For many years, anxiety has been growing about the position of boys and young men. This is reflected in concerns about educational ‘underachievement’, poor mental health, and involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour.
It is often argued that positive ‘male role models’ are increasingly absent from home, schools, childcare settings, and the media - and that involving more men in young men’s education and care is key to solving many of the difficulties they face.
But perhaps this ‘commonsense’ view is simplistic. Is it really the case that children learn adult roles primarily by observing and copying behaviour in others, as ‘social learning’ theories imply? In practice, academic approaches to gender development have moved on, placing much greater emphasis on the ways in which children’s understandings of masculinity and femininity are actively shaped by diverse and changing social contexts.
The evidence that boys growing up without fathers are necessarily harmed is also unconvincing. Reviews of research on fatherhood over years suggest there is very little about the gender of the parent that appears distinctly important. Indeed, they reveal instead common factors in positive father and mother involvement or care.
Of course boys, and girls, benefit from the presence in their lives of positive, involved fathers. But it is difficult to single out fathers as making a unique contribution. Conversely, focussing on the need for a ‘male role model’ downplays the important contribution of women, whether mothers or female teachers and welfare workers.
Beyond the family, research has explored some of the same issues involved in education settings, suggesting the need for caution in simply asserting that having male role models in schools is beneficial for boys. For example, there is evidence that some male teachers are overly disciplinarian and denigrate the work of female teachers, rather than challenging traditional gender norms.
Until now there has been little research on the relationships between young men and professionals in care and support services, and limited examination of the impact (if any) of the gender of the worker. This has recently been addressed by the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ research project, a partnership between the Open University and national charities Action for Children and Working With Men.
The research team carried out interviews in various locations across the UK with vulnerable young men and women and male and female staff in services for young offenders, care leavers, young carers, and disabled young people.
In the interviews, some young men and staff used the term ‘male role model’, but there was a lack of clarity about what was meant by it. One of the male workers rejected the term as follows: “I don’t have any aspirations to be anybody’s role model because I don’t want them to be like me. I want them to be far better than what I’ve ever been in life.” In practice, the researchers found that workers - both male and female - acted less as role models for young men to imitate, and more as mentors or guides with whom they were able to construct new identities and futures.
Overall, the research emphasises that young people value respect, trust, consistency, and a sense of care and commitment, in workers, and these qualities are key to developing effective helping relationships. The vast majority of young men (and young women) valued the personal qualities and commitment of staff above their gender or other social identities.
So do boys need ‘male role models’? Increasing men’s involvement in caring is clearly desirable. But our work suggests that simply boosting the numbers of male teachers, youth workers, and social workers, is no panacea. What is more important is to recruit staff, whatever their gender, who can engage positively with boys and young men (and girls and young women), and to make relationship-building central to staff training and development in education and welfare services.