Where’s the dad in the Christmas ad?

Is it just me, or do the Christmas ads arrive earlier each year? This year they seemed to be off the starting blocks as soon as Hallowe’en was out of the way. And more retailers than ever seemed to want to get in on the act, seeking ever more imaginative ways to separate us from our money, by conjuring up heartwarming and occasionally tearjerking festive scenarios.

Besides being designed to sell products, these short films can also be seen as mini morality tales that reflect some of society’s current concerns. For those of us who research and write about families and relationships, the ads – which, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on families coming together to celebrate Christmas – offer a valuable snapshot of how those relationships are now viewed.

As I watched this year’s crop of Christmas ads, one question kept coming up for me: where’s the dad? Now, it could be that, given my research interests in fatherhood and men’s relationships with their children, this might have been a case of selective perception – but I don’t think so. Take this year’s John Lewis ad, for example. Once again, the retailer broke new ground by using scenes from the life of a celebrity – Elton John – as the vehicle for its Christmas message.

I was struck by the way the ad focuses on the relationship between the young Elton (real name Reginald Dwight) and his mother and grandmother, and by the complete absence of a father, or indeed any significant adult male character, in the story. Now it’s true that Elton’s father was often absent during his childhood, and he was raised mainly by his mother and grandmother. But his dad, who had been a trumpeter in a semi-professional big band, was apparently a key influence on his son’s developing musical talent. What’s more, his parents didn’t divorce until Elton was fourteen (some years after the iconic scene in the film when the child gets a piano for Christmas) – and then his mother got married again to a man who, by all accounts, was a caring and supportive stepfather. Didn’t either of these men merit a mention in the story of Elton’s rise to fame?

I suppose, strictly speaking, the emphasis on Elton’s relationship with his mother and grandmother is faithful to the reality of the musician’s childhood. And you can see why the filmmakers, charged with making a three-minute commercial, wanted to keep the story simple and the number of characters to a minimum. But is it completely accidental that they chose to feature a story from which anything resembling a father figure is totally absent?

The sense that the John Lewis video might not be a one-off, but perhaps part of a trend, was confirmed when I saw this year’s ad from Boots. This held a particular interest for me, as we saw it being filmed in our local market place in Hitchin back in November.

 

The rather cheesy story, told in the adapted words of Robbie Williams’ She’s The One (changed to ‘She’s me mum’) is about a teenage girl who sees her mother as a rather irritating presence who disapproves of everything she does and is intent on spoiling her fun. But then she sees her mum singing loud and proud – ‘stunning and strong’ – in a choir performing in front of the town Christmas tree, realises what a wonderful person she really is, and mother and daughter are reconciled in a heartwarming exchange of presents on Christmas morning.  All fine and good – a nice, if rather twee story of a daughter learning to value her mother. But again: where’s the dad?

Yes, of course this reflects the reality of family life for an increasing number of children and young people: a 2013 report claimed that a million children in Britain were growing up without a resident father, and that the number of lone parent families was set to increase by 20,000 per year. But like the John Lewis ad, doesn’t this film also send a message: that dads are not really necessary or important?

In some of this year’s other Christmas advertisements, there is a faint suggestion that a father might be around, but he often seems to be peripheral to his children’s lives. For example, the Sainsbury’s ad centres on a school Christmas show, focusing on a little African-Caribbean girl who is dressed as a star – and indeed, turns out to be the star of the show. At first her voice is hesitant, then it grows in confidence, and her mother is seen in the audience willing her on, then beaming with pride. The film tracks back and forth between the two faces – those of the little girl and her mother. Right at the end, as the applause rings out, we get a glimpse of the mother leaning on a male shoulder, but we don’t see the face: is it a son, or a partner? If the latter, why don’t we see his pride in his daughter’s performance?

Once again, while it’s admirable that advertisers are sending a positive message about mothers, and the importance of maternal relationships (something I’ve written about elsewhere), I was still left asking: what about the dad, and once again why have the film makers chosen to focus on a fatherless scenario?

 

Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway. (On the other hand, I’ve always liked that line from the Gospel narrative: ‘He…shall turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.’) But maybe that’s a discussion for another time…

Against this background, it was a relief to come across a Christmas ad suggesting that dads might actually have a role to play at Christmas – and in their children’s lives generally. The ad for Barbour (yes, even they have a Christmas ad this year) re-tells the story of The Snowman, but this time it’s a girl rather than a boy who wonders if her snowman will come to life. She waits patiently in the cold, snowy garden as night falls, until her father comes out and affectionately puts a warm Barbour coat (what else?) around her shoulders.

 

However, for the season’s most touching father-child interaction we have to cross the Channel, and watch this ad for Bouygues mobile phones – even if it does rely on totally unfair stereotypes about ‘dad dancing’!

 

And finally, if you want to see a real tearjerker about dads at Christmas, then I’ll leave with you with this 2015 ad from German supermarket Edeka.

Frohe Weihnachten Papa! And a Merry Christmas to dads (and mums, and sons and daughters) everywhere…

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‘We are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again’.

This is a kind of footnote to my last post about the conference on ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ that I attended recently in Portland, Oregon. Thanks to Twitter, I came across this beautiful article by comedian Jeremy McLellan, on welcoming people with intellectual disabilities. You don’t have to share the author’s religious beliefs to conclude that this is a perfect encapsulation of (one aspect of) an ethic of care. Here’s the key passage, but do read the whole thing:

Our culture does not make it easy to welcome intrusions. Avoiding such inefficiencies is baked into liberalism itself. We have worked to replace a social order built on a rich web of unchosen obligations with a series of voluntary relationships entered into by rational, sovereign, independent individuals. And once our obligations are reduced to only those to which we have freely consented, we cannot help but regard the uninvited presence of the other as an intrusion.

It is no mystery, then, why close forms of community, particularly the extended family, have collapsed in the West. After all, you do not choose your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, ancestors or heritage. You can choose whether to have children, but you cannot (yet) choose what they will be like. You can choose a spouse, but you do not get to choose how that person will change. Over time, he or she will become a different person. And so will you. In the end, every marriage is an arranged marriage.

So whether it is the disabled, the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the refugee or anyone else, our attitude is often the same: We did not agree to this. This was not part of the plan. They are burdens. And they are. But we are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again.

Care ethics and precarity: reflections on an international conference

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Pioneer Courthouse, Portland

Last week I was in Portland, Oregon, in the United States, for a conference on ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’, organised by the Care Ethics Research Consortium. I’m a relative newcomer to care ethics: my interest in the field has grown out of my academic work on issues of gender, identity and care, and in particular my research on men’s care for children, whether as fathers or paid workers. The relatively new discipline (or, more accurately, interdisciplinary field) of care ethics, and feminist care ethics in particular, has helped me to think about the ways in which men develop a capacity to care, and has converged with my growing interest in phenomenology, a philosophical tradition that underpins the work of many care ethicists.

My own contribution to the conference was a paper on marginalised young men and the development of caring masculinities, which drew on two recent research studies in which I’ve been involved, and discussed the ways in which the family relationships of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds influence their capacity to care, attempting to frame this within the relational perspective on identity advanced by care ethics. (To download the slides from my talk click on this link: CERC2018presentation_MartinRobb2) It was a pleasure to find myself on a panel with Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck from Portland State University, and to discover surprising affinities in their work on the role of family relationships in the development of leaders in business ethics.

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Presenting on ‘Young men, social disadvantage and the development of caring masculinities’, alongside Jeanne Enders and Lukas Robuck

The conference as a whole was an intellectually stimulating and challenging experience. It was a privilege to hear presentations by some of the key figures in the field, including Joan Tronto and Eva Feder Kittay, two of the ‘founding mothers’ of feminist care ethics. And it was good to finally meet people whose work I’ve admired from a distance – such as Carlo Leget from the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands, arguably the ‘nerve centre’ of care ethics, Petr Urban from the Czech Academy of Sciences, with whom I’d previously been in email contact, and Maurice Hamington from Portland State University, whose writing on men’s embodied care I’ve found particularly inspiring.

Maurice also deserves credit for hosting such a well-organised and welcoming conference, in which careful attention was paid not only to scheduling a diverse programme of lectures, panels and presentations, but also to offering an aesthetically and socially pleasing experience, which included art, photography, music – and superb catering!

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Carlo Leget and Maurice Hamington opening the conference

One of the things I really liked about the conference programme was the way it combined the philosophical and theoretical with the empirical and practical, with sessions ranging from explorations of ancient Greek understandings of care and precarity, through to a very moving presentation on work with prisoners, which included first-hand accounts – and poetry – by young men who had themselves been incarcerated (and whose powerful poem ‘Toxic Masculinity’ echoed many of the themes of my own presentation). Before attending the conference, my understanding of the concept of precarity had been fairly vague, but I came away with many new insights: Carlo Leget’s talk helped me to see that precarity could be chosen, as in the case of St Francis of Assisi, while Luigina Mortari drew out the etymological roots of the term, and Eva Feder Kittay’s keynote lecture clarified the difference between precarity and precariousness, in the process radically challenging the ways we understand the lives of disabled people.

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Stephen Fowler and Noah Schultz give poetic voice to their experience of the American prison system

The conference also added considerably to my already extensive care ethics and philosophy reading list. To mention just a few: Carlo’s talk prompted me to want to re-read Simone Weil, Merel Visse’s presentation on abandonment aroused my interest in the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, and Petr pointed me towards political ethnographer Didier Fassin as a resource for understanding the (un)caring practices of the state.

Care ethics and politics: a few thoughts

A number of the conference talks had a political dimension, with a common theme being care ethics as an alternative or challenge to the current wave of neopopulism sweeping both American and European politics. I admit that I had some reservations about the ways the issue was framed, particularly in an important presentation by Joan Tronto, whose book Caring Democracy has been influential in this debate. From a British perspective, I have to confess that it was a little annoying to see Brexit listed, alongside the election of Trump and of reactionary governments in Europe, as an instance of right-wing populism, and I think it pointed to a possible weakness, or absence, in the anti-neopopulist argument as it was formulated by some speakers at the conference.

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Joan Tronto

Firstly, the inclusion of Brexit in this list overlooks the large numbers of British people who supported the ‘Leave’ campaign from a left-wing position, or for reasons that were far from reactionary, such as dissatisfaction with a perceived democratic deficit in the European Union and concern about the growth of a bureaucratic European superstate and the concomitant erosion of national identities. Secondly, it points to a need not simply to dismiss so-called neopopulist movements as inherently wicked, but to try to understand the genuine feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation that give rise to them: in Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s formulation, to identify the kernel of good sense within the common sense of neopopulism.

Both in her conference talk and in Caring Democracy, Tronto proposed care ethics as a framework for the renewal of democratic politics, in opposition to the undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies of neopopulist movements. But what if neopopulism itself is, at least in part, an expression of a desire for greater democracy and local control, in reaction to what are perceived to be distant and faceless supernational bureaucracies? In the words of British political commentator Paul Embery, it’s possible to view neopopulist movements as ‘defensive crusades against rapid cultural and demographic change, against the rapacious and disruptive power of global finance, and the weakening of democracy and sovereignty at the hands of remote and unaccountable institutions’.

What’s more, Tronto characterised neopopulism as a reaction to neoliberalism, whereas it could equally well be seen a rejection of paternalist state welfarism. There’s a danger that a care ethical approach could be perceived simply as a return to what political theorist Adrian Pabst calls ‘state-administered equality’, rather than offering a genuine alternative to the failures of both welfarism and neoliberalism. Incidentally, the British experience is a reminder that neopopulism is not only a feature of the political right: here in the UK we are currently witnessing a left-wing version that shares many of the features of its right-wing mirror image, including a cult of personality, media-blaming, conspiracy theories, and a strain of racism – in this case antisemitism.

If care ethics is to offer a real challenge to neopopulism, then surely it needs to understand the genuine feelings of alienation that have given rise to it, including the perceived loss of the communal and national identities that give meaning to many people’s lives: in Pabst’s words ‘a respect for settled ways of life, a sense of place and belonging, a desire for home and rootedness, the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood’. In other words, neopopulism could itself be seen as the expression of a desire for a renewal of relationships of care and connection, albeit often in a distorted form. Perhaps a care ethical alternative to neopopulism might incorporate some of the ideas developed in an alternative strain of British progressivism – the movement that has come to be known as ‘blue Labour’ – including work by thinkers such as PabstMaurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford.

Given its feminist provenance, it’s not surprising that care ethics tends to be associated with the political Left. But if it’s to offer a real alternative to neopopulism, and one that connects with the experiences and aspirations of ordinary people rather than imposing solutions from on high, then I would suggest that care ethics needs to avoid being tied too closely to one side of the political divide, and to offer a genuine challenge to the orthodoxies of both left and right.

A new book for postgraduate students of childhood and youth

It always feels good to take delivery of a new book that you’ve been working on. A couple of weeks ago I received my copies of the newly-published second edition of Children and  young people’s worlds, a course reader that I co-edited with my Open University colleague Heather Montgomery. The book has been designed to accompany the new first stage module in the OU’s Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies, which will be welcoming its first students in September this year.

The book sets out the contexts of children’s and young people’s lives in the early twenty-first century and encourages students – and general readers – to explore their complexities. The first edition of the book, edited by Heather with Mary Kellett (now the OU’s Acting Vice Chancellor!) was produced in the very different context of the early 2000s. As we say in our introduction to the new edition, the landscape of children’s lives, and of policies affecting children and young people, as well as the scope of Childhood and Youth Studies, has changed enormously in the intervening years. In response to this, the new edition has been substantially updated in order to discuss and analyse new topics and issues that have emerged over the last ten years.

The new book, which is truly interdisciplinary, draws on insights from psychology, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, geography and education, with each of the  seventeen chapters challenging students’ assumptions and examining crucial issues in the field – including race and ethnicity, sexuality, rights, the law, disability and transnational childhoods. The list of authors includes some of the leading names in the study of childhood and youth, mostly drawn from the UK, but with some international contributors, and a determination to make the content relevant to a global as well as a domestic audience.

One of the chapters, co-written by me and my fellow researcher Sandy Ruxton, focuses on the issue of young men and gender identity, and draws on the research that we carried out in 2016-17 on young masculinity and wellbeing, as part of a three-country study led by Promundo. In the chapter, we argue that, despite important changes in gender relations and significant progress towards gender equality, the lives of many boys and young men continue to be influenced by – and to some extent constrained by – conventional norms governing what it means to be a man.

I hope that has whetted your appetite for the new book and that, if you’re a student of childhood and/or youth, or a course leader, or simply someone with a general interest in the ways that children’s and young people’s lives are changing, you’ll consider purchasing a copy.

Special issue of ‘Genealogy’ on fatherhood

I’m guest editor for a special issue of the open access journal Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective.’ The deadline for submissions is February 2019 and you can find more information here.

The journal defines ‘genealogical’ in the broadest possible terms, including ‘the use of genealogical epistemologies to examine social discourses and institutions’, and much more besides. I’m hoping that the special issue attracts articles from a wide variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives – understanding ‘genealogy’ as embracing everything from family history to Foucault!

Editing the special issue neatly brings together my academic research interests in fatherhood, masculinities and the gender of ‘care’, with my more amateur genealogical activities, which I’ve written about in a number of earlier posts on this blog.

So, whether you’re a family historian who has uncovered hidden histories of fatherhood among your recent relatives or distant ancestors, or a fatherhood researcher with thoughts about the relationship between present and past fatherhoods, I hope you’ll consider submitting an article for the special issue.

You can email me at martin.robb@open.ac.uk if you want to discuss your ideas further before submitting.

Fatherhood, families and intensive parenting: reflections on two recent conferences

In the past few weeks I’ve attended two fascinating one-day conferences, both of which were memorable for stimulating new thinking about issues that I’m working on, and for creating opportunities to meet and make connections with people working in related fields whose work I’ve admired from a distance.

The first event, on young fatherhood and masculinity from a global perspective, was organised by Francesca Salvi at the University of Portsmouth. I was one of the invited speakers, and the conference gave me a chance to share my thoughts on young men, fatherhood and family relationships, based on two research projects with young men in which I’ve been involved.

One of the aims of the conference was to publicise a new study of teenage fatherhood in South Africa, which Fran is leading with Deevia Bhana from the University of Kwazulu Natal. Deevia gave the key note lecture and also brought along two South African colleagues to talk about their research on related topics. I was intrigued to learn about the ways in which dominant notions of masculinity played into debates about young fatherhood in the South African context. It was clear that, for some groups of young men, reckless sexual behaviour, with no thought for the consequences, was regarded as a badge of masculinity. But the question was left open as to whether taking responsibility for a child you’ve fathered had any place in young men’s notions of what it means to be a man.

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Deevia Bhana giving the key note lecture at the Portsmouth conference

These presentations gave me plenty to think about, particularly in relation to our own plans for new research on young fatherhood, relationships and wellbeing in the UK, and it was good to talk with Deevia and Fran about possible links between our two projects. There were a number of other interesting presentations too, including Carmen Lau-Clayton sharing the findings from the Following Young Fathers study, and Paul Hodkinson talking about becoming a primary or equal caregiving father.

Paul was one of the organisers of the other conference that I attended recently, at the University of Surrey, where the focus was more broadly on family and parenting issues. I was keen to hear about the research that Paul has been doing recently with Ranjana Das, on new fathers, mental health and social media, which has connections with projects that I’m currently working on with colleagues at The Open University and elsewhere: not just the young fathers and relationships project, but also work I’ve recently begun with Kerry Jones and Sam Murphy on fathers and perinatal loss, which we hope will include an exploration of how men use the internet for peer support after the loss of a child.

The Surrey event also included a rich menu of fascinating presentations on issues relating to parenting and family relationships. I was particularly intrigued to hear about research by Vicki Harman and her colleagues, on the surveillance of school lunchboxes, and the issues that it highlighted around family privacy and the role of social institutions with regard to parents and children. Listening to the talk reminded me of my own visceral negative reaction, as a parent, when I first read about instances of schools inspecting children’s lunchboxes and implicitly shaming parents in front of their children, for not providing their offspring with food that accorded with current notions of healthy eating. The selection and preparation of food is one of the most intimate areas of parent-child relations, and for external agencies to interfere with it can feel like an unwarranted violation of that relationship. In my mind I connected debates around this issue with other recent controversies surrounding the relative roles and responsibilities, vis a vis children, of parents and the state – such as the proposed ‘named person’ policy in Scotland.

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Charlotte Faircloth giving the open plenary at the Surrey conference

This was all particularly interesting, coming after an excellent plenary presentation on the rise of ‘intensive’ parenting by Charlotte Faircloth. Charlotte’s talk raised questions for me about links between the intensification of expectations around parenting and debates about the extension of childhood. Charlotte spoke about the increasing privatisation of parenting, but some of the things she said made me wonder whether, in certain ways, the role of parent hasn’t begun to be assumed by public bodies – and by extension, the state.  It put me in mind of recent work by Frank Furedi – Charlotte’s erstwhile colleague at Kent and a fellow member of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies – on the quasi-parental role now assumed by some higher education institutions (For example, I was surprised to discover recently that the student mentors allocated to freshers at my niece’s university are actually described as ‘parents’.) Frank spoke about these themes in his keynote lecture at the ‘Parenting and personhood’ conference that I attended in Canterbury two years ago, and also in a recent talk in Budapest that you can watch online. There’s room for further research, I think, on the spread of ‘parentalism’ beyond the confines of the nuclear family, and what it means for children’s and young people’s socialisation.

Once again, thanks to Fran at Portsmouth, and Paul and Ranjana at Surrey, for organising two stimulating and memorable events.

The slides from my presentation at the Portsmouth conference can be found here:

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Article in ‘The Scotsman’

Here’s a copy of my article that appeared in yesterday’s Scotsman. Thanks to Louise Davison at The Open University in Scotland for making it possible.

Boys need help to find new ways of being men without using ‘traditional’ models

It’s not easy being a boy in 2018. Young men today face challenges that weren’t experienced by their fathers and grandfathers, including changing gender roles and the disappearance of many traditionally ‘male’ jobs, and with them many of the processes that once helped boys to make the transition to manhood. In this fast-changing context, there’s a growing awareness that not all boys are coping well. Boys are falling behind girls in terms of educational performance, are more likely to get labeled with conditions such as ADHD, and are experiencing an increase in referral for mental health problems.

A recent conference in Glasgow on ‘Supporting Boys’, organised by Policy Hub Scotland, heard from a range of speakers about some of the issues faced by boys today. I was there to present the findings from research that I’ve carried out, with colleagues at The Open University, on working with vulnerable and ‘at risk’ young men. One of our studies, with Action for Children, involved interviewing young male services users, and the professionals who work with them, at social care projects throughout the United Kingdom – including the West of Scotland. As part of my presentation, I showed the short film that we commissioned, which features workers and service users from Moving On, a support service in Kilmarnock for young men with experience of the criminal justice system. I also contributed to a more recent research study, as part of an international project exploring the impact of ideas about ‘being a man’ on young men’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

So what does all of this research tell us? Firstly, that despite the enormous changes in gender roles that have taken place in recent years, the lives of many young men are still straitjacketed in some ways by conventional notions of masculinity. Young men can feel trapped in what researchers have called the ‘man box’: a set of expectations that define, and limit, the kind of person they can be. The young men we spoke to as part of our research said they felt a pressure to act tough, hide weakness and ‘look good’. Some said they find it difficult to express their feelings, and as a consequence are less likely than young women to seek professional help for their problems. One said: ‘Men, we just deal with it differently … we’ve got other channels of expressing our feelings.’ This can have a negative impact on their mental health, and on their relationships with others.

We found that many young men, especially those from poorer communities, are caught up in patterns of what might be called hypermasculine behaviour. Violence is still a feature of many of these young men’s lives, with some regarding it as a way of maintaining status and as an inevitable part of becoming a man. ‘It shapes young boys into men,’ said one. But at the same time some resented being seen as a threat, simply because they were young and male, and felt targeted by the police when out in public in groups.

Despite the fact that they may have experienced fractured family relationships, most of the young men we spoke to aspired to be good fathers, and the experience of young fatherhood – though stigmatised by the wider society – can often be the catalyst for making the transition from reckless young masculinity to responsible manhood. That transition can also be aided by the kind of consistent care and support shown by staff at projects like Moving On. There’s a good deal of talk these days, in the media and from politicians, about boys today lacking positive male role models, but while there may be a grain of truth in this, the young men we spoke to said that the gender of their support worker wasn’t really important. What mattered more was their personal qualities: whether they showed them genuine care and respect.

It could be argued that our research presents only one side of the story, and that many boys and young men are doing just fine, and adapting well to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. But it’s important that we don’t overlook the needs of those young men – particularly from poor communities and marginalised social groups – who risk getting left behind by change. For them, the traditional models of masculinity are no longer working. It’s important that we help them to find new ways of being a man, and support them to realise their full potential.

‘Supporting Boys’ in Glasgow

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Dave Devenney of Fathers Network Scotland introduces the conference

Yesterday I was in Glasgow to speak at a conference on ‘Supporting Boys’ organised by Policy Hub Scotland and Red Harbour. I’m grateful to Mark Bellamy and Claire Hunter for the invitation to take part in what turned out to be an inspirational and thought-provoking event. Attended by practitioners from diverse backgrounds from across Scotland, the conference included presentations and interactive sessions on a mind-blowing variety of topics – from educationalist AliMcClure talking about differences in the structure of boys’ and girls’ brains and getting audience members skipping and dancing, through Laura Sharpe from SeeMe on screen addiction and mental health, Daljeet Dagon of Barnardo’s on boys as victims of sexual exploitation, Graham Goulden on the need to invite, not indict boys, to Martin Daubney on young men and pornography.

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Daljeet Dagon talks about young men as victims of sexual exploitation*

My own session focused on young men, masculinity and role models, and drew on the findings of two research projects in which I’ve been involved in the past five years: ‘Beyond male role models’, in collaboration with Action for Children and funded by the ESRC (ES/K005863/1), and ‘Young men, masculinity and wellbeing’, in partnership with Promundo and supported by Axe/Unilever. As part of my presentation, I showed the shorter version of the video that we commissioned as part of the former study, featuring young male service users and support workers at two centres: Working With Men in London and Moving On in Kilmarnock. It’s a powerful film, illustrating not only the broken relationships and horrific experiences that many ‘at risk’ young men have been through, but more positively, the fact that it’s never too late to make a change. However, both the film and our wider research highlight the fact that, for many young men who have led troubled lives, making the transition from reckless and self-destructive young masculinity to responsible adult masculinity can be a difficult process – and there’s a desperate need for the kind of support offered by services like Working With Men and Moving On, to hold and carry young men through that transition.

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Screen shots from the ‘Beyond male role models’ video

I’d been asked to speak about the importance of male role models, but while acknowledging the grain of truth in what our research team termed the ‘male role model’ discourse, I tried to highlight some of the dangers of too great a focus on the gender identity of the adults who work with boys and young men. Yes, many of the young men who end up using social care services have not had a consistent father figure in their lives, but drawing a straight line of cause and effect between this absence, and the multiple challenges they face as young men, may be too simplistic. What’s more, our research clearly shows that ‘present’ fathers, and other men, can be a problem too, often modelling exactly the kinds of hypermasculine behaviour that have got boys into trouble in the first place. There’s also a risk of overlooking, or worse stigmatising, the positive role that mothers and other women can play in boys’ healthy development, even when there isn’t a man around. Often, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or older sisters, have been the only consistent and positive influence in a boy’s life, and many men will admit that if they’ve learnt anything about how to be a good father – and by extension a good, caring man – it’s been mainly from their mums.

Finally, I made the point that, whenever we’ve asked boys and young men whether the gender of the worker, or the adult supporting them, is important, the overwhelming response has been that it’s much less significant than the individual’s personal qualities. To be sure, some young men preferred working with a male member of staff, but just as many said they responded better to a female worker, while the vast majority claimed gender – or indeed, any other kind of social identity – wasn’t really a key factor. Instead, what young men using social care services told us time and again was that they valued adults who were committed, consistent, respectful – and above all, who genuinely cared about them. And support workers told us that building consistent, respectful relationships of care with troubled young men was absolutely vital in helping them to turn their lives around.

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Panel discussion with Dave Devenney, me, Martin Daubney, Ali McLure, Graham Goulden and Douglas Guest

These are themes that I’m hoping to take forward in future research. For example, I’m currently working with a group of colleagues, from a range of organisations, on a funding proposal around young fathers, relationships and wellbeing. We’ve already identified some groups of young dads, and support workers, in the south of England, who are keen to work with us, but we’d be really interested to make contact with others, especially those based in in the north of England, Scotland and other parts of the UK, whether working in the community or in prisons, with similar interests.

You can email me at: martin.robb@open.ac.uk

*Thanks to my fellow conference participants, via Twitter, for the photos of the event used in this blog post.

Exploring aspects of fatherhood

This post is by way of an update on my current research activities. As reported in the previous post, my most recent piece of academic research was on young men, masculinity and well-being, working with Sandy Ruxton and David Bartlett, as part of a three-country study led by Promundo. The study I worked on before that – Beyond Male Role Models, which was funded by the ESRC and organised in partnership with Action for Children – also focused on young men and issues of gender identity. However, since completing those studies, I’ve been involved in discussions about a number of possible projects relating to an earlier – and continuing – research interest of mine: fatherhood.

Last year, I reported on a meeting I attended in Amsterdam, with colleagues from the UK, Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands, exploring the possibility of undertaking some methodologically innovative research with fathers of disabled children. Since that meeting, a number of pilot interviews have been carried out, in some of the partner countries, and we’re currently looking for funding for some small-scale research with fathers here in the UK. The plan is to use fathers’ own ‘home videos’, perhaps recorded on their mobile phones, as a means of exploring their relationships with their children, and their experiences of interacting with professionals.

father and son

Father and son: via scope.org.uk

At the same time, I’ve been working with a major national charity, and with colleagues from other universities, on a research proposal on young fathers and relationships. Both Beyond Male Role Models and the Promundo study highlighted the positive role that fatherhood can play in the lives of young men, but also some of the challenges for young fathers in sustaining relationships with partners and with their children. We’re hoping to acquire funding to work alongside young fathers, both to explore these issues in depth, and also to develop some kind of resource that can support both young fathers and the services that work with them.

More recently, I’ve started work with my Open University colleagues Kerry Jones on a pilot project, exploring fathers’ experience of antenatal and perinatal bereavement, a topic that we believe is seriously under-researched. We’ve begun by reviewing the existing literature, and at the same time exploring the ways in which bereaved fathers are supporting each other through blogs, social media and other online resources.

If you are currently working on any of these topics yourself, or are interested in being involved in any of these projects in some way, do please contact me at martin.robb@open.ac.uk

Young men talk about the pressures of the ‘man box’

What does it mean to be young and male today? How do today’s young men think about and experience ‘masculinity’? In 2016, Promundo, a global agency that promotes gender equality by working with boys and young men, partnered with Axe/Unilever to explore these issues in three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico. Email and telephone surveys were used to reach a representative, random sample of young men, reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of each country. Combined with these surveys, qualitative studies were organised in each of the three countries, in which focus group discussions were used to listen at length to young men’s own views and perspectives.

The Open University was commissioned to convene the focus groups in the UK, and I worked on this with independent researcher Sandy Ruxton and consultant David Bartlett last autumn. We brought together four focus groups, two in London and two in the north of England, made up of young men between the ages of 18 and 30 from diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, religion and social background.

Image copyright (c) Diego Cervo via shutterstock.com

It’s difficult to summarise our findings in a few sentences, but you can read a full report on our research here and Sandy Ruxton and I have published an article at The Conversation which you can read here.

Briefly, the wider international study found that most young men are supportive of movements towards gender equality, but many still find themselves stuck in what researchers have called the ‘Man Box’, a construct of ideas and expectations about what it means to be a man – and this can have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing, as well as on their personal relationships.  Our focus groups tended to echo these  findings, and we believe that our study has interesting and important things to say about young men’s attitudes to family, friendships, sexuality, violence, work and community.

The international study, of which our focus groups formed a part, argues that breaking free from the ‘Man Box’ is ‘not something young men can do on their own’.  It concludes that ‘parents, educators, the media, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and others need to be part of the process of reinforcing positive, equitable, unrestrictive ideas of manhood’. On the basis of our group discussions in the UK, we agree that young men need support if they are to break out of the ‘Man Box’ and achieve their full potential. Policy makers and professionals would do well to listen to the voices of young men and attend to the complex realities of their experience, which undermine the often simplistic messages in the media about the so-called ‘problem’ of boys.