He’ll Be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men
Like cooped-up teenage boys, three stories jostle and elbow each other inside this book. Though the biggest wins, it gets badly knocked about in the process. In the main story, former prison service officer Celia Lashlie tells us what makes teenage boys tick, and what they need most, as they make their way across the “bridge” of male adolescence. It’s based partly on her own experience of raising a son and daughter as a sole parent, and her delight in “gorgeous boys” is attractive and powerful. I responded to it with laughter, warmth and hope. But this was overshadowed by anger and sadness.
Lashlie’s main source is the “amazing experience” of spending 18 months in 25 self-selected boys’ secondary schools (including six integrated or private schools) for the Good Man project, intended to “facilitate discussion within and between boys’ schools about what makes a good man in the 21st century”. She spent three days in each school, talking to staff, some parents and 180 classes of boys, chosen by the schools, ranging from Year 7 to Year 13 (the majority were senior students). She asked for the widest possible range of age and academic ability, but gives no further details about the groups involved. To get free communication, she says she “could neither write down nor record the discussion” with them, so had to rely on notes made later.
So this was nothing like a formal research project, and she makes no claims that it was. She is not into quoting other research, nor is she concerned about the effects of talking to boys only in their own everyday peer groups. Yet she has no hesitation in using the project, together with her own experience, as the basis of confident, sweeping generalisations, not only about teenage boys, but about girls, men, women, schools and society. Judging by my own experience of mothering two sons, as well as what I’ve read of the recent research, much of what she says about male adolescence is insightful and likely to prove helpful to parents and teachers alike – for example, when she suggests that pragmatism, intuition and living in the moment are powerful keys to boys’ behaviour.
My misgivings stem partly from the second story – her insistence that “The central issue in the lives of adolescent boys is getting mother[s] off the bridge of adolescence, and fathers onto it.” It’s not that I think she’s wrong. It’s that once again, women are being held responsible for what men do, or fail to do. There are 24 pages on what mothers should and should not do, and another 10 for single mothers. Much of this deals with stepping aside and making room for men to play a greater role in boys’ lives. Yet when it comes to fathers, Lashlie says it isn’t her place, as a woman, to tell men what to do – “enough of that has gone on already”.
After yet more advice and warnings aimed at women, she makes the all-too-familiar plea for fathers to spend more time with their sons, “even if it’s just five minutes a day”, and to know some basic information about them, like their favourite food and their best friend. If this kind of plea is necessary, is it any wonder mothers may try too hard to fill the yawning gap? I know too much about the heartbreak of concerned mothers trying to get physically or virtually absent fathers to have more to do with their kids not to get angry about such lopsidedness.
I get even more angry when Lashlie loosely and irresponsibly cites “women’s quest for freedom”, along with several nudge-nudge, we-all-know-what-I-mean references to “political correctness” (never defined), as major barriers to understanding adolescent boys well enough to protect them from their own terrifying propensity for harming themselves and their mates. There’s a constantly surfacing implication that the boys who say “women are in charge” (because their mothers do most of the parenting, and girls might say no when they’re asked for sex) are actually right: women really are in charge, especially of the family, education, and the culture, and this disadvantages boys.
Unsurprisingly, given the origins of the book, this false premise prompts the third story: the idea (unconvincingly denied in places) that boys’ schools are much better for boys than co-ed schools. They “encourage the building of a sense of pride in being male”, and are “extremely well-positioned to lead this discussion” about maleness, although those working in co-ed schools “can and should make a contribution” – which is big of her, since she goes on to suggest that boys at co-ed schools may simply be “learning earlier … just what expectations women have of them”. Yet the Good Man project did not involve talking to any of these boys, nor to their teachers, parents, or principals, despite them making up the majority of New Zealand male students.
Lashlie says she’s a feminist, and I doubt whether she’s aware of just how neatly such aspects of her book play into the hands of those who openly blame feminism for every ill affecting boys and men. But what really matters is that these implications undermine her clearly sincere and heartfelt aim of helping boys.
She is struck by boys’ “seemingly ever-present fear that they might be accused by their mates and other males of being gay”. Such accusations form the common “language of insult” in all these boys’ schools, and well beyond them – just going to a boys’ school can trigger them from other students. Proving them wrong is crucial, because the boys know being gay is “the worst thing you can be”. The “endless pursuit of adolescent girls” is “one obvious way to prove their mates wrong”. So is “overtly macho behaviour, such as drinking to get drunk and driving cars too fast”. This fits remarkably well with a comprehensive New Zealand review of research on gender and education (Adrienne Alton-Lee and Angelique Praat, Explaining and addressing gender differences in the New Zealand compulsory school sector: a literature review, Ministry of Education Research Division, 2000), which showed that boys’ fear of being called effeminate was a major driver in their widespread refusal to be seen as serious about study, or even reading.
But there is just one highly ambivalent sentence about the consequences for “any student who might be uncertain about his sexual orientation (and I believe a great many are, even if only in a very temporary way).” She cannot even mention what it does to boys who already know they are gay. Yet when Lashlie suggests men do something about what she correctly labels as intense homophobia, it’s almost worse than nothing. She is “not asking men to condone [sic] homosexuality if it’s something they struggle to understand and/or deal with themselves”, but only that they “show courage in identifying whatever personal bias they might have and …don’t expect their sons to take on the same prejudices before they’ve had a chance to form their own views.”
If homophobia is driving much of boys’ riskiest, self-sabotaging behaviour and making life hell for gay students, it requires much more serious and sustained attention than this – just as much attention, in fact, as getting men more involved with boys; and rather more than getting women out of their way.
Anne Else is a Wellington non-fiction writer and editor.