It’s hard to raise a teenage boy – and even harder to be one

by Jessie Cole

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

Photograph: Murdo Macleold

As a parent, negotiating the road through your children’s adolescence can be harrowing, and often in ways you least expect. Despite all my fears about drugs and alcohol, drink-driving and traffic accidents, the thing my son is statistically most likely to die from is suicide. It’s a baffling fact, and one that surely needs more consideration.

Beyond Blue recently launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to combat the high rate of male suicide around the nation, and it got me pondering the real risks involved in parenting teenage sons.

I have two sons. The oldest is soon to turn sixteen. By fifteen he was 186cms tall and still growing. For some years now he has dwarfed his friends, towering above the other kids like a giant gumtree.

As a baby he was always large. I once had a man approach me on the street and ask – ‘What’s his name? Battle-axe?’ This to a toddler with the biggest toothy grin imaginable. A champion cuddler. A gentle giant. Even then the world weighed in. He was a Viking baby, a warrior-in-the-making. But despite this expectation, gentleness has always been my son’s defining trait. Generous, kind and big-hearted, his final year six report ended with: “He is considerate, forgiving and caring, acknowledging other people’s feelings and offering comfort where needed.”

I admit, on reading those words I cried.

I have long considered myself a feminist mother. I aimed to bring up my sons to be sensitive to the needs of others, to be open-minded and self-aware. To actively champion equal rights and to be conscious of their social responsibilities. We talked about sexism and racism and prejudice and the subtle ways they sometimes worked. I wanted an understanding of these issues to be part of my children’s worldview.

When he was ten, my oldest son developed an interest in hip-hop, a genre I knew little about, and we asked a friend to find him some music. I walked out of the room for a minute and when I came back my friend was staring at him in surprise.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ my friend answered, ‘It’s just … he asked for songs that don’t have violence against women.’

I almost punched the sky. But she was nonplussed – ‘Ah … I don’t know if I even have any like that.’

And slowly the floodgates opened. The world encroached on my son, filling his ears with what it means to be a man. Fast forward five years and it’s a whole new ballgame. Since he entered high school I’ve watched him morph. Jeans slung low, he swaggers about like a gangster from the rapper films he so admires. I try to get him talking about the lure of Underbelly and all its subsequent spin offs, but though his eyes sparkle, he doesn’t say much. The glamour of this underworld culture fires his imagination like nothing else, and I am unable to keep any of it at bay.

As the mother of an adolescent boy, how can I compete with a society that actively glorifies this kind of manhood? Where Eminem, despite his rapey lyrics, is a best-selling artist. Where images objectifying women are so ubiquitous they are considered normal. Where mainstream pornography is getting more and more brutal. Where violent video games are increasingly graphic and accessible. Against this cacophonous soundtrack it must be easy for boys to forget that in the real world most men aren’t actually violent. And, if this state of play isn’t depressing enough, add the new WHO report characterising men’s violence against women as a ‘global health problem of epidemic proportions,’and the sad reality that women standing up against sexism often brings out a barrage of hate.

I wonder how my son manages all these messages. How does he balance what he’s learned at home with what the world is teaching him?

A year or so ago I was talking with my son when he wandered towards me, picked me up with one arm and placed me on the other side of the door. Gently, of course. He then waved, smiled his gigantic smile, and said – ‘See ya Mum.’ And that was that. If he didn’t want to hear what I had to say he could effectively remove me. One-handed. It was a joke, obviously. He let me straight back in. But standing on the outside of that door for those few seconds highlighted my powerlessness in a way nothing else previously had.

His largeness has other unforeseen consequences. The mothers of his female friends let them go out at night if he is with them, as though his big body will be enough to protect them all from harm. The world is unsafe for teenage girls, so these mothers think, but my son neutralises the danger by his mere presence. Partly I am proud. They see him as trustworthy and strong. But I also wonder if this is a heavy load for him to carry.

He told me once that at a party a bunch of older boys arrived uninvited in their hotted up cars. He was standing with a female friend who had gone outside to make a call. She lifted her chin to these bigger boys and said – ‘What the f#ck are you looking at?’ Safe in the knowledge of my son’s big body at her back, she was calling them on their intimidating stares. And he worried about how he could possibly protect her.

And, of course, I worry too.

Assault is by far the most common form of violent crime. Males are more likely than females to be violently assaulted across all age groups. Statistically speaking, this could be termed ‘men’s violence against men,’ and those most at risk are young men aged 15–24 years. To add to this, young men are more likely to engage in risky behaviour. They are more likely than girls to be current smokers, drink to levels considered dangerous, use illicit drugs, be involved in dangerous driving, commit violent crime, and be incarcerated.

And, as the Beyond Blue campaign highlights, they are more likely to suicide. How can it be that we live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries but our children are taking their own lives? Our male children, most especially. What is causing such despair? No doubt the answers are complex and multifaceted. But is it at least possible that the status quo is not working for young men either?

 To be the mother of a teenage boy is to be always a little afraid. I used to worry about lots of things: schooling, television hours, junk food, computer games. But now I just worry my son won’t make it home.

‘I’m nearly sixteen,’ he tells me. ‘Soon I’ll be eighteen.’ I look up at his beautiful familiar face. ‘Sometime soon you are just going to have to let go.’

This article was first published at the guardian.uk on the 8th of July 2013, in slightly abridged form.

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