A CONVERSATION WITH RICHARD ASTON
Our boys! It can be hard work living WITH them – right? But we wouldn’t live WITHOUT them! And someone who knows exactly how we feel is Richard Aston, founder and Chief Executive of ‘Big Buddy’ … the organisation that pairs fatherless boys with suitable male mentors. His wife Ruth has been involved on the media communications side of ‘Big Buddy’ for a long time, and together they’ve co-authored a new book, ‘Our Boys’.
We were intrigued: did they have new insights, wise advice, a fresh approach? So we tracked Richard down (he was holidaying in Ireland) and popped a few questions:
GRAPEVINE: Are boys in worse trouble today than they were 10 years ago? Are we doing worse as mums and dads, despite all the self-help books and parenting articles?
RICHARD: Well, I’ve lots of optimism for boys – but, in reality, the stats are worrying. In terms of suicide, imprison-ments, accidents, drugs and alcohol incidents, the risks are still there for boys. In ‘Big Buddy’ I see hundreds and hundreds of mothers – coming to us looking for mentors for their boys who don’t have fathers. And their biggest concern is: “What will my boy grow into?” “What sort of man will he become?”
We’ve worked with 650 boys who we’ve matched-up with male mentors over quite a long period. We’ve seen how they flourish and how the interaction with the male mentors works for them. We’ve got lots of case histories – and we stay intensely involved with these relationships.
All that has given us a great body of knowledge. And, centrally, what we say is: Boys need male role models in their lives! They need men involved with them – hopefully their fathers, but also their grandfathers and uncles.
GV: Obviously as very young babies, boys are mainly dependent on their mums. When does that emphasis shift?
RICHARD: It’s not a hard-and-fast thing. Generally, by the age of seven, a boy needs to have a male in his life of whom he can say, “That’s my man!” He needs to know he belongs to the ‘man tribe’ – and to be able to say and believe, “I’m one of you!”
The first awakenings of this happen when he stands up and begins to walk about. As soon as he identifies himself as being different to girls, different to Mum, that’s when he needs a father-figure of some sort to say, “Hello, I’m one of you. I’m walking alongside you on this journey.”
GV: Dads show they’re different to Mum in other ways too, don’t they. Pillow-fights and play-wrestling … being thrown up in the air and caught …
RICHARD: Yes, fathers tend to do rough play – which is absolutely crucial. I often tell the story of a little fellah who’s trying to climb a big tree in the back garden. Mum’s saying, “Be careful! Don’t go any higher! You’ll hurt yourself!” And Dad’s saying, “Grab that branch in your left hand, and there’s a little notch by your knee – put your foot in that!” So Dad’s giving practical advice on how to handle a risky environment and stay safe.
Something we try really hard to say to parents is: It’s not so much what you do, but who you are – how you behave and handle yourself – that makes all the difference.
GV: For solo mums, who haven’t always had good experiences of men and fathers, how do they go about getting that male presence for their boy?
RICHARD: Our message to solo mums is: “Your boy needs a man in his life!” Ideally, look to your family first. Your father (the boy’s grandfather) – an uncle – older brothers – people like that. That’s the first place to look. And another point we’re making is that solo mums shouldn’t expect men to stump up and say, “Here I am – I’m ready!” Men need to be asked – even if it’s your older brother. Outside of family, you’re looking at friends, friends-of-friends, that kind of thing. And you need to say, “My boy really needs a man in his life – a good, dependable man. And I’d like it to be you!”
Men often need lots of help here – connecting the dots!
GV: And how can solo mums check that the man they choose isn’t dangerous?
RICHARD: There are certain clues that can help you. At the nasty end of the scale, if he’s a predator he’ll be far too interested! There’ll be presents – treats. He’ll just be too keen. Most men aren’t all that keen to do this. The golden rule is, really, if the guy seems overly-keen to be taking your boy out, away from home all the time … weeelll, treat that with caution. I don’t think he’s without some ulterior motive.
GV: But having a man even from within the family is no guarantee that he’s going to be suitable, is it?
RICHARD: That’s true. So, again, we’re saying to solo mums: you’ve got to trust your instincts. It’s important to keep an eye on your boy, too. Know who he is – know his behaviour. Okay, little boys can’t articulate well that they feel uncomfortable around ‘Uncle John’, but you’ll know from his behaviour (which hopefully you’re very well aware of) that he behaves strangely around Uncle John – he doesn’t seem quite at ease.
So we’re saying be staunch about this. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
There are also other ways for boys to get male influence. Through organised sport, for example. And they’ll often find opportunities to experience good men at school as well.
GV: You say that it’s good for boys to have a sense of connection with their background, to know who their significant ancestors are. Why’s that important?
RICHARD: This helps them in forming a sense of what it is to be a man. That’s the quest. Now a 14 year old boy’s not going to say this – but that’s what we see all the time. They’re trying to grow up, and the central question is, “Who am I?”
In the Old World, a boy’s reference points were the other men in his family – his uncles, his grandfathers, the people in the village, and all the rest of it. But, today, those reference points are obscured. Think of all the images about maleness on the Internet. Lots of them aren’t great. So boys of this age are really hungry for information about “What sort of man am I?”
Usually the most powerful image is his dad. Or stories about his grandfather who might’ve been famous for telling jokes, or being a great gardener, or terrific at sports. These ideas can be like little Lego blocks inside his head as he puts them together this way and that, saying, “Oh … so I’m like my Uncle Rob who laughed a lot – I’m good at jokes. And I’m a bit like Grandpa Bill who was a runner – I can run fast too!” It builds up a solid sense of who he really is and who he belongs to – the building blocks of whakapapa.
GV: And a boy could miss out on this if there’s no man in his life?
RICHARD: Definitely. And we’re also saying that just one male isn’t enough, really. You need to identify with a whole set of ancestors. Your father’s people, your mother’s people – aunties, uncles, cousins. They all help to make you who you are.
GV: One of the images in your book that struck me was the man who takes his son to a playground, but 90% of his attention is on his cellphone. The kid’s saying, “Look at me, Dad!” And the guy looks up briefly and says, “Yeah, great!” But then it’s back to the so-much-more important business on his device.
RICHARD: Distracted parenting is really common these days. We’re not saying you need to be completely engaged 24-hours-a-day – but, when you’re in those moments, they need to be taken seriously. I think the average contact-time for a parent these days is about four hours a week. So those moments aren’t a lot. But when you’re in those moments and when you’re playing with your kids, turn your cellphone off!
Full engagement! Boys expect it and need it. That’s your job right now, not the cellphone.
Giving a boy your full attention and full presence, even for half an hour, is far better than longer times when you’re not really there. And if you don’t give them that full attention, that’s when you’re going to see the fun-and-games and attention-seeking that can be so troublesome. Your boy needs to be filled up with your attention. He needs to know that he’s important enough to you that you’re really there with him.
GV: Another piece of advice you give is that we should choose our battles. Don’t make a huge issue out of something that isn’t worth it. Can you give us an example of, say, a battle you decided not to fight?
RICHARD: Oh gracious – that needs a bit of thinking about. (Several seconds of silence …) Well, there was one occasion with my son when he was more of an adult, really. He didn’t do well at school, and when he left (at about 17) I managed to get him some work in the I.T. industry. He was doing alright, and they were offering him promotion, but he came to me one day and said, “Dad, I don’t want to do this anymore – I just want to go snow-boarding!”
It was a seminal moment. I started off saying, “Son, you can’t do that. You’ve gotta be sensible. I know these people. The manager’s training you up to be an engineer. This is your future … blah de blah de blah”. But then he said the magic words … “Dad, I just want to have an adventure!”
Now, I could’ve picked this moment to have the big battle. I could’ve said, “Look, you need to knuckle down and get on with things responsibly – and I’m going to make you!” We could’ve got into the battle to the point where I might have said, “No – I insist that you get your qualifications before you go swanning off on adventures …” That’s the classic thing you’re meant to say, right? But, fortunately, I caught myself just in time, and instead said, “Great! Go and have an adventure! You’ve got my blessing!”
I chose not to enter that battle with him, and I’m so glad I did. He’s not an I.T. engineer now, but he runs a major snowboarding firm in Japan, with a staff of 180. He’s doing very well – and that adventure into snowboarding was his training.
GV: Do we over-protect our boys these days? Are we ‘cotton-wool-ing’ them?
RICHARD: The risks are changing, of course. But we do tend to be a bit too over-protective of boys – especially when they’re young. We’re fearful of them hurting themselves.
Boys really need some rough-and-tumble … which means ROUGH! And TUMBLE! Occasionally it’ll mean grazed knees and maybe even a broken bone. And if you’ve done every conceivable thing to prevent your boy grazing his knee or breaking his leg, you’ve not really done him a service – because he obviously hasn’t reached the limit of risk-taking.
Boys need to climb real trees and slide in real mud and get dirty sometimes. That’s how they learn to manage risks.
However, I think one area of risk that we’re probably not protective enough about is the Internet. I’m not against the Internet. It can be fantastic, and social media can be terrific … but there are risks in there that are quite new for parents. Not the risk of falling over and getting a cut, but the risk of seeing too much pornography at an early age … of having cyber-relationships that aren’t real or healthy … of being targeted by cyber-bullies. These are new risks our boys are facing – and are struggling with, actually.
GV: So how does a parent best handle these?
RICHARD: We’re not into giving out recipes to parents. We don’t say “A plus B equals C.” But we do suggest that you need to stay engaged with your boys. Keep the relationship alive. Keep talking. Keep listening.
The deeper the relationship you have, the more trust there is. The more you’ve chosen to avoid a few battles, that’s money-in-the-bank so, when he’s 14 and attracted to pornography, or hanging out with a dubious gang of others, or getting interested in drugs, then you can still be having conversations with him – as I did with our kids.
Ask them, “What sort of drugs are you hearing about?”
“Oh – well someone in the playground was talking about this or that (drug) …”
You look those things up on the Internet and find out about them. You inform yourself. And then you inform your children about the consequences of dabbling with those things.
You don’t need to be the big heavy: “All drugs are bad! Don’t even go there!” That’s very unhelpful advice for a 16-year-old boy, surrounded by all sorts of drug opportunities. It’s much more useful to say, “Oh, that drug? We’ve just discovered that people easily die if they o/d on that.” Spell out the consequences of drug-taking.
Boys need information … lots of information … really clear, dispassionate information that doesn’t have a lot of emotional baggage attached to it. And you’ve got to trust your boy that he’ll make the right choices. If you say, “Look – this drug P. Here’s an article about P – it does this, it does that – here’s the evidence – read it! I’m not making this up …”
Have some faith in him. You’ve raised him all this time. He’s an intelligent young man. Sure, he wants to be a bit of a rebel – but trust he’ll make the right decision if you inform him and stay connected and keep talking.
GV: What are your views about boundaries?
RICHARD: Boys need clear, simple boundaries. Absolutely! And that can get missed sometimes when parents try and keep their kids safe – they don’t want to be too hard on their boys, and can be reluctant to carry-through: “No – you’ve done this (whatever it was) and you’re staying in your room. You’ve got to live with the consequences.”
Don’t be scared of your boy. And be sure to follow through with whatever the consequences of their behaviour might be – because, if you don’t, it’ll come back to bite you!
Boundaries have got to be clear and simple. Consequences have to be realistic – and carried through. Don’t threaten unrealistic consequences when you’re all het up and emotional: “You’re banned from going out for six months!” Set consequences that are achievable – and, above all, don’t impose them when your judgement mightn’t be 100%.
GV: For example?
RICHARD: Well say your seven-year-old has just stolen something and got caught … or you’ve got a four-year-old who’s just tried to put the cat in the washing machine. At that exact moment you’re enraged. You’re likely to be yelling at him. You’re in the wrong place to set a boundary. The best thing is to announce, “Right! I need to calm down. Later, when I’ve calmed down, we’re going to talk about what’s going to happen from now on.” And you take a breath – even go away for a bit if you need to.
A couple of things can happen now. You make better decisions when you’re calm. And he’s learning, from you – by your modelling – that we don’t just make random decisions in the heat of the moment. We’re rational beings. That’s a good thing for him to see and learn from.
Yes, after it’s all over, you might feel quite sorry for him, but you should never apologise for the boundary – and you must stick to the consequences.
GV: You have a lot of ideas about schools and schooling. How do parents choose a good school? What should they look for?
RICHARD: There’re lots of opinions on what makes for a good school. You first need to be aware of who you are – what your own standards and values are. What are your religious values? If they’re important to you, they’ll be important for him, too. Are liberal values for you? Then look for those in the school. Whatever it is you want for your boy, define that clearly for yourself. You’ve got to feel comfortable with the school as a parent.
Then you’re looking for other things in the school, how they may work for your boy. You can ask questions of principals and teachers. Are there boy-friendly policies? Are they fully clued-in that boys have different needs to girls? How do they meet those needs?
For primary schools – what sort of play space do they provide for boys? Boys need lots of outside space to run around in. They need to be able to climb. They need to build stuff.
You’ll have to decide later on, when he’s a teenager, whether a single-sex or a co-ed school will be best for your boy. What’s in line with your own family values? What will work for him (because each boy is different, after all)?
You’ve got to look at what your boy is becoming. Taking the obvious one: is your boy fully into sport – very physical? Is he the sort who has trouble sitting down, looking at a blackboard? That sort of boy needs a school that has strong sporting values.
Maybe your boy is artistic … spends all his time in the library drawing or reading. Don’t push him into sport just because you like sport. Get him into a school that has a strong art tradition. It’s all about observing what’s emerging in your boy. Not what he says he wants (necessarily) but what you see emerging in him in the longer term.
In those ‘wild ride’ years of the teens, the school isn’t the only influence in socialising your boy. You should be looking out for the friendships he’s developing. He’s working out how to do relationships. And if he’s getting into the wrong group at school, be quite pro-active and move on that. If he’s with the bad boys and there’s bad stuff beginning to happen … if he’s a good boy but he’s being led the wrong way and if it’s to do with the school … take him out of that school and find another one. Don’t muck around.
GV: How about boys and sex? (Now there’s a topic to give us some grey hairs – right?) When do you talk to your son about sex? And what do you say?
RICHARD: Again, it should be an on-going conversation you’ve been having with him in various ways ever since he was quite young.
GV: How young?
RICHARD: Well, from the moment he first notices he’s got a penis. Your first sex talk starts when he asks, “What’s that?” So you’re beginning to have a conversation about sex right from those earliest days. I really don’t agree with the parenting line that says, “Oh, we don’t talk about sex at all before he’s 14!” Then, “Okay, son, here’s the big sex-talk – blah, blah, blah.” And then, “Phew – that’s done, thank goodness!”
We’re very strong on giving our kids the message that sex is about relationships. It’s really very important that boys respect women as human beings, not sexual objects. (And the porn he’ll see will be giving him quite the opposite idea.) So he needs you in that conversation, reassuring him about who you are and what your values are.
GV: You describe parenting boys from age 12 to 17 as the ‘wild ride’! And you certainly raise a lot of wild and worrying issues – drugs, the Internet, alcohol, driving, suicide! When parents see a list like this, they could surely be forgiven for reacting, “Oh my gosh! I think I’ll just become a hermit and live in a cave somewhere!” How do parents tackle those big, frightening issues?
RICHARD: So much of this stuff is part of a long narrative – a getting-to-know-each-other that starts off early. So, when the ‘wild years’ are coming on, you should have a pretty good sense of who your boy is and what has emerged in him. Is he very physical? Is he the sensitive type – reflective? What sort of testosterone levels has he got? As a parent, you need to be a real observer of your boy, so you get a sense of what risks he may be facing.
Yes, we’ve been there ourselves. And we had to cover the whole gamut of those scary questions. What about drugs? What about sex? What about risk taking? And when you read it all in one chapter, it is easy to think, “Holy hell – let’s all get off to a monastery!” I’ve felt that with my three daughters. They’ve made me think at certain points: “Hey, monasteries are good! Have you ever considered being a nun, dear?”
It’s a wild ride. That’s what we call it and – let’s be honest – that’s what it is! And the main thing is to stay engaged. Don’t let worry or fear drive you into draconian parenting or simply abandoning ship.
No – you don’t need to be the sergeant-major. That’s never going to work. Instead you should be alongside your boy at these critical stages. And he will appreciate it (even though it won’t seem that way at the time). One day, much later, he’ll say something like, “Dad, I’m so glad we had all those talks when I was 15 – I really felt like you understood!”
We know what it’s like – we’ve been there. And it can be really, really scary at times. But you will get through it. Have faith that the boy you’re raising – your son – is a fine young man who’s got his destiny in front of him. He’ll be fine. He’ll be just fine.
RICHARD ASTON’S BOOK, ‘OUR BOYS’, IS AVAILABLE FROM ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT WWW.BIGBUDDY.ORG.NZ.