When I first co-founded Enlighten Education with my partner Francesca Kaoutal back in 2003, the vision was to create workshops for both girls and boys that would inform, inspire and empower. Our initial work with boys was launched via an innovative and explorative program called “Tribal Zone.”
Although Fran and I were happy with the outcomes from this pilot program, at the time we both felt that our energies needed to be channelled into the urgent business of working with young women and also felt apprehensive about leading boys into an exploration of manhood. Surely this was mens’ business?
Fast forward 8 years and my own son, Kye, is now 11. As my career began in the classroom, and I spent 8 years working as both an English teacher and a students at risk co-ordinator, I have witnessed first-hand just how challenging adolescence is for many young men. The pressures placed on boys to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and to fit narrow definitions of masculinity now, more than ever, seem particularly urgent for me to help address. Whilst my son begins to prepare for High School next year, I too again feel the need to offer education that will help make the transition from boyhood to manhood more joyful and equip him, and all boys, with skills to make sense of a world that is not always kind to either gender.
Increasingly too schools have been asking me to work with their young men and share many of the messages I give to girls with their boys. Sydney’s Cranbrook School recently asked me to work with their middle school boys on developing conflict resolution skills, and on how they could best develop positive friendships.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and left feeling that I had indeed helped to make a difference.
So I recently approached colleague Nina Funnell to collaborate with me on designing a new workshop aimed at raising boys up. Nina is a writer, social commentator and an anti-violence advocate- she and I recently finished a book for girls on respectful relationships which will be published by Harper Collins in 2014.
The result? A two hour workshop that busts myths about boys. Some of the myths we bust include: “Teen boys are bad news”, “Real men don’t cry”, “All gamers are socially inept geeks,” “Boys punch on and then move on” and “All strong men have six-packs.” We do not assume to tell boys how to be men, but rather use our expertise in engaging young people to educate them to make their own decisions, and we equip them with the skills they need to make better choices. And we draw on the wisdom of men in leadership roles:
I recently delivered this workshop to over a thousand boys from years 6 through to year 11 over the course of a week at the Australian International School In Singapore. I have to say I was beyond thrilled with the results! 95% of boys rated the session as either Very Good or Excellent, and 99% said they would recommend it. But aside from asking them what they thought of the day, we also wanted to ascertain what they wished all adults would better understand about their world. The boys’ comments were incredibly poignant and meaningful and expressed a strong desire for them to be better understood:
- I wish adults would understand that we have feelings, we’re not perfect, we need help sometimes and we don’t have a perfect body. Ned, yr 9
- I wish adults would understand that it’s a lot harder than most parents would suspect (being a boy) because of various things such as media. Kieran, Yr 9
- I liked the performance thing, it gave us a chance to try. I learnt that we are not the troublemakers. We are hard on our life, so please be soft on us. Anon.Yr 9
- Today I learnt that assertiveness works, aggressiveness doesn’t work, talking face to face is always better and that chicks want nice guys. Adults need to understand that being a teen boy we have a lot of pressure. Anton, Yr 9
- Adults need to understand that playing video games isn’t bad, and can also be helpful. I learnt today that boys have feelings, aggression isn’t always the answer and to be assertive. Dylan, yr 9
- I wish adults would understand that I’m a good child and do the right thing. Andy, Yr 9
- I learnt today to be assertive, express yourself, don’t have to be buff, games aren’t socially inept and talk in person about troubles. I wish adults would understand that we aren’t all trouble, sometimes we hide our struggles, we can be good at communicating and the pressure about our bodies. Joel, Yr 9
- I wish adults would understand that boys also feel pressure. Girls might seem all weak (which is sexist) but even boys have emotions. We aren’t all those buff powerhouses like everyone thinks. Dalai, yr 7
- I liked learning how we are influenced because it was interesting. I learnt to give time, be calm, men cry, be assertive and boys aren’t always bad. Zac, Yr 7
- I wish adults would understand that teen boys aren’t all bad and that we can be smart, organized, clean, healthy and independent. Wayne, Yr 7
- I liked the information you gave us about reality and the truth about growing up. I wish adults would understand the stress of school, making friends and our troubles and needs. Anon, Yr y8
- Today taught me about social media, myths about boys, dealing with friends, how to keep calm and stereotypes about boys. I wish adults would understand that we can be good and to let us get out more. Kahn, Yr 7
- My favourite part today was listening to a well-structured and hilarious presentation with issues that are extremely relevant. I learnt that there are many stereotypes surrounding boys, ways to solve problems and conflict, there are similarities between boys and girls, boys aren’t as strong as depicted by the media and that the level of intelligence of boys and girls is the same. I want adults to understand that we get stressed with assignments and other homework tasks at times. Kevin, Yr 10
- All of it was great and it gave us useful advice. I learnt that some adults acknowledge that their reasoning my be incorrect or exaggerated. I want adults to remember that they had their own equivalent stereotypes when they were growing up. Hahn, Yr 10
- My favourite parts were the interactive ones. I learnt that we aren’t all heartless Neanderthals, violence against women goes unnoticed and not all guys just want sex. I would like adults to know that we aren’t as dumb as we are depicted. Ben, Yr 11
- I expected it to be a long boring speech but I liked everything, it was exciting and I wasn’t bored. I learnt that not all guys are bad, how to make up with friends, there are a lot of myths about guys and the target market for boys and girls is very different. I would like adults to know that I am not like the bad boys on tv and I hope they don’t compare me to them. Jonathan, yr 11
Perhaps the thing that moved me the most though was not so much the boys’ words, but rather their actions. Many lined up to give me a hug good-bye. Or to shake my hand. Or simply to give me a “High-5”. I found myself quite overwhelmed by the enthusiastic way in which they embraced these messages, I even had boys running up to me in the playground throughout the course of the week to thank me yet again.
Working with young women will always be a priority. Yet I cannot help but feel excited about the impact this work may have on young men too – and of course on the women in their lives who will be positively impacted by the changes we are helping to create.
To enquire about having me work with the boys at your school email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note, this work is run independently and is not part of Enlighten Education’s programs.