all. The mistake I made was to not only walk onto the bridge with my son, but to stand in the middle and direct traffic.”
Ms Lashlie says the bridge of adolescence concept provided plenty of interesting discussion during the study, between the groups of boys, mothers and fathers.
“Some fathers said the mother would be the troll under the bridge, or would walk alongside giving instructions; one boy said if his mother didn’t get off the bridge he would push her off. A group of mothers said they wouldn’t get off the bridge, but they would move over to the side. The conclusion we reached was that mothers should walk onto the bridge, let their son’s hand go, sit on the side and enjoy watching him – occasionally engaging in what is going on if help is needed. The challenge for mothers is to willingly usher their sons onto the bridge knowing that for a time, she will only watch his journey from a distance.”
Ms Lashlie says mothers mustn’t go onto the bridge first, or elbow the father out of the way to get there. “Let them go first, and have discretion – accept that conversation between father and son doesn’t have to be repeated.”
The challenge then for fathers, is to become much more visible in their son’s lives.
“How they do this is amazingly simple if the desires expressed by the boys themselves are listened to. They just want their father to see them, to notice them, and to know ‘stuff’ about them – who their best friend is, what their favourite food is, what music they like, what they scored in their last game, what subject they like – teacher they hate.”
But what about mothers whose children have absent fathers? Don’t they become responsible for filling both roles in their son’s lives?
“As a single mother myself, the sadness I feel now is that I should have been looking sideways instead of lamenting my son’s father’s absence as he reached adolescence. I had two good men – platonic friends – who would have helped if I had asked – and come up on to the bridge with my son when he needed them. But I thought I had to be in control and superwoman – I thought any involvement would have made me a lesser parent.”
Ms Lashlie suggests writing the boy’s name down on a piece of paper, then drawing three concentric circles around it – making lists in each of the three circles of the good men in his life – with the closest to him in the first circle.
“Then you will see the emergence of a platform on which the boy can stand.”
She says mothers should never interfere in the relationship a boy has with his father – no matter what she thinks of him.
“Regardless of who their dad is – there is a tremendous urge in boys to want to know him, no matter how bad the news is. The mother has to take a deep breath, step back and let them have that relationship. If a boy doesn’t find out who is dad is at age 15 warts and all – they will still be looking at 55, with a string of broken relationships behind them.”
Ms Lashlie says it’s time we “cracked open the PC stuff – and begin to reinforce good male touching.
“I have seen some amazing examples of touch in boy’s schools – completely against PC. I saw one principal with a boy in a headlock, rubbing his head, saying ‘are we going to tuck our shirt in sometime soon?’ The boy was grinning from ear to ear. Often the minute there is any suggestion of inappropriate touching, everyone backs off and leaves the teacher exposed. It starts from the base that all men are paedophiles, and that is just not fair. We really need to value our male teachers a lot more.”
Accommodating the sheer physicality of boys should also be considered by schools, according to Ms Lashlie.
“If you spend a length of time with a group of Year 10 boys you can see the testosterone building in them – and their bodies start to move. They’re not being naughty – they just can’t sit still. I often commented during the project that it seemed the most effective technique for controlling Year 10 boys while trying to get at least a few scraps of information into their heads, might be to allow them to stand up every ten minutes and put someone in a headlock!”
Because of OSH regulations, schools now work to eliminate every element of risk – with playgrounds extraordinarily safe.
“In today’s world we wrap our boys up too much. If they are unable to take a risk in healthy male pursuits, such as tree climbing, and rough and tumble, they may look for the risk elsewhere – drinking a bottle of bourbon, driving fast, or trying drugs. We need to give them more buzzes that are safe – their world has become too sanitised in my view.”
While there continues to be a lot of debate surrounding boy’s education, Ms Lashlie says it remains too academic.
“That is not where the project left me. While the government has announced the formation of a task force to address the issue, and I await with interest to see that the next steps are – I am more inclined to pin my hopes on some of the wonderful individuals I met during the course of the project – who are doing some amazing work because of their desire to help boys reach their potential.”
While women gained their voice, and girls were told they could ‘do anything’ in the 1970s and 80s, which is “great” on one hand, says Ms Lashlie – it was a strand of developmental work that negated and de-valued men to a degree.
“What caught my attention about the world my son was entering was the shutting of doors of possibilities. Women may have cracked the glass ceiling and pushed beyond them – but our sons are now encountering the same glass ceilings – put in place by women. We almost need to be running the same ‘you can do it’ programmes for boys today.”
After talking with many groups of men and women during the course of the project, Ms Lashlie says that while women have found their voice (“and that’s great), we are not only telling our men what to do – we are also telling them how to do it.
“One of the terrible images I have is of a woman multi-skilling – talking on the phone, a baby on her hip, ironing designer clothing, taking emails on her laptop, with cordon bleu food cooking on the stove. She gives her man one job to do – putting out the rubbish – and she’s telling him how to do it.”
Ms Lashlie says she met many “nice, middle class men” who want to get it right, but have given up trying because they are constantly being told they are doing it wrong.
It’s the same when parents visit their son’s teacher or principal.
“The men say they don’t bother contributing as their wife thinks they will get it wrong. When I talked to groups of women they agreed that they wouldn’t trust their men to do the talking. That is why men are shutting up – if they are going to be challenged, they won’t enter the fight. They will walk away.”
Some women are truly horrified when Ms Lashlie tells them of her observations.
“They put their hands over their faces, and say ‘I can’t believe that’s what we do’.”
Ms Lashlie says she has quite a different view of the world after the project.
“The joy of men when we let them be men is what the project taught me most. We have to reach for the true essence of men – their pragmatism – sense of humour, and way of communicating with each other. Their gorgeous, silent communication and three word sentences. We have to give men time to think – both physically and emotionally.”
Women need to take responsibility for what they are creating – in the way they relate to both their husbands, and sons, says Ms Lashlie.
“I don’t believe as women we should give up the fight for feminism – I have a huge belief in that. But there are problems we need to, and can, address. There is a hunger for information, particularly from women – that’s why I am putting my energies into finishing a book, based on the Good Man project, to help mothers deal with these issues.”
Ms Lashlie aims to have the book completed shortly. As an independent contractor, she is currently working on a number of other funded projects – one for women coming out of prison; and another getting youth into employment in Nelson.
She has high hopes for the future of our adolescent boys, believing our men have “immense capacity” to pick up the challenge of guiding them towards manhood.
“As women – we have to let them get on with it. Men and women may do things differently – but each approach should be equally valued. We went to a place for a while where we tried to pretend there was no difference between men and women – but long live the difference in my view.”
Growing Good Men
If adolescent boys could tell their mothers one thing, what would it be?