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Boys in trouble

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 7 October 2010

There’s lots of evidence that our young men are in trouble: yet more footballers face accusations of brutality or assault; New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione is very concerned about young men who get drunk, get involved in glassings, or drink and drive. Males make up some 90 per cent of NSW prison inmates, kept there at huge cost to us. Too many young men smash up cars and kill themselves, their friends or girlfriends. No wonder many mothers say, “I had a daughter but my sons are really different!”

Both boys and girls have problems. But males have alexithymia, a lack of an emotional language. It’s hard for a male to seek help or complain. Males externalise their emotions, jump into a car or grab some alcohol. And we all live with the consequences: road deaths, graffiti and violence on the streets of our cities.

Schools are set up for a range of kids and it’s “where we go every day” as one kid said in a report by the NSW Commission for Children and Young People. But many boys tell me in interviews that, for the most part, school is “a complete waste of time”. As mothers point out, boys are noisy, adventurous risk-takers. But school is overwhelmingly about “talk”, “listen” and “discuss”. Boys want to express their individuality, yet they feel schools don’t let them do this, and don’t like boys much. School deputies tell me their discipline list is 90 per cent boys or more. Playground fights are common and are often filmed to “prove” who won.


Boys are not all the same. Some boys have more trouble conforming in school and in society. Aboriginal boys lack good role models and struggle to achieve recognition, with the possible exception of sport. Chinese and Korean boys often achieve well academically but struggle for acceptance from kids who call them “ching chong” and similar.

Some immigrants struggle to learn English and never understand what schools want from them. I once tried to teach basic English to African refugee males aged 17 and 18 who spent most of the “lesson” running around the room; I’m not confident of what the future holds for them! Boys’ lack of interest in school has been noted in almost every country in the western world as I discussed in my paper, It Ain't Cool to Like School - Why are boys underachieving around the world and what can we do about it? (PDF, 71KB).

Boys in well-funded schools and selective schools can escape the worst of these problems. Yet in my years working in elite schools and modest State schools, one pattern reappears.

“There was a giant trophy for winning the football. And if you came top in English, you got a bit of cardboard”, one young man told me. Everyone likes the football heroes. They muck up, they play havoc with girls’ affections, they horse around - but they are forgiven. The school needs them to play in the big match, so they get a slap on the wrist. Schools should stop treating football “heroes” like gods.

Boys look around for good role models. What do they see? Look at the images of males on tonight’s TV news: men fighting and punching, men drunk, men in glassing and road accidents. Men whack each other on the field, and off it. And their attitudes to women are horrible, as many examples show.

Boys look hard at these images. They know all the names. “I want to be big and bulgy like Schwarzenegger and van Damme”, one told me. They tell me about Ronaldo and Michael Jordan. We are seeing the Southern Californication of the Australian male. It’s all image: smooth chests, pumped-up muscles, and the hard cold stare. Boys who are sports stars can cope with that. But many can’t: those who feel they are too thin, too fat, or suffer the pains of acne.


Video games teach boys hard masculinity. “Gods of War” are pumped-up muscle boys who wreak vengeance on the enemy. It’s all about punishment, vengeance, and getting a doubtful respect. Some good male teachers might provide better role models. But at least in state schools, primary teaching is “no-man’s land”.

Boys’ obsession with weird fashions gets attention in many parts of the world. And so many fashions start in the USA. There has been much discussion about boys walking around with their pants hanging around the middle of their bums.

This habit seems to have started in US prisons, where belts are taken away from prisoners who might use them to harm themselves. And some prisoners seem to like showing themselves to other inmates in order to get their attention for sexual purposes. So something starts in US prisons, and is picked up as a habit of black males on the streets. And because black guys are cool, it becomes a habit for young males in many parts of the world. No wonder mums and dads shake their heads in despair.

Educated opinion in western societies has become very largely feminised. Programs for boys’ education have thus become inherently controversial. Welfare programs for boys are tricky as we can’t agree on how we want boys to behave. But schools will have to work out what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Experience shows that functional agreement is difficult, even among staff who work together most days, let alone among parents.

If we want happier, healthier males, what could we do? First, catch boys doing something good, and praise them. I’ve seen schools that do this. Second, widen the range of behaviour that we reward: academic success, helping others, a range of sports. Third, look at who gets punished at school. Can we get more from boys by offering praise and rewards? Finally, while we make boys listen to us as teachers and parents, we have to return the favour, and listen to them.

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This article is based on a talk Dr Peter West is presenting at The National Conference on Boys’ Education at The King’s School, Parramatta, New South Wales, 10-12 October. Contact:

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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