Why our tween and teen boys need a safe adult tribe

All tweens and teens benefit from having a safe circle of grownups somewhere in their life.

Previously, I have written about the power of ‘aunties’ for our girls. For our boys who are on the adolescent journey to manhood, there is the same fundamental need to have a tribe of grownups who maintain a warm connection whether in the real world or the virtual world.

In traditional kinship communities, the whole tribe embraced the responsibility of guiding their children to adulthood. For the boys often around 10 years of age they spent most of their time in the company of the men being carefully mentored, guided and nurtured on how to become responsible, capable men within their community. This was never left to chance and every boy always had to earn their right to be seen as a man. Traditional rites of passage were challenging and a symbolic celebration that a boy was no longer a boy, he was finally a man.

Essentially we need to put the rails back on the bridge to manhood and prioritise the need for a tribe of good people to not only keep an eye out for our boys as they step forward, but to ensure they know they are valued and that they matter – no matter how many times they make appalling decisions while they are on that bridge.

When I was teaching in the secondary school system I would often ponder on what were the unique needs of teen boys that would ensure they came out as capable, happy men somewhere late in their 20s? I met many teen boys from loving families who really struggled with disengagement in high school, who made really poor choices especially around alcohol and risk-taking behaviours. So I knew that having a safe home base was definitely an advantage but not a guarantee that your son would emerge unscathed from adolescence. I also met many struggling boys who had challenging home environments, some adverse or traumatic life experiences in childhood who emerged into manhood as exceptional men.

In my 2018 book Mothering Our Boys I shared many stories from boys who are now men, who shared with me the importance of having people who were friendly, kind and welcoming while they were confused, emotionally vulnerable and feeling like they didn’t matter. It’s so funny that I probably only baked a few chocolate which I offered up to a large number of boys who visited my house and yet I keep meeting men today who remember how amazing that experience was for them. Such a small gesture of kindness that can last for years.

Creating the boy tribe

My favourite boy champions in the world including Steve Biddulph, Michael Gurian and William Pollack all have different ways of explaining the importance of the boy tribe. Put simply, the boy tribe is a version of the old village metaphor about raising children collectively.

Many years ago, if a teen boy was caught smoking behind the rotunda in the community garden and the town gardener saw him, he would have said something to the boy about the choice he was making. Nowadays it’s quite often heard in similar situations – “that’s not my problem, he’s not my son”.

Biological family and friends are so much more important than our teen boys realise when they are still teens. The village of connectedness that starts with home being a safe base can be such a powerful protector for our transitioning young adults because this is their safety net.

We need to appreciate the value of holidays in the same campsite or endless hours at a grandparent’s house where cousins can play together for significant time, as seriously important pathways to building deep connectedness and affection that can influence those bumpy early years of puberty.

If you have a son, ensure that you make your home a welcome base for his friends, regardless of gender. The hunger to ‘hang out together’ is still strong even for our digital natives, and they will always turn up to a place where they are welcome and where there is a familiar space to gather.

The Dent den was a double brick garage that was converted into a place for the boys. There were second-hand couches, some mats but mainly concrete and a pool table.

Yes, there were times boys would skate inside that garage and there were times that boys slept downstairs safely, without my knowledge. They could come and go as they liked without needing to come through the house.

If our teen boys don’t have somewhere safe to belong, they can get into mischief wandering around our neighbourhoods, towns and suburbs. Many parents have created fire pits and put up sturdy tents in their backyards just to facilitate the safe gathering of these often loud boys.

In a way I was relieved that my sons weren’t into music. One of my best girlfriends had three music mad sons and they spent hours playing guitars and drums. She told me she simply wore headphones a lot of the time!

Laying out the welcome mat

Having easily accessible spare mattresses or blow up mattresses in your home is a welcoming sign to teen boys. I remember one night when I had dropped home a son and some of his best mates after they had been to a party, I heard the door to the family room slide open. I tiptoed down to see who it was and there was a boy I had dropped off half an hour ago. Apparently, his mum had accidentally forgotten to leave the key out for him, and he couldn’t rouse her and so he decided he’d come  to our place and crash on the couch because he knew our door would be open. We did have a fox terrier as a security guard but she didn’t even lift her head off the couch, bless!

I’s really good to give your son’s mates the message that ‘our door is always open for you and there is always a bed’. We never know when a family conflict becomes too painful for a boy or that just having some calm down time is what the whole family may need. We need to give them permission to come and stay in a safe place without judgement of them or their family.

One of my son’s best mates (when they were in Year 12) came to me one afternoon to ask an important question. His parents had sold the family home and were moving to a large centre about four hours from where we were living. As he really didn’t want to leave in his final year of school he asked if he could stay with us. As two of the Dent boys were now living in the city, we had the space. I gave this gorgeous boy a clear ultimatum that as he was not studying in the academic stream, he needed to promise me he would help keep my son on track. Secondly, he had three strikes of poor choices and he would have to leave. That lad never put a foot out of place and we loved having him in our family for that year, and those two mates shared something truly special in that penultimate year of their important schooling.

This is what happens within the boy tribe. We care for each other’s sons.

For many boys, neighbours became part of their tribe and they grew up watching out for elderly neighbours, dropping by randomly to see if they could help and often casually dropping in so they could share in a welcome biscuit tin! These relationships that began in boyhood evolved into something else as our boys travelled through puberty.

Often visiting someone who knew them as a boy gave them a sense of belonging and connectedness, especially when a boy was feeling lousy about himself.

Parents’ friends can be another really important part of the boy tribe. Some of my best girlfriends are still very much a part of our boy tribe, even if they haven’t seen my sons for years. It’s interesting that often it’s a significant life moment like a wedding when one of my sons, now men, wants to invite these special people from their boyhood.

They never forget those who loved them when they were little boys.

Many of my male friends, especially a swimming coach, a couple of good footy coaches and several sea-loving men who took my sons often on adventures that I was not brave enough to attempt, were part of the Dent boy tribe. Watching a car-load of noisy teen lads heading off on a day’s surfing used to fill me with so much joy. It also gave me hours to enjoy some peace and quiet and then cook enough nutritious food to have ready to fill those starving tummies when they came home!

Communities have always been a fabulous source of potential for the boy tribe. If your son is not into sport, maybe he’s into martial arts, or music or tinkering with cars and motorbikes. Spending time with safe grownups in his special interest area can be another way that boys find significant others to be a part of their invisible tribe. I remember once working with a boy who was suffering from severe homesickness, which I prefer to call grief at leaving his home and his community. He couldn’t wait to tell me when he returned home from the Easter holidays that when he went into the local newsagent, the owners were excited to see him and even knew about some of the things that he’d been doing because his mum had told them. He had tears in his eyes when he told me the relief he felt because they hadn’t forgotten him. Boy tribes can ensure boys continue to feel they belong somewhere.

Lighthouse figures are crucial in our teens’ lives

Significant adult allies, which I call lighthouses, are really important in the boy tribe. Of course, that can include extended family. As research for my newest book, I surveyed over 950 boys 12-18 years of age and over 25% of them named their grandparents as the most significant lighthouse figures for them. In years gone by in rural communities, people who were close to the family were often called aunt and uncle even if they were not biologically related. This is a sign that they are part of the family village and is a significant way of showing our children that these are people who care for them and can be trusted.

Lighthouse figures are in every community and in a second survey I did for the book (this one canvassing over 1600 men aged over 30), coaches and teachers were mentioned often.

It can be really helpful if you get to know the teachers that your son respects and values because a quiet word from one of them, can be worth a heck of a lot more than a lot of words from mum or dad!

I’m incredibly grateful for the male teachers at Albany Senior High School who not only modelled how to be caring decent men, they also helped to give my sons a gentle nudge when they needed it around their studies or their behaviour. Our teen boys never forget the good teachers who develop an authentic, respectful relationship with them. Connection, kindness and fairness speak loudly to our boys in our high schools.

“Raising our sons to be respectful of themselves, others and the world around them takes patience and endurance from the tribe that circles your son. Every interaction, every conversation, every experience, every meal, every car chat, every success and every failure is a teachable moment in your son’s life. Our greatest task is allowing our boys to cross the bridge to manhood with an open heart – rather than a defended heart full of emotional pain and suffering that he has been unable to share with anyone else.”
– Maggie Dent, From Boys to Men (2020).

We cannot leave the transition from boyhood to manhood to chance anymore. The digital world has stolen many of the quality opportunities to ‘be beside’ our lads.  Statistically all boys are at risk no matter where you live or how well-educated your son may be.

Building a boy tribe may be the smartest thing you can do before he even puts a toe on that bridge – and that’s around 10 years of age.

We must step forward as families and communities and surround our boys with as many committed, caring adults as possible. This boy tribe needs to be capable of real presence, enormous patience, unconditional love, never-ending support and encouragement despite lots of challenging moments and irrational outbursts.

The tribe needs to have the time to spend with our precious boys so that they always know they have a safe base to land when things get tough, as they inevitably will.

more on this in maggie's new book

Maggie’s new book, From Boys to Men: Guiding our teen boys to grow into happy, healthy men is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and in stores from today, 25 August 2020.

You can grab the book at your favourite bookstore or at Big W, order a signed copy direct from maggiedent.com or order online from your favourite bookstore. Ebook and audio book versions are also available and the audio book version is narrated by Maggie herself (from the quite confines of her small wine cellar!)

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