State Final speeches
By Samuel Roach, St Kevin's College
When I turned 13 or so, embarrassing things started to happen.
My pimpled, oily face was something that made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin when I met new people, because my acne-riddled forehead always spoke before I did. It told them that I was a ‘pubescent male’.
Secondly, as a public speaker, I was horrified when my voice started breaking during speeches.
And the only thing that paralleled the mental anguish I felt from my red face and a broken voice was when mum and I had ‘the talk’. A very thorough talk, actually ... She covered everything ... from changing bodies to changing minds to night-time dreams.
The reason why these things still create a sense of embarrassment within me – and apparently a lot of you – is because they are all loud, stubborn signs that scream to the world and whisper to yourself that you are now a young boy going through ‘The Phase’.
The Phase is just personal way of referring to puberty and adolescence. The problem is the way society uses the stereotype of adolescent boys to justify everything we do and don’t do for five to 10 years as the unequivocal result of puberty, adolescence, or, as I say ... ‘the Phase’.
My mum’s friend has a 15-year-old boy. Cooper and his mum were inseparable, but last week, his mum called my mum in tears, crying about her sweet little boy. Because when she asked him to put his phone away, he called her a word that no real man would ever call a woman. He made his own mother cry, and all his father could say was: ‘testosterone’.
Society’s negative use of our stereotype perpetuates a world where boys, like Cooper, are left without guidance, without expectation and without support.
This is unfair, and it is damaging.
And as I young man myself, I want to explore why adults maintain and act on a stereotyped understanding of adolescent boys; the effect this is having on all of us; and the potential for a new relationship between teenage boys and the important adults in our lives.
So, adults use stereotypes of pubescent boys to make it easier to understand The Phase. And fair enough. Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg contends that male adolescence is one of the most confusing and chaotic times a man’s life. And with this I humbly agree, for I still remember when I first experienced ‘the phase’ and its correspond thoughts of:
Wait should that be growing like that? Why’s there hair down there? Oh my gosh it won’t stop growing! I wonder if my mate is having a similar situation with his down there oh my god I just thought about my mate’s down there does that mean I’m gay?
And the world of science is slowly validating this experience. Another adolescent psychologist, Andrew Fuller, established that the frontal lobes of a teenager’s brain – responsible for strategic thinking, empathy and behaviour – are essentially ‘closed for construction’.
So a generalised understanding of male teens and our ‘erratic’ behaviour is scientifically well founded.
What’s worrying, however, is when my mum’s friend uses this scientific understanding to convince herself that her good boy isn’t growing into a bad man.
What’s frustrating, is when adults around me don’t believe I haven’t watched ‘a few pornos’ or had ‘a few beers’ because my acne tells them differently. After all, ‘that’s just what boys my age do.’
And what’s wrong, is when parents let us spend more time in our rooms than with our family, drink until we’re sick and rate women out of 10 on Snapchat because ‘it’s just The Phase’. This is not freedom; it is neglect. And it’s having dangerous consequences.
Let me explain.
I recently went on a camp, to the Alpine National Park in Victoria. We walked a Camino, which means an unknown path to self-discovery. I was with 12 16-year-old boys, engulfed in rolls of mountain and waves of river.
By the fourth day we started to talk. Not chat, not gossip, talk about the complexities and emotions of male adolescent behaviour. The kind of things that we can only talk about in the mountains, where it’s just us. The problem is we leave these discussions in the mountains, for according to Larson and Prescott, adolescents spend only eight per cent of their time talking to adults.
Having come back from camp, I want to help my friends, but I can’t because I don’t have the answers. We need help from mums and especially dads who know exactly what it’s like to feel confused, reckless and not know why. But society doesn’t seem to hold us accountable, have the hard conversations or
make us come out of our rooms because we’re all ‘walking hormones who don’t listen’.
I’ve heard of parents who set up what they coined a ‘vomit station’, where they would hose down ‘the boys’ at their son’s 16th birthday. After all, if you can’t beat them, join them. A teenager dies every weekend from alcohol-related incidents.
Personally, I don’t think it’s good enough anymore for society to send me and my friends on an unknown journey and just hope we make it out the other end as decent men. Because we’re living in a time where young men need to understand and respect the word ‘No’. Where we have more access to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll through our devices than ever. And where boys actually want to talk.
It’s time to reassess our understanding of and approach to raising young men. Which leads me to my solution.
As we neared the end of our camp – by which time I had become fluent in several kinds of grunting – I grunted to the boys: ‘what do you need?’ And eventually, they grunted back to me: ‘we want to be able to talk to our parents’.
So, to the adults in the room: it is time to foster a new kind of relationship. One of mutual trust, respect and understanding. Michael Carr-Greg would say that, just because you may expect our bad behaviour, doesn’t mean you should ever accept it ‘because our frontal lobes aren’t developed enough to know any better’. Instead, Andrew Fuller had it right when he said we need you to be our frontal lobes: guide us, inform us, demand your expectations.
And I promise you we will rise to them. According to the ABS, my cohort of Year 10s are the least likely bunch of young men to consume alcohol or drugs that there has been in the history of the Australian census.
My cohort of young men will talk. We want your support. And I know that because that’s their words. It’s my words.
We will get it wrong. We will stuff it up. Because everyone knows this is a rocky road for parents, for boys.
But now, we’re all going to walk this Camino together.