Friday 5 March 2021

Developing positive manhood

The long weekend is usually a much-needed opportunity for some R&R, but last weekend I found myself a little down.

As a Principal in a boys' school, the events of the past week or so weigh heavily on me for reasons I can't quite explain or understand. The petition circulating the Eastern States around sexual assault and consent is both shocking and sad. The goings on in Federal parliament compound the shame I feel when some men behave in a way that is so self-indulgent and damaging to others.

I am interviewing families for 2023 at the moment. They continue the trend that has been forged by families for a few years now, that is, they expect all the opportunities any school should give its students but also seek a partner to help them form the best possible son.

Steve Biddulph is one of the world's best-known parent educators. On the weekend he wrote the following.

The world of manhood has a deep divide running through it. Most contemporary men, and most teenage boys thankfully, are caring and ethical. They like and value the women in their lives, and treat them with empathy and respect. They are comfortable around women and negotiate sexuality as a happy and equal dance.

But co-existing with this, and present all around us, is a dark shadow masculinity. Dangerous and predatory men still abound in our culture, in sufficient numbers to make it grimly unsafe to be a girl or a woman. We have seen this in politics, the church, sport, healthcare, aged care, schools, and simply out on the streets.

We must picture a small newborn boy lying in his cot asleep and ask ourselves: what is going to decide whether they will grow up to be a predator or a loving and respectful man? The answer is a sequence of developmental stages that are fraught but entirely manageable if we apply what we know.

First, a baby boy has to be treated with tenderness. Boys' neurological development has been shown by scientists such as the University of California, Los Angeles' Allan Schore to be hampered by their slower development, making them prone to separation anxiety and damaged attachment, and in many ways not suited to the modern world where we hurry and stress ourselves. Empathy is a quality that has to be experienced in order to become a part of us. We learn little by little to be tender and keep our hearts open, so that we can feel for others and never want to harm them.

Damaged men come disproportionately from both ends of the socioeconomic scale – the poor and stressed victims of an unfair society, and the overprivileged but time-poor who tend to not spend a lot of time with their children.

Fathering plays a key role. Most of how we acquire our social roles comes from example. If we have a dad who is respectful, loving and tender towards our mother. Who teaches us patiently and with good humour to be kind and co-operative with each other. Who never hits us or shames us, who helps us to not freeze our hearts when they are inevitably wounded. Then even by primary school age, you will see boys who are safe and kind to be around.

Importantly for CBC Fremantle and the families who entrust us with their sons, Biddulph made special mention of what should happen in secondary school.

Secondary school is the time when manhood is shaped for better or for worse. In my book Manhood, I cite three examples of intensive work done with boys at this time to surround them with adults who explicitly, and within long-term relationships, induct them into decent and life-affirming styles of manhood. St Patrick's College in Launceston, like dozens of other schools around the country, adopted educator Andrew Lines' Rite Journey model for their entire Year 9, extensively adapting the curriculum to do so. Bernie Shakeshaft's BackTrack Boys approach works in this way for boys on the brink of prison in country towns.

A rite-of-passage process is the timeless way in which boys are transitioned into life-affirming kinds of men, and this takes time. Until we provide this, we will continue to have defective and dangerous men in every sphere of public and private life. Rape culture has multiple causes, but it always arises when there are not enough good adults deeply involved in the lives of boys.

That no girl or woman of any age is ever truly safe in the world today is a chilling indictment of us all. Let's not pretend we don't have the answers. And let's get to work.

This year saw the appointment of our new EREA Executive Director. Dr Craig Wattam has had extensive leadership experience in Catholic schools and systems, most recently at St Patrick's in Strathfield, Sydney. I hope that he will soon be able to visit our school and be introduced personally to our community. On the weekend he expressed these sentiments.

The powerful testimonies provided by the many young women in the online petition are disturbing and are an indictment on societal decency. We must all take brave steps in confronting these issues and engage in honest conversations not just with young men and women, but also with our families. 

All of us – schools, families, and the broader community – must carefully consider and revisit issues pertaining to sex education. More specifically, sexual consent education is required for both young men and women and we need to be providing this education in early adolescence. 

All our schools deliver personal development and health curriculum and offer a vast array of wellbeing and adolescent development programmes, but the distressing information contained in these testimonies show that as a society, including school communities, we still have serious issues that we must address when it comes to how women are treated by men. 

As a Catholic education community, at Edmund Rice Education Australia, our collective aim is to partner with parents in helping them educate their children to be responsible, decent citizens who actively promote the dignity of each human person. We can only do this if we are prepared to have the difficult conversations with our youth about their awakening sexualities.

In last year's Graduation speech, I juxtaposed the behaviour of Old Boy Nathan Abreu ('11), who was tragically killed in a traffic accident, and the reported behaviour of some boys who had also attended CBC Fremantle.

Our College tagline is "Today's boys…tomorrow's gentlemen". It is an aspiration; it is not a guarantee. Homophobia is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. Bullying is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. Racism is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. Physical violence is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. Treating others with disrespect is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. Theft is not taught at CBC, nor tolerated when reported. And yet when a CBC Old Boy does any of these things, it is CBC that is blamed. It is CBC that is mentioned. It is CBC that is shamed. And when any one former student shames the school, he taints us all.

The choices you make after you leave this place tonight will define the efficacy of the work of your parents, your teachers and the staff of the school you attended. You can seize the opportunities like Nathan did and become the type of son, friend, brother, partner, neighbour and employee he was. You can bring permanent joy into the lives of all those you love, as Nathan did. Or you can completely waste the love, guidance and support invested in you and become a son, friend, brother, neighbour and employee who embarrasses those same invested people. Tragically, Nathan could not pass on his traits to a son or daughter, but if any of you choose, and is blessed, to one day have a son, and your son behaves in an aberrant way totally inconsistent with the values of our school and our families, you will understand the pain that is felt by all parents when their child makes the wrong choices.

As sad as the events I refer to are, they are also an opportunity for learning. I respectfully plead with all our parents to have a conversation with their sons around the treatment of women. Tailor the conversation to the context of your son's age and social interactions, but for our older boys, that conversation should include consent; what it is; what it looks like and most importantly what it is not.

At CBC Fremantle we will, as Steve Biddulph suggests, keep the flame of developing positive manhood lit. There can never be enough education on respectful relationships. If our families continue the lessons and conversations at home, it provides the best chance that our collective efforts will not be in vain.

Mr Domenic Burgio