IF we submit to our worst fears, it’s easy to believe a foul tide of angry, resentful young men is overwhelming society. There are media stories almost daily of young men fighting, boozing and flipping the bird at authority.
A golden age is ending, it seems. A friend lamented recently, “Once upon a time angry young men wrote books and plays and tried to change the world.”
But, as with most golden ages, this one probably never existed. In fact, old men have been complaining about young men for a very long time.
In the fourth century BC, Plato bemoaned the changes he saw on the streets of Athens. “What is happening to our young people?” he asked. “They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”
According to sociologists, teachers and police, the issue may not be so much angry young men but sad and disconnected ones. And the problem is mostly with the fathers, not their sons.
Studies have shown that Australian fathers spend less than 10 minutes a week of “quality time” with their sons.
At 15, Dermot Murphy is an example of a boy who receives quality time from his dad, and already shows the traits of the family men who have been his mentors.
There’s the feisty spirit of his grandfather, legendary Melbourne detective Brian Murphy. Dermot grew up hearing Pop’s stories of a thousand hair’s-breadth escapes from danger.
Dermot’s father, Danny Murphy, saw some of the old man’s exploits as they happened.
“I knew that it was better to be caught by the police than the old man,” Danny quips.
Danny idolised his father but also identified strongly with his uncle Pat, a plumber in South Melbourne renowned for his generosity with struggling families. And he has carried on that tradition into his own business.
Dermot is considering a career in the armed forces, combining the family influences of adventure and public service.
These traits were learned from fathers spending time with sons.
“I made sure I was the first one to take my (five) kids fishing, water-skiing, camping and ferreting,” says Brian. “There were times when I was literally falling asleep at the wheel I was so tired from work, but I knew I’d only get one chance to bring up my kids.”
Danny still spends a lot of time with Dermot, but it’s a competitive relationship. “We go out jet skiing but Dermot won’t come out the back,” he says, throwing a scornful look at his son. Dermot doesn’t bite this time, but father and son have frequent arguments.
This combative style of relationship is typical of a son trying to measure up in his father’s eyes, says Brett Murray, a youth culture guru. Murray lectures high school students on dealing with bullying and meets many boys looking to form attachments to older men, especially when fathers have been absent in their lives.
“After a session this week this young guy comes up and says: ‘My dad has never said he is proud of me so I’m doing Year 12 to hopefully get him to say he’s proud of me,’ ” says Murray. “There’s a small percentage of kids who are super self-motivated and can turn adversity to victory, but many feel the weight of massive expectations. This is reinforced every time they fail.”
Positive male role models provide crucial endorsement for teenage boys. “Because they lack positive role models it’s a domino effect. They don’t have people in their lives saying, ‘C’mon mate, you can do this, work a bit harder and you can achieve.’ They don’t have any vision for their life. Without vision there is a sense of being hopeless, ‘what’s the point of this?’,” he says.
Australia is ranked third in the world for teenage suicide, a direct result of this feeling of hopelessness, according to Murray.
Contrary to popular belief, gangs of hardened youths are generally not roaming the streets attacking innocent citizens. A senior police officer says only one in four young men charged with assaults in Victoria has a previous conviction. Three-quarters are first offenders with poor impulse control who get into fights over trivial matters like a girlfriend talking to another man or someone bumping into them. They think it shows cowardice or lack of pride to walk away. They have never been taught to deal with their emotions,” the officer says.
It’s a slippery slope for young men who cannot learn to “self-soothe” and avoid conflict.
I was reminded of this when writing a story of a 30-year-old man who had murdered a former girlfriend in a fit of rage. His mother, a single parent, had rejected him when a new partner came on the scene. Living on the streets from his teens, the only strong influence in his life was his father, an outlaw biker doing life in jail for murder.
Young men with behavioural problems are screened out of education quickly, according to Brendan Murray, executive principal of Parkville College, a unique school that began operating this year within the walls of Melbourne’s Youth Justice Precinct.
Many of these troubled youths have never formed secure attachments to positive male role models at home. When they misbehave in class, the education system’s answer is to exclude them, says Brendan Murray.
“If a student needs more assistance with literacy or numeracy we would invest greater resources, not less. We should be teaching the whole person. A person who acts out needs more help,” he says.
The development of crucial communication skills virtually ceases when children stop attending school. At least half the young people in correctional facilities have some form of speech, language or communication difficulty, says Brendan Murray.
Facing rising levels of violence in its Malmsbury and Parkville youth facilities, authorities established schools inside the walls that have led to a 60 per cent reduction in “on-site incidents”.
Students from Melbourne University’s graduate school are acting as tutors and mentors for the school. “It’s the first time people have given these young people a chance. They are wary due to their history of being let down by people close to them. They fear the rug is going to be pulled out from under them at any moment,” Brendan Murray says. “For the first time, they have someone who believes in their potential.”
In his career as a cop, Brian Murphy saw so many good kids like Dermot go bad for want of fatherly belief and understanding.
“It’s got to be done in the home because if a father won’t do it, then who will? Eventually the state will deal with the mess you haven’t had the courage or care to clean up,” he says.