Teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 are the most violent people in Australia. Age 17 is the worst for acts of bashings, robberies and abductions. And 90 per cent of these crimes are committed by boys.
It is believed, the three major contributors to teenage violence are increased prevalence of violent electronic games, increased access to drugs and alcohol and changing family structures.
I have just spent the morning at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and had the pleasure of listening to some of Australia’s most prominent writers and influencers talking on this topic. The stand out speaker was Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys and one of Australia’s leading writers on parenthood.
Steve believes we have always taught young men to be fighters. Over the past century, 100 million people have been killed through wars. And now we want a sudden reversal. We don’t want men to fight. The one punch controversy is evident that Australia will not tolerate men who fight. And more recently, the outrage that Gyngell and Packer would fight in general public was telling.
Steve notes it is actually difficult to get men to be violent in combat. After working with Vietnam soldiers, he believes it takes years of training to put enemies into our psyche and when these young soldiers are expected to pull the trigger in a war situation, it takes years of difficulty to overcome this feat.
“We start off violent as toddlers but empathy stops us. We start to think that this is another human being like me and in general, we stop.
He describes the scenario of a Kindergarten boy being sad because his friend is leaving, he will punch him. He doesn’t yet know how to feel about it or how to react to that feeling. Teaching resilience and how to react to situations is hopefully now taking precedence in schools and Steve hopes we are arming our boys with the right tools to react to situations they will inevitably get into.
One of the big stands Steve talked about was a study done in the 1960’s by Prescott into boys. It has resounding relevance today. There is a strong, predictable correlation between touching and cuddles on your parents knee between the ages of 0 and 3 years and violence in teenagers. The lack of valuable, non-violent touching as a child leads to increased violence in all teenage age groups.
“The capacity for empathy is learned on a mother’s knee. If the culture is gentle and affectionate, it leads to a thawing out of emotions and not teaching boys to be fighters.
Steve noted that both ends of the income brackets are at risk – those families with boys who are in poverty are neglecting their children’s emotional well being and similarly at the other end of the scale, where the wealthy are not taking the time to hold their children close at this tender age and teach them empathy. A myriad of factors are getting in the way but certainly increased reliance on daycare and change in family structures are affecting this trend.
It is also a known fact that role modelling is significant in teenage violence. Little boys who are hit are twice as likely to be violent as adults and if they see their father hit their mother, they are seven times more likely to be violent. Given that domestic violence is a major problem with 1 women dying at the hands of their partner each week, this is cause for concern.
Brendan Cowell was also on the panel. Brendan is a prolific writer for screen and wrote the Aussie drama Love Thy Way. He is also an actor. Growing up in the Cronulla, he had his fair share of aggression and moments with his mates, but fled the fight scene and opted for writing and the arts instead.
“Being a teenager is stressful. Your internal life is vivid and intense and you have this type of inner raw. Women have an intimacy of language and express themselves admirably. For men, it’s not about talking things out – it’s about connectivity and being together. It’s talking about football and the sport. Proximity and connectivity is more useful than the big chat.
Brendan likens the teenage years to feeling a bit like an alpaca. “You don’t know if you are a donkey, a camel or a horse and you are trying to find yourself. There is an inability to express what is going on inside yourself. You don’t know why you and your mate just drove an hour, caught some yabbies and then stabbed them to death with a compass, jumped back in the car and drove back.”
He saw mates commit suicide in the teenage years and believes that most violence is not to other people but self-violence, with 5 men a day in Australia taking their own lives. Think about that for a minute – 5 men per day. That’s nearly 2000 a year. There must be a better way to support our young men in this culture and world we live in.
Two other authors doing great work in this area that I have followed closely are Maggie Dent who runs a Boys, Boys, Boys seminar about nurturing our your boys and Dr Arne Rubenstein who takes dads and their sons into the bush for ritual sessions to celebrate boys moving from boy hood to adult hood in their teenage years and make it a celebration to be in this gangly phase.
It is certainly time to think about how we are bringing up our boys to be the next generation of men. How much are our men as dads nurturing their boys and how much are the mums instilling a value of empathy when our boys are mere babes?
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