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Beyond the boy zone

Do lads need to be taught self-esteem, asks Brendan O'Neill, or should they be left alone to grow into men?

'From new lads to new sads' screamed the headlines in March, after research revealed that young men are running scared from 'girl power'. 'Leading lads', a report on what '1400 boys really think about life in Britain today', found that 'today's lads have an identity crisis' as a result of 'changing gender roles'. Journalists were quick to paint once-cocky boys as losers who had been taken down a peg or two by the rise of confident women.

According to 'Leading lads', a project conducted in association with Oxford University and sponsored by Top Man, the young male population can be split into three categories: 'can-do boys' (optimistic, confident and motivated), average boys, and 'low can-do boys' (isolated, unmotivated and sometimes depressed). The report shows that as boys get older they have more chance of slipping into the 'low can-do' category - only six percent of 13-year old boys are 'low can-do' compared to a whopping 27 percent of 19-year olds. 'Nineteen is a difficult time for boys', says the report's author Adrienne Katz, 'when they make the transition into adulthood and the world of work'. So what kind of problems do these young men face?

Seventeen-year old Danny from Camden in London, who is surviving on income support as he completes his further education, took part in the 'Leading lads' research. 'I don't want to end up signing on, like my mum and dad', said Danny. 'I want to make something of myself.' Then there was 16-year old Piranavan from Hampton, an articulate boy who thinks it is 'important to learn from your family': 'Boys must learn to respect their parents more and realise they have a lot to teach us.'

Despite coming from different backgrounds, all the boys I spoke to agreed on one thing: that young men have to learn how to express their emotions. Working-class Danny and middle-class Piranavan both agreed that it is time to 'move away from the idea that showing emotion is a sign of weakness'. As one boy said in an interview for 'Leading lads': 'The public image of boys having to be big and tough needs to be broken down - maybe like men burning their jockstraps.' But since when have teenage boys espoused such concern about their 'emotional welfare'? This looks to me like another focus group reflecting the prejudices of those who organise it. The young men involved seem to have become mouthpieces for the fashionable notion that the aspiration to be strong and independent should be frowned upon, while admitting your weaknesses is encouraged.

'Boys who are told to act like a man and stand on their own two feet tend to suffer from low self-esteem', says Katz. 'Whereas boys with emotional support are more likely to be "can-do". Telling a boy to toughen up is the worst thing you can do.' According to Katz the biggest problem is that boys feel unable to ask for 'emotional guidance': 'A boy's world is governed by the "virtual laws of masculinity". These decree that you should act like a man - but they form barriers to asking for help.'

Listening to Katz, it is clear that the aim of 'Leading lads' is not really to assess what is happening to teenage boys - rather, it is about attacking a set of values which were traditionally held in high esteem but are now seen as problematic. The targets of the report are forms of behaviour which are described as 'problems of masculinity'. Self-reliance, independence and decision-making were once seen as virtues that boys should aspire to as part of the process of 'becoming a man' - now they have been redefined as an inability to 'open up and communicate'. 'Leading lads' frowns upon the age-old advice that boys should 'act like men', instead calling for the 'loosening of the "genderscript" which dictates behaviour' and the 'widening of the intellectual and emotional landscape for males'.

But all this means is that, just as boys should be venturing into the world beyond their bedrooms, they are being encouraged to become obsessed with 'how they feel'. This is reflected in the importance that 'Leading lads' attaches to the idea of 'self-esteem'.

'If there were ever a magic bullet that could transform a young person's life it would be a pill coated with self-esteem', says the report's opening chapter. 'This powerful yet fragile quality is the key to the future for a teenager.' The report defines self-esteem as 'feeling good about yourself', claiming that it affects 'friendship, future fulfilment and learning': 'So much depends on how a young man feels about himself.'

Apparently boys can improve their self-esteem through 'shared activities which can be used to build a sense of safety within a group'. This sounds to me like a recipe for perpetual boyhood, where a teenager's inclination to be self-obsessed is indulged and put forward as a model for resolving problems. Self-esteem is posed as something you simply feel, rather than as feelings you achieve when you have done something significant that you are proud of. Surely if the transition from boyhood to manhood means anything, it is about taking steps to go beyond your own experiences and realising that the world is bigger than your more petty teenage concerns?

When I was growing up one of my favourite films was Stand By Me, starring the late River Phoenix. It tells the story of four young teenage boys who discover something about themselves by going on an adventure to find a dead body. They run away from home, learn to become self-reliant and take risks. It is through this experience that they leave behind childish things and move on to a new phase in their lives, not through some abstract notion of 'self-esteem' and feeling good about themselves.

The old adage that 'boys will be boys' was once used to explain away rough and childish behaviour in young males, while the advice to 'act like a man' was a reminder that you would one day have to grow up and become independent. Today there seems to be a new saying: 'Boys will be boys...forever.'

Top Man's 'leading lads' - but what are they leading?

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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