An important issue for most men and a crucial one for boy's education is the lack of fathering in current society.
The poet Robert Bly has emphasised the importance of father son relationships in male development. Bly suggests that the industrial revolution separated fathers from sons. In pre-industrial societies men and boys largely worked together. Whether in the fields or in local crafts or businesses boys, from quite a young age, worked along side the men.
Learning to be a male was an unproblematic process. Boys just picked it up from the behaviour of the men about them. Boys had access to the full range of male behaviour, they saw all the things that men do in their normal lives.
With the industrial revolution things changed. Men went of to factories and boys went to school. Fathers and sons were together for only small amounts of time, usually after a hard working day when both were tired. Boys saw only limited aspects of masculinity.
Today the separation is possibly even more rigid. Men are off in factories or offices and boys are at school for longer and longer periods.
The home is the woman's preserve.
With the father only home in the evening, and women's values so strong in the house, the father looses the son five minutes after birth. It's as if he had amnesia and can't remember who his children are. The father is remote, he's not in the house where we are, he's somewhere else. He might as well be in Australia.
Robert Bly, New Men, New Minds, Ed Franklin Abbott, The Crossing Press, CA, 1987, p 177
With fathers physically and emotionally separated from sons it's harder to learn what it means to be male. But in our society all boys have to grow up to be men. There isn't a choice. Boys will learn their masculinity one way or another. Unfortunately the other ways will not give as comprehensive a picture of masculinity as the real examples provide.
In our society there are three obvious alternative ways for boys to learn masculinity. And all three give a disturbing picture.
Firstly, boys commonly learn about masculinity from the media. Boys typically see much, much more television than they see of their fathers. So what sort of men are displayed on television? There are three main types, elite sportsmen, violent men and idiots. The sports stars and Rambos are emotionally shut down, aggressive, highly negligent of their personal well being and highly competitive. The last type, while quite common in the media, is no model for anyone.
The second source of models of masculinity comes from the peer group. Young men spend much more time with young men of similar ages than with adult men. They are almost always with the peer group in school, playing sport, for recreation activities and with their friends. When it comes to learning masculinity they are all in the deep end together with very little adult support. Who sets the tone? In peer groups it's the most aggressive and violent male who calls the shots and ends up providing the example of 'successful' masculinity. Again its the violent, emotionally shut down, negligent of personal well being, highly competitive, anti-authority males who provide the example.
The third way young men currently learn their masculinity is by reaction. Bad as the other two methods are this is potentially worse. If you can't learn about masculinity from men because at home and school you are largely surrounded by women then it becomes straightforward to see masculine as not-female. Boys develop an anti-female culture in which anything labelled female is degraded and to be avoided at all cost. Particularly such things as showing emotions, caring for others, looking after your body, talking about feelings, and, as we shall see later, being literate and good at school work.
The particular danger is that learning masculinity in this way can be accompanied by learning to be anti-female. This may well be the prime source of the negative attitudes female teachers often find from adolescent young men.
An Australian friend of mine lived in Spain for a number of years with her partner and her son was born there. His father always spoke to him in Spanish, his mother in English to ensure he grew up with both languages. At about age seven the son refused to speak English. 'That's a girl's language' he said, 'Men speak Spanish.' It was several years before he would routinely speak English to his mother. Learning anything by reaction is not a good method.
All three ways of learning masculinity have in common the highly stereotyped, distorted, limited and macho picture of masculinity which is conveyed to young men. If boys spent more time around real men - just ordinary common-garden men, the stereotype would be much harder to maintain. Ordinary men show a much wider range of emotional behaviour, caring activity and concern for themselves and for others than the stereotypes convey. They don't pick themselves up after being thrown to the ground without blinking an eye, they don't use violence to solve most of their problems, they do co-operate in work places and homes and they have good relationships with women. This information can be easily conveyed to growing boys - they just need to spend time with men.
While the term father hunger draws attention to the relationship of fathers and sons the analysis reveals that the key relationship is between boys and men. But in terms of learning masculinity any, what I have described as common-garden, man will help. Boys learn masculinity from the men they spend time with and learn the most from those they have good relationships with. Uncles, grandfathers, step-fathers, older brothers, sporting coaches, scout masters, school teachers, family friends and neighbours are all teachers of masculinity who can help boys develop a comprehensive, three-dimensional, picture of maleness.
For men wishing to change there lives there are two major steps forward. The first is to build the relationship with your own father, the second is to develop a caring relationship with some young men.
The lack of fathering and opportunities for father-like relationships is an oppression of men and boys. It embodies the criteria to be an oppression, it is an unjust restraint that distorts and limits boy's and men's lives so much so that it contributes to emotional problems, the death of young men through suicide and 'accidents' and to illness and premature death of many other men. At the same time it is largely condoned, even made invisible, by society and presented as normality. It disempowers all men from leading a fully human life.
Knowing father hunger is an oppression also tells us that it won't change easily. It's too rooted in the structure of our society and in how both men and women see the world. But like all oppression it can be overthrown by the collective effort of those oppressed working for their liberation. In other words by a men's movement.
For more information on father hunger read Steve Biddulph's articles in Manhood Online.
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