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Tamihere: Making Young Men Count

OpEd: Making Young Men Count

By Minister of Youth Affairs John Tamihere

There is one issue above all others that has caused me, as Minister for Youth Affairs, growing concern over the last couple of years. That issue is the identity, role and wellbeing of men – and in particular young men – in our society.

I believe that the pendulum of political correctness has swung too far, to where as men we always hear about everything that is supposedly wrong with us, and everything that is supposedly our fault, but we rarely celebrate our achievements and ourselves for who we are – men.

I also believe that the attitudes towards men that are prevalent in our society are in fact highly dangerous to the wellbeing of men, and of young men in particular:

I am concerned as a Kiwi male myself, as a political leader and perhaps most importantly I am concerned because I am the father of young sons. Here are some of the reasons why:

EDUCATION Boys are four times more likely than girls to be stood down or suspended from school, or be identified as having behavioural problems. Girls outperform boys at all levels of our school system, and the gap between boys' and girls' achievement is one of the largest of any developed nation. Sixty-three per cent of girls earned NCEA level 1 in 2002, compared to 54 per cent of boys. Boys are more likely to leave school with no qualifications – and have a consistently higher rate of youth unemployment than girls. Of the top 10 ranked schools in New Zealand, seven are girls' schools, two are co-ed and just one is a boys' school.

ROAD ACCIDENTS AND FATALITIES Young men are five times more likely to cause a fatal car crash than young women. Young men are twice as likely to be killed in a car crash than young women, and three times as likely to be injured. Men are four times more likely than women to be drink drivers involved in fatal crashes.

JUSTICE Men are 22 times more likely than women to be imprisoned. Men are four times more likely than women to appear before our criminal justice system. Women appearing before New Zealand courts are less likely than men to be convicted or sentenced to imprisonment, and are more likely to have their cases discharged, receive shorter sentences and be granted early release on parole. The Family Court has a tendency to award custody of children to women, rather than men, and men are much more likely to be denied access to their children. Young men are more likely than any other demographic group to be victims of violence.

HEALTH AND QUALITY OF LIFE On average men die five years earlier than women Men are four-and-a-half times more likely than women to kill themselves. Half of all males aged 15-24 report hazardous drinking habits – drinking behaviour with high risk of physical or mental damage. Men are more likely to die of cancer (the leading cause of death in New Zealand) than women. They are also more likely to die of heart disease (the second most common cause of death).

Those are just some of the very worrying symptoms that suggest than our men are not doing too well at all. These are not just aberrations or one-offs – they are part of a consistent trend.

In the last 30 years we have seen the collapse of the authority of churches, of discipline in schools and of the authority figure of the Kiwi father. We have not replaced these sources of male authority, guidance and support with alternatives, and their absence has brought us significant difficulties as men.

When I was growing up, I was imbued with a set of standards and a code of conduct that was not only for my benefit, but was also to the benefit of the community I lived in. If I stepped outside those standards, I knew it, and I knew it was wrong.

Throughout the massive social changes of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, men's role shifted dramatically. Social changes, most notably the increasing role of women in the paid workforce, followed by the massive economic changes wrought by Rogernomics in the 1980s, changed our society, and they changed men's role within our society.

1950s and early 60s New Zealand society was in many ways a simple life, and men's role within it was simply defined. Dad's role was to go out to work, and bring home the brown envelope to Mum on payday. These days the pay doesn't get handed over in brown envelopes; Mum is almost as likely as Dad to be earning her own pay, and sometimes there is no job to go to, and no pay packet at all.

Dad used to be the family disciplinarian, the driver of the family car, the guy who kicked a rugby ball around with the kids from time to time, but didn't take much of a hands-on role in the day-to-day care; the guy who mowed the lawns but didn't get involved with the housework, and the guy in charge of the barbecue who you never saw in the kitchen – unless his wife wasn't around to fetch him another beer from the fridge.

So, yes, obviously there were some downsides to our accepted role at that time – particularly in the impact our role had on others – but we knew where we stood. Today we don't know where we stand as men, and unless we draw up a new roadmap for ourselves, we risk having a whole generation of Kiwi males losing their way.

In not acknowledging the shift in society and the consequent shift in males' role and identity, we deny their presence and their responsibilities – to family, community and society, and we have created a huge vaccuum in their ethics and conduct.

This isn't about being anti-feminism, or anti-gay or anti-women; it is about being pro-male. This is about positively affirming the role of men in modern society. I am speaking for Kiwi heterosexual males simply because that is what I am and we need to speak up for ourselves. We need to champion ourselves.

Our society has embraced the concept that girls can do anything, but what can boys do? We have a Women's Affairs Ministry to specifically advance matters relating to women. We also have ministries of Pacific Island Affairs, Maori Affairs and Youth Affairs, but as yet we have no Ministry of Men's Affairs. The thinking is that we can look after ourselves. The problem is, too often we can't.

We need a culture shift that allows us to value ourselves and look after ourselves more effectively. I don't have all the solutions – that's why we need to have this debate: to find out what the solutions might be.

We do need to give young men an alternative to the reckless, dangerous and violent behaviour that can make some of them their own worst enemy. How easy is it for young men to turn to their mates, their peers, male role models, brothers and fathers to express their feelings if they are hurt or angry or simply not coping? I suspect it is not very easy at all.

It is time to re-evaluate the "he'll be right," mentality for the 21st Century, because if our young men are choosing suicide in large numbers, then clearly they are not all right at all.

This isn't about simply turning back the clock to what we may remember nostalgically as the heyday of the Kiwi bloke. We have to re-invent the Kiwi male. We have to figure out what our legitimate role and place is in a new millennium.

What I do know is that it is OK to be male. It is OK to be a red-blooded Kiwi heterosexual male. It is OK to have a male bonding session with the boys. It is OK to scream and shout and jump up and down when the All Black scrum powers over the top of the Poms. But just as importantly it is OK to pick up and love and cuddle our babies and take them to the park. It is OK to be assertive – but not to be ugly and violent. It is OK to intervene, to stand up and take ownership against bad role models and bad behaviour of other men. It is OK to acknowledge that men can bind together the fabric of family, of community and of country. It is OK for us fathers to ensure that our sons are imbued with hope and an appetite for adventure.

Some people have suggested that boys-only classes or schools, using "male-friendly" teaching methods, and providing more male teachers may help boys' learning and identity. I applaud the announcement by my colleague, Education Minister Trevor Mallard, that a group will be set up to support effective teaching of boys. However I believe the issue is wider than just educational achievement as a stand-alone issue, and I think we need to also be addressing the wider picture.

Another suggestion has been to better promote positive male role models who may lead and guide by their example. We can still learn much from our traditional heroes, our sports champions - our Hillarys, our Meads, our Lomus – but maybe we should widen the brief to also include heroes and role models from outside sports. When one in three boys live apart from their natural fathers, and less than 18 per cent of primary teachers are male, the availability of men to whom boys can look up to and seek guidance is a real problem.

Perhaps most importantly it is fathers who have the most important role to play in this. I can't think of anyone who influenced me as much as my own father. So what do you do if your father is not present in your life at all? What if they are there physically, but absent emotionally? Or if they are abusive and violent? What can we do to make sure that fathers are actively and positively involved in the lives of their sons?

We urgently need to support our young men better, to make the most of their potential, to better acknowledge them, and most importantly to allow them to be fully succeeding and contributing members of our society. We need to make sure that as we advance as a society, we take young men with us.

Men and boys count. It is time we stood up to be counted.

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