The lost boys

Can role models help rescue young men’s confusion around ideas of masculinity?

In a recent episode of Rylan Clark’s BBC podcast series How to Be a Man, the journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter noted that boys from poorer backgrounds continue to fall behind girls in school, because they “can’t see the value of education” and don’t have a home environment in which “doing homework, or studying, or passing exams, is valued.” Street-Porter went on to say that many boys currently feel lost and directionless. She suggested technical and practical skills need to be re-emphasised in schools from the age of eleven, as well as academic targets, so “we can say to kids: being an electrician or plumber is the best thing in the world.” There is, of course, no reason why young people of any gender cannot take up practical, “hands-on” careers, and they do. But Street-Porter believes boys need particular input to help them feel valued, special, and able to contribute to society, without having to join a gang for affirmation and identity. As far back as 2019, a Children’s Commissioner for England report titled Keeping Kids Safe stated that a staggering 27,000 children in England identified as gang members and many more were on the periphery. The majority of these children were boys and, despite the report focusing on “improving safeguarding responses” to gang violence and criminal exploitation, the numbers have continued to rise.

It is not only boys from poorer background who are struggling with identity and direction

It is not only boys from poorer backgrounds who are struggling with identity and direction. In his introduction to the ten-part podcast series, Rylan says there has never been a more confusing time for men than the 2020s. “Does the ‘average bloke’ exist anymore?” he asks. “Are we still allowed to ‘man up?’” Can “boys still be boys?” And what exactly is “toxic masculinity”? These questions have come to the fore after disturbing proof of bullying and macho aggression in institutions ranging from Westminster’s corridors of power to the police force and the fire brigade. Examples of “how to be a man” are learned and adopted early, and they develop on the pristine playing fields of Eton College as well as in the underfunded classrooms of some inner-city comprehensives. Once learned, each individual’s understanding of “how to be” is not easily changed, or even challenged.

So, is this where role models can make a difference? A National Literacy Trust survey last year found that 93.4 % of children and young people aged between seven and eighteen said they had at least one role model. The most popular were mums (67.4%) and dads (60.2%). More than half of children (52.6%) said they look up to a YouTuber, while fewer than two in five looked up to a sibling (38.3%) or teacher (36.5%). But the percentage of children and young people who said they had a role model decreased as they got older. While more than nine in ten of those aged seven to eleven (95.2%) said they had a role model, just three in four (76.2%) of those aged sixteen to eighteen said the same.

Society’s changing concepts of family and parenting, as well as controversial questions around gender identity, have raised significant and timely questions about what makes a good role model for children. For example, does a role model necessarily have to be the same gender as the child? Should role models be “real”, or might a fictional character be just as positive a force (or even better)? Should children be encouraged to develop a range of role models? Arguably most significant of all, should role models simply be teaching all children how to be decent human beings, removed from any definitions of gender? Since gender definitions continue to multiply, it may now be far too simplistic to advise a so-called “macho” boy that he could develop his “feminine” side. We are reminded daily that we are not all the same – far from it. For some vulnerable and insecure boys it might feel easier to hide their anxiety about who they are by “manning up” and being part of a gang: it might seem to offer a safety net, albeit a potentially dangerous one. For most of us, the instinct to join the safety of the herd is generally more powerful than the impulse to stand out from the crowd.

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August / September 2023, Surveys

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