November brings big opportunities to focus on men's health and wellbeing, so I am really happy to be asked to work in partnership with Huffington Post for this busy month of discussion and events bringing as it does International Men's Day, and the Being A Man festival at London's Southbank at the end of the month.
We intend to focus a lot on suicide during this month partly because it is such an important issue but also because we often struggle to get to grips with the greyer areas of men's health. So I will be looking at that and other issues which are rarely discussed in a separate blog.
But for now, I am focusing on a subject which comes up a lot in my day to day work and discussions. It seems to be received wisdom to talk constantly about role models as if they are the panacea to our problems but, as I have written in previous articles, that approach by itself is a cop-out. And I stand by that.
We trip ourselves up all the time with the idea of role models precisely because we encourage young people to be more like someone else and not themselves. There are lots of troubling issues with this over-simplification of social development. Not least when our chosen role models do something we deem to be out of character or, even worse, morally reprehensible. How many times have we seen the behaviour of someone who was once loved and adored transform into acts which make them crash and burn? This may seem particularly relevant to the famous or wealthy, but it can also happen with family members - brothers, uncles, grandparents.
Such problems tell us that role modelling itself is a little more complex than simply pairing boys with appropriate male adults and hoping for the best. It might surprise you to learn that when boys talk about the skills and attributes they aspire to, they are as likely to mention women as men.
And a lot of single mothers among others are rightly concerned about whether their sons really need a male role model at all. Either they are concerned that father is having a negative impact on their child, or they worry that their son needs a male role model but the father cannot provide it.
Let's be clear fathers generally have a positive impact on their sons, even if they don't live with them. And some boys definitely benefit from contact with their father, especially if he enjoys being with his son and his son knows that.
But let's be equally clear that not having a father is better than having one who has a negative impact on his son.
I would also point out that it is important to distinguish between a man who used to be a good partner and one who might potentially be a good father. He may have been a real letdown as a partner, but that doesn't mean that he can't treat his children well and have a positive, loving impact as a parent. For this reason, it is important that both mother and father put their children's needs first and resist the temptation to use them as collateral in a power struggle, this should be avoided at all costs however difficult it may be.
At our charity Working With Men, mothers and fathers have asked us whether there are particular times when their sons are more likely to seek out male involvement or approval. Research suggests that there are two periods when boys seem to be looking for male role models. The first is between ages two and four when they are learning the inherent differences between men and women. The second is between twelve and fourteen, as they seek to become more independent of their parents. At this second stage, boys instinctively think that men will understand them better than women.
But the very use of the term "role model" in this context raises some interesting questions that I cannot begin to address here because most of the wider world is in doubt as to what that term actually means. At Working With Men, we do a lot of work with boys at the second stage I mentioned, a time when they have transitioned from primary to secondary education. It's a new world where the reactions they get at school and the world beyond are changing. They are growing from small, cuddly boys into young men who can sometimes appear imposing to teachers and the wider public.
We wanted to know more about this time in a young man's life and that's led us to working partnerships like the Beyond Male Role Models research project, undertaken with the Open University and the national charity Action for Children. It involved interviewing a number of people, including the young men we work with.
As we suspected, we found that the nature of the work we were doing with young people and the fact that we had focused on boys themselves was more important than the gender of those doing it. This is borne out in the experience of the amazing women at WWM who work alongside their male counterparts with fathers, as well as in schools and other places. We have found that the key to bringing change is the coaching and supportive mentoring we provide, coupled with our evidence based approach to cognitive development. Plus, of course, the fact that we all genuinely care about the development of the young person.
The lesson is that solid relationships built on mutual trust and respect, with clear boundaries, outweigh any gender specific imperative.
So when we discuss the concept of male role models we have to remember that caring and contributing positively to the need of boys and young men beats the gender of who is doing it hands down.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
To blog for Building Modern Men, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here