It’s concerning to see boys at war with themselves and the world. But what if radicalisation were to provide us with some powerful insights? We know boys adrift from society are at their most vulnerable. Yet too often we fail to assist these boys, so they struggle on alone.
Groups such as IS are ahead of the game, as they get what it’s like to live on the fringes. They don’t see boys as flawed, as problems needing to be solved, but as invaluable resources. Using sophisticated social media and other strategies, they succeed brilliantly at giving boys a sense of purpose and belonging, excitement and adventure, the chance to be a man.
What do we offer by comparison? Thanks to immersive marketing, most boys assume belonging is about looks and possessions. And while most boys ache to be heroic, apart from sports, the only place boys can be heroes right now is when they play violent video games online. Currently we’re failing boys, especially marginalised boys, because we still don’t fully understand their needs. Why else would we offer them a degraded sense of belonging and heroism, which provide few pointers on how to be a real man?
Those who groom boys – the marketers and paedophiles, and now radical groups - pay close attention to what boys are thinking. Fully aware of a boy’s aspirations and anxieties, they know exactly which buttons to press. Such groups as IS have a winning formula. They offer boys the chance to be useful, to belong, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to be a man. In return, boys willingly put themselves in harm’s way, and are prepared to die even. This is deeply concerning. Yet poignantly, we can also see how much boys are prepared to sacrifice to have their needs met.
How often are our boys given the chance to be useful, to belong? How often do we positively stretch them? Currently there’s a serious disconnect between where boys are at, and where we need them to be. Boys need to know intimately what it means to be an empowered man. So we need to get clear about what male empowerment now looks like. What we do know is that tomorrow’s world needs men who are at ease with themselves and others, and well able to deal with challenging situations. The men most likely to succeed will be highly literate, good communicators, and positively engaged in their families, their workplace, their community, and the wider world.
How then can we turn things around? Surely it’s time to ditch the negative narratives around boys, and provide a much more nuanced vision of what they can become? This also means helping create the right youth forums for boys, where they feel comfortable about talking of their challenges, and trust they’ll find meaningful workable solutions. As part of this we need to help boys distinguish between their child (powerless) and adult (powerful) selves. And participation in boy-friendly literacy programs, such as the UK Dads and Lads reading initiative, could be of benefit here too.
Boys need to feel part of the wider community, to be given the chance to be useful, to belong. What if they were to be up-skilled by access to carefully constructed work experience programs after school and/or in school holidays? Surely there’s a role for Chambers of Commerce, Rotary and Lions here? And what if, with the assistance of Men’s Sheds and other such groups, boys were invited to help with community projects, and were acknowledged for their efforts in local papers, and other public forums?
Boys might also be encouraged to express themselves creatively through a variety of mediums - a short film festival, photo essays, street art? And what if there were more teen initiatives that celebrated cultural diversity? What if these and other programs were supported by boy-friendly community and arts awards?
Perhaps groups such as IS have something to teach us. Our boys are an immensely valuable resource. What if we’re on the cusp of an immense opportunity here? It’s a privilege to help forge a new generation of empowered young men, to help boys become part of something greater than themselves, to uphold our dream of a society enriched by its diversity.