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Raising boys amid Australia's 'masculinity of the frontier'



If we had had a daughter, we would have had to create conditions that would make her sense of self impervious to gendered mistreatment. But we have a son, and the question of how to raise a man is never far from our minds. What on earth do we do with him?

Parent and boyIt seemed simpler before he started school, when being honest, respectful and responsible sufficed. He only had himself to become. But he is lately sensing that this involves resistance on his part against social expectations about how he is supposed to behave and what to enjoy.

At nine years old, he understands that people expect boys to suck it up, to be tough. He thinks twice about telling friends about things he likes, or has learned to rationalise them against exclamations that 'that's a girl thing!'

He is having to navigate these binaries, and it seems so unfair, so smothering. He knows there is nothing at all wrong with girls and things that are 'girlish', and that it doesn't make him any less of a boy to treat girls kindly.

We may not have a daughter, over whom we would have worried about the countless ways the world can hurt her. Yet the work does not seem to be any less difficult, raising sons, especially in Australian context.

I've wondered at the things we have come to associate with masculinity in this country. When the NSW government devised lockout laws in central Sydney in 2014, part of me wondered about other factors in late-night assaults.

I had to wonder because the men I saw get drunk, when I was a kid and later at university, never got violent. It can't be that Filipino men are more virtuous, but that alcohol had a different effect. It made my dad more likely to break into song or dance. My uncles got louder about politics. The college boys became increasingly sentimental and confessional (and always made sure the girls got back to the dorm intact).


"Those of us from other backgrounds recognise that other cultures of masculinity are possible and in fact exist. Ones in which men hug each other, women leaders are common, and clothes are just clothes."


It struck me as incomplete, this idea that inebriated Australian men have to take a swing. Last March, a report into the lockout laws found that assaults had been merely displaced to surrounding suburbs.

When we look at other forms of violence and abuse in Australian life — against women, children, Indigenous peoples and refugees — it is hard to escape the masculine character of that violence.

It doesn't matter where it occurs, whether at home, in the sacristy, on the street, in detention or at the club. It is a masculinity of the frontier: aggressive, self-entitled and territorial.

Those of us from other backgrounds recognise this because we know that other cultures of masculinity are possible and in fact exist. Ones in which men hug each other, women leaders are common, and clothes are just clothes. Ones in which men share in care-work, and laws are made to support them in this. Ones in which restraint, not force, is the mark of a man.

This is not what we have in Australia. There is instead a hyper-sensitivity to emasculation, grounded in gender binaries, which has led to a lot of hurt.

We see traces of it in homophobia, which recoils at 'soft' men and 'butch' women. We see traces of it in the doctrine of male headship, which traps Christian women in abusive relationships. We see traces of it in grievance movements which target prominent feminists.

Having a son means that I think about such things differently than if I had a daughter. How do I make sure he doesn't hurt others, especially women?

To begin with, it seems important to decouple masculinity from violence. He gets this, at least. The harder thing, especially given his broader environment, is to help him learn how to be himself in a way that doesn't rest on being a man.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, parenting, masculinity, sexism



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Existing comments

It ain't complicated Fatima. A son will learn most from his parents, the way they treat each other and other people. He will also learn his biases from them. All you have to do is give good example, protect him from your own biases ( very difficult to do ! ), give him a defined cultural identity, don't discuss adult opinions or biases until he is an adult, love him and book him in to a Jesuit school to complete his emerging adulthood. It worked for our six sons and six grown up grandsons and they are all very Australian. I forgot to add that a boy has to learn how to give and how to lose - best accomplished by playing a team sport - and the parent should not take any notice of the psychologists who write books about how to do it

john frawley | 20 October 2017  

Raising children is the most difficult job in the world. A big statement but I feel entitled(!). Having helped raise three daughters and a son I do have some experience. The home environment is vitally important, yet children from difficult backgrounds can overcome. The school environment is also of great importance, yet children from disadvantaged schools can excel. In other words, children can be very resilient and surprising. I agree, Fatima, that society 'expectations' and peer pressure can be challenging for a child to negotiate. If they know you love them and are there for them they have a fine weaponry (in the best sense of the word).

Pam | 20 October 2017  

Hi Fatima, My wife of Philippine birth and myself of Irish heritage have raised a young man and two ladies over the past nearly three decades. All have turned out outstanding citizens who respect the combination of their cultures as well as being Australians. In answer to your question I can only assume that our history, having its origins in a convict settlement, Irish refugees such as my forebears, and the stories of taming the bush passed down to us, have generated the myth of the macho Australian Male who has to get into a 'barney' to prove his masculinity. You are so right about Filipino men. My dear late father-in-law was a real character when he had a drink or two! and yes having done time in the Army many years ago, I witnessed at first hand what happens when Aussie males have too many. It was not a pretty sight! I hope we have done the right thing by our son who is happily married and very respectful to his wife, his kids,his mum and women in general including his sisters. Maybe improved education and decent example from dads are the answer???

Gavin | 20 October 2017  

I suppose scores of books have been written on the subject of raising children, and in particular the only child, This would be particularly true in countries based on Western cultural values. Parents have almost exclusive control and influence over the physical, mental. emotional and spiritual development of their first child only for a very short time. I say 'almost exclusive' because one's extended family - grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can penetrate that cocooned circle of Mum, Dad & Child. Then there are the neighbours, And the media - yes, I include Playschool on TV. The first and only child is not a completely isolated subject of a social experiment. A myriad of factors is at work. But to look at Fatima's musing. "I've wondered at the things we have come to associate with masculinity in this country." Does "we" refer to the Measham family? The majority of Australians? Opinion makers? Our political masters? The current frontier is those sports where physical aggression plays a major role. I know we have women's boxing, wrestling, different codes of football, etc but they are feminine forms of the game. Australian cricket captains encourage "psychological disintegration" of opponents. What a disgrace!

Uncle Pat | 20 October 2017  

I take this piece as being one by a writer, rather than a psychologist, such as Stephen Biddulph or Michael Carr Gregg, who have both written quite extensively on bringing up boys. Some of what they write may be pertinent to you, but, as always, you have to do your own sifting. Despite the many nasty things said about Australian males, I think the drinking culture and violence spawned therefrom is over reported in the media because it is sensational. Middle class male Filipinos in your circle may not be violent when drunk, but Filipino society, viz. President Duterte's War on Drugs and the continued fighting in Southern Sulawesi, seems to be quite violent. Learning to stand up for yourself, not necessarily violently and being able to, as a last resort, defend yourself physically as well as verbally, is something every young man (and woman) should know. I am not sure how accurate the current gender based 'critique' of what is perceived to be traditional Australian masculinity is. The majority Australian men of all backgrounds are not violent drunken louts. That is encouraging. We seem, obviously, to be getting something right.

Edward Fido | 20 October 2017  

Thanks for raising this, I see the same in my grandchildren's experiences, and it raises the issue of looking at how we need to socialise children to fix both toxic masculinity and fearful femininity

eva cox | 20 October 2017  

Speaking of binary standards, it seems to me the author is describing an unfair binary of Filipino men being nonviolent while Aussie men are all punch happy drunks. As an Aussie male, I don't see it that way. It's by far the minority who resort to violence, and from current news reports we see the Philippines has its own problems with violence and substance abuse.

Aurelius | 20 October 2017  

I never said that Filipino men aren't violent, and indeed the violence in the Philippines is also lately perpetrated by men. That doesn't subtract from the point that many forms of violence and abuse in Australia has a masculine character, and that attribution to alcohol in the case of late-night assaults is an incomplete picture.

Fatima Measham | 20 October 2017  

Thanks Fatima. Enjoy your little boy. Relax. Just be "good enough". JohnFrawley and Pam give great advice and I'd second the idea that choosing a school that carries out all it claims in its mission statements can be a comfort . It is a great support if it encourages the things you believe in. My grand-daughter is in year 7 at a school in the tradition of a Religious order of Sisters. The teachers are welcoming , are interested in the individual, help students develop their strengths and build on their weaknesses. Curriculum too is varied and spot on for the needs in this current world. R. E lessons are interesting and relevant . My granddaughter embarking on her community experience program through RE. has been introduced to and has out of school with her parents befriended a young girl and her family newly settled in Australia from the Middle East. Have faith . You don't have to do it alone .Keep in mind how lucky we are to have schools where teachers care and support us in our attempt to have well rounded and grounded children.

Celia | 20 October 2017  

Interesting Eva Cox mentions both 'toxic masculinity' and 'fearful femininity' as matters we need to 'fix' in our socialisation of children. Both these types of person, the totally brutish male and the abjectly cowed female, are extremes, which any normal society would see as aberrant. Most people are not like that. The Christian norms for male and female would be Jesus and Mary. Jesus was not insensitive and Mary certainly had guts. Perhaps they should be our role models? Is there something wrong with that?

Edward Fido | 21 October 2017  

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