Martin Robb: Boys need help to find new ways of being men without using ‘traditional’ models

Many young men, especially those from poorer communities, are caught up in patterns of what might be called hypermasculine behaviour and risk being left behind by a changing world. Picture: Getty
Many young men, especially those from poorer communities, are caught up in patterns of what might be called hypermasculine behaviour and risk being left behind by a changing world. Picture: Getty
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It’s not easy being a boy in 2018. Young men today face challenges that weren’t experienced by their fathers and grandfathers, including changing gender roles and the disappearance of many traditionally ‘male’ jobs, and with them many of the processes that once helped boys to make the transition to manhood.

In this context, there’s a growing awareness that not all boys are coping well. Boys are falling behind girls in terms of educational performance, are more likely to get labeled with conditions such as ADHD, and are experiencing an increase in referral for mental health problems.

Dr Martin Robb is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University.

Dr Martin Robb is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University.

A recent conference in Glasgow on ‘Supporting Boys’, organised by Policy Hub Scotland, heard from a range of speakers about some of the issues faced by boys today. I was there to present the findings from research that I’ve carried out, with colleagues at The Open University, on working with vulnerable and ‘at risk’ young men.

One of our studies, with Action for Children, involved interviewing young male services users, and the professionals who work with them, at social care projects throughout the United Kingdom – including the West of Scotland. As part of my presentation, I showed the short film that we commissioned, which features workers and service users from Moving On, a support service in Kilmarnock for young men with experience of the criminal justice system. I also contributed to a more recent research study, as part of an international project exploring the impact of ideas about ‘being a man’ on young men’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

So what does all of this research tell us? Firstly, that despite the enormous changes in gender roles that have taken place in recent years, the lives of many young men are still straitjacketed in some ways by conventional notions of masculinity. Young men can feel trapped in what researchers have called the ‘man box’: a set of expectations that define, and limit, the kind of person they can be.

The young men we spoke to as part of our research said they felt a pressure to act tough, hide weakness and ‘look good’. Some said they find it difficult to express their feelings, and as a consequence are less likely than young women to seek professional help for their problems. One said: ‘Men, we just deal with it differently … we’ve got other channels of expressing our feelings.’ This can have a negative impact on their mental health, and on their relationships with others.

We found that many young men, especially those from poorer communities, are caught up in patterns of what might be called hypermasculine behaviour. Violence is still a feature of many of these young men’s lives, with some regarding it as a way of maintaining status and as an inevitable part of becoming a man. ‘It shapes young boys into men,’ said one. But at the same time some resented being seen as a threat, simply because they were young and male, and felt targeted by the police when out in public in groups.

Despite the fact that they may have experienced fractured family relationships, most of the young men we spoke to aspired to be good fathers, and the experience of young fatherhood – though stigmatised by the wider society – can often be the catalyst for making the transition from reckless young masculinity to responsible manhood.

That transition can also be aided by the kind of consistent care and support shown by staff at projects like Moving On. There’s a good deal of talk these days, in the media and from politicians, about boys today lacking positive male role models, but while there may be a grain of truth in this, the young men we spoke to said that the gender of their support worker wasn’t really important. What mattered more was their personal qualities: whether they showed them genuine care and respect.

It could be argued that our research presents only one side of the story, and that many boys and young men are doing just fine, and adapting well to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. But it’s important that we don’t overlook the needs of those young men – particularly from poor communities and marginalised social groups – who risk getting left behind by change. For them, the traditional models of masculinity are no longer working. It’s important that we help them to find new ways of being a man, and support them to realise their full potential.

Dr Martin Robb is a senior lecturer in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at The Open University

You can read more about our research studies by following these links: http://www.open.ac.uk/health-and-social-care/research/beyond-male-role-models/ 
http://wels.open.ac.uk/sites/wels.open.ac.uk/files/files/YMMW_report_02-17_email.pdf