Growing gorgeous boys into good men
Celia Lashlie admits loving adolescent boys as a species – but she knows well how vulnerable they are while growing up.
Her experience working in prisons and in single-sex boys schools convinces her that what boys need most is a firm but loving male presence to launch them into responsible adulthood.
Men and boys
Celia Lashlie maintains that for young men to grow effectively through adolescence into manhood, the influence of the father is crucial. “Many boys I observed for my book,” she says, “spoke freely about what mattered to them about their fathers – or what they missed from them. Many men are either missing altogether or are ‘emotionally absent’ because of their own inadequacy.
“The boys yearn for their fathers to ‘see’ them; they want their dads to enter their world. A father may be all too keen for his son to follow him into his world, but when the boy says: ‘Come and see my mate’s car, Dad’, Dad’s not interested. When his father rebuffs him, a boy is heartbroken. In effect, the father is saying: ‘If you want to talk to me you have to be interested in what interests me’.
“As regards the schools the boys go to, one key issue is to get more men back into teaching. The boys’ schools I visited had mostly male teachers, but the co-eds have fewer and fewer male teachers. Primary schools are even worse off. The men are pulling out – and for all the wrongs reasons. We have taken ‘risk’ out the lives of boys; every man is seen as a latent paedophile; we have created environments where many men become so frustrated they walk away. The pay factor is there, but I don’t think the economic issue is the driving one.
“I think the key issue for male teachers is the paedophilia scare and the ‘no touching’ regime. They feel it is now dangerous just being there for kids. They no longer dare to hug a child who has fallen over. Men are naturally physical, and boys love men. They will happily climb all over them. And of course the men teachers really fear accusations from young girls.
“I say to the teachers: ‘talk about what constitutes good male touch and get on with it. Ignore the PC rubbish!’ I observe how very skilled male teachers do employ touch. They simply go ahead and do it. Physical touch, whether it be a headlock they might put a boy in or simply a hand on the shoulder, is a huge part of healthy communication with boys. The physicality of boys means they need that touch more than girls do. It doesn’t need to be a deep and meaningful hug! Boys – men! – often punch each other for fun.”
Celia Lashlie spoke with feeling about the prevailing political climate. Both political parties favour competitive funding in schools and have layered it with bureaucracy.
“As a country,” she says, “we are focused on a philosophy of ‘user pays’. There is no generosity any more. The old adage was: it takes a village to raise a child. New Zealand has lost its ‘villages’. We have lost our sense of connectedness with one another. Relationships have become diminished.
“We need to start again at the beginning. We should be funding Plunket nurses and the equivalent Maori services. These are the only women who can get into the kitchens of the homes where there is real need. But the current funding mechanism allows these women 15 minutes per visit and no longer. The families at risk may have 20 agencies dabbling in their lives – but no one who is actually there for them when they really need someone.
“It is easy to identify ‘at risk’ families; we need a case worker to go in and sit with them, then negotiate for them with government agencies. We have become a society that goes in and preaches to people what they should be doing – instead of helping them.
“Take the extreme case of a child who has been physically harmed: if the mother had been persuaded she was the most important person in that child’s life, that child would not have been left in the hands of the wrong person, who then proceeded to harm the child. The mother herself may have come from a situation where her decisions and opinions did not matter.
“In Polynesian families we need to find the matriarch of the extended family, make use of her and work with these families in a prolonged, sustained way – properly resourced, working to bring about change.
“In New Zealand we are locked into a system of three-year election cycles, six-month funding cycles before someone demands accountability for spending. The general public has become a nation of bleaters. We fear to take risks. And more than anything, we lack moral leadership. The politicians are forever covering their own backs or ‘hanging the bureaucrats out to dry’.”
Remedial facilities in schools
Celia says: “There is a pressing need for social workers in schools. Children with special needs require mentors. The government expects the schools to furnish this backup, but do not provide the funding. Teachers themselves are, in fact, social workers. But teachers have such huge demands made on them through Tomorrow’s Schools, they have no space or encouragement to spend time and ask: ‘How are you getting on?’
“Suppose you have a mentor in a high school alongside one boy, someone who is well paid, who sits in class alongside the boy, builds a relationship with his family and spends time with him outside school. We are told we can’t afford a salary of $60,000 to employ such a person. Yet if the boy offends and finishes up in prison, it is a wasted life, and we spend $70,000 a year keeping him locked up.”
What our children are missing out on is leadership and example from the adults around them. The important thing is they should have a belief system and therefore have a reason for following some standard of behaviour. In recent years we have seen an absolute dearth of moral courage, even a dearth of morality, from our leaders. We are not holding up before our children any standards of upright behaviour for them to follow.
“Young Maori offenders are sometimes reconnected to their culture, becoming aware who their tupuna were and where they came from. Once they have a place to belong, be it moral, religious or cultural, they know where they stand. And that is what we all need: somewhere to belong.
“There also needs to be someone who holds adolescents to account. Offenders often come from a shocking background. But they sometimes need to hear the word NO said to them – and perhaps they never have. A prison inmate once said to me: ‘You are the first person I’ve met who cares enough to say NO to me’. Too often parents kow-tow to their kids. Particularly fathers. So their boys stretch their behaviour. But what the boy is looking for is for the father to say to him: ‘Enough; you’re my boy and this is what I expect from you’.
“Many boys today are quite frightened about the world; they see the mess it’s in, so they wonder about their place and why they are here. That accounts for the devil-may-care attitude some of them adopt. We keep talking about the binge drinking culture young people fall into – but where did they get it from? They got it by observing us. We are the problem, not them. We are not brave enough to own our own behaviour. If we say to them: don’t do as I do, do as I say, they simply won’t buy it.
“We adults know that it is really a wonderful world, and we have developed an ability to manage it. But as adolescents, they don’t yet know how to manage it. They are frightened of the future, and that accounts for a lot of their problems, alcohol abuse or even suicidal behaviour.”
The good news
“There are some amazing people throughout New Zealand – ordinary people, largely invisible – working away in communities. They understand the world as it is and simply get on with doing what needs to be done. They ignore the government and all the obstacles which get put in their path. They are making sure a bad situation does not get a whole lot worse. They are the true unsung heroes.”