Thursday, 16 September 2010
Talking with 'lads' - part one
I've had a lot of experience of 'working' with 'difficult' boys; those boys who get into trouble all the time, who get into fights, cause problems in their classrooms and, almost always, have a lot to contend with at home. When I say working with them, I really mean talking with them, and this talking shouldn't be underestimated. It is only through letting children express themselves that they can be helped, and very often their expression is stifled. It goes against the codes of boyhood to talk about things that have upset you or the things that worry you, it is seen as a sign of weakness to show your vulnerabilities, and a result of this is that all those anxieties are turned in on themselves. So if a boy is having a hard time at home - if there is domestic abuse against him or his mother, for example - he will be disinclined to talk about it, but it manifests in more hard to deal with ways. It could come out as violence towards other children, it could come out as an incapacitatingly low self-worth. These boys often feel that they need to keep the armour up at all times; they may certainly want help but they don't want to ask for it.
Getting children to talk about themselves is, in some quarters, quite stigmatised. That horrific statement made by John Major that society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less seems to be drifting back into fashion - to question what drives children to commit serious crimes such as those of Jon Venables and Robert Thomas in the murder of James Bulger or the 'Doncaster torture boys' is seen as somehow letting them off the hook; it is as though understanding itself is some form of weakness that no state authority would want to demonstrate. This conflation of understanding and weakness is the same one experienced by boys in the thrall of their developing masculinity - for a boy to be popular with other boys, he can't be the sensitive one by the playground fence, he needs to be the one who smiles and laughs away the tears as he tumbles across the playground concrete.
I really believe, and my experiences back me up on this one, that boys benefit from being able to talk about things: all things. In an ideal world, or certainly in my gender-egalitarian utopia, boys and girls would both be able to express their emotions to eachother, to their friends, and they would have a stronger relationship to their own emotional needs. As it is now, one of these difficult boys who you will find in every classroom and on every street is unlikely to talk to their peers - typically other 'lads' - about the things that might be troubling them. I don't want to seem overly reductionist here and obviously there will be variation, but in my experience, the more 'difficult' a boy is - the more he bullies, fights, gets excluded, fails in school and the more he has to contend with at home - the more isolated he will be, emotionally. The lone warrior, he may only let his guard down when he is on his own.
So it falls to others to help boys talk. In my eyes, it is now up to the teachers, social workers, volunteers, counsellors and mentors to provide boys with opportunities to talk. And parents too, though I feel it probably helps them to discuss things with someone outside of their family, especially if family is what they wish to talk about.
This talk doesn't need to be overtly therapeutic, it doesn't need to be following some pre-determined protocol like a clinical interview. It doesn't need a warm, gentle environment with beanbags and soft voices. This is often the view people have, hinting at their idea that by allowing boys to talk, you are somehow attempting to feminise, and thus corrupt them.
Before stating what I think is the most beneficial way to talk with boys, I will say a little about what I see to be potentially detrimental and very commonplace. There is a pervasive idea that the only way for adults to engage the disaffected and troubled boys is through being a laddish male role model they can relate to. The first presupposition is that it needs to be a man - I think this needn't be the case, but I do definitely think there are immense benefits for the boys who can be made aware that a man can remain a man in absense of a typical macho masculinity. I think back to the lads who were excluded from my own secondary school and the ways the school tried to keep them engaged - joining the boxing clubs, taking them out of the classrooms and away from the education they need and often onto the sportsfields. Politics affirms this view - bring back national service they say. Bring in ex-soldiers into the classrooms to bring some discipline back.
But it is obvious to me that combatting youthful macho masculinities with adult macho masculinities is doomed to fail. It is wrong. A boy is failing in school and is being disruptive and aggressive - the school excludes him and places him in a behavioural unit, often single sex so only with other excluded boys, where they might receive a more vocational, hands-on, education. The best prospects for a bad-lad are, so it is said, to 'channel' that anger and aggression into something constructive like sport, boxing, the Armed Forces.
Why are we seeking to 'channel' anger and aggression in these boys rather than alleviate it with them?
If you allow boys to talk, they will talk. The caricature of the inexpressive male is true only insofar as the surface level - bubbling away behind that mask are worries, wonders, questions, aspirations, hopes and fears, and very often, these boys will not drop the mask on their own. It is too risky for them to do so. Through engaging with boys by talking about them, their lives and their experiences, you are helping them and allowing them to tend to their own needs.
I don't want to make this post too long, so I will make this 'Part One', which explains the theory behind my views on talking with boys, and tomorrow I will write one giving lots of personal examples to illustrate what I have found to be the best ways to allow boys to express themselves.
Read on here - Part Two