Do Boys Need Male Role Models?

Is a lack of ‘male role models’ the source of the problems faced - and caused - by young men today? Does involving more men in boys’ care and welfare make a difference? How much do we actually know about the importance of gender in work with young men?

For many years, anxiety has been growing about the position of boys and young men - and the knock-on impact on society as a whole. This is reflected in concerns about educational ‘underachievement’, poor mental health, labour market detachment, and involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour.

The effects on different groups of boys and young men have been uneven, however. As it has always been, it is boys and young men from low-income backgrounds who are most often associated with this ‘crisis’ anxiety and with public fears of disorder, disrespect and delinquency.

It is often argued that positive ‘male role models’ are increasingly absent from home, schools, childcare settings, and the media - and that involving more men in young men’s education and care is key to solving many of the difficulties they face.

But this ‘commonsense’ view is simplistic. There is lack of clarity about who or what a ‘role model’ is. Is it someone you ‘respect’, ‘follow’, ‘look up to’ or ‘want to be like’? Is it somebody you are close to, such as a parent or relative, or somebody who is distant, such as a TV, music or sports personality?

And is it really the case that children learn about gender primarily by observing and copying behaviour in others, as shallow ‘social learning’ theories imply? In practice, academic approaches to gender development have moved on, placing much greater emphasis on the ways in which children’s understandings of masculinity and femininity are actively shaped by diverse and changing social contexts.

The evidence that boys growing up without fathers are necessarily harmed is also unconvincing. Reviews of research on fatherhood over years suggest there is very little about the gender of the parent that appears distinctly important. Indeed, they reveal instead common factors in positive father and mother involvement or care.

Of course boys, and girls, benefit from the presence in their lives of positive, involved fathers. But it is difficult to single out fathers as making a unique contribution. Conversely, focussing on the need for a ‘male role model’ downplays the important contribution of women. Far from ‘feminising’ boys, there is evidence that mothers, grandmothers, and female siblings and friends have a significant positive impact on their development.

It is important too to ask what kind of male involvement is healthy for boys. Some boys and young men suffer not from an absence of male role models, but from an excess of limiting and destructive models. We shouldn’t therefore assume that any male role model is better than none.

Beyond ‘Male Role Models...

Beyond the family, research has explored some of the same issues involved in education settings, suggesting the need for caution in simply asserting that having male role models in schools is beneficial for boys. For example, there is evidence that some male teachers are overly disciplinarian and denigrate the work of female teachers, rather than challenging traditional gender norms.

Until now there had been little research on the relationships between young men and professionals in care and support services, and limited examination of the impact (if any) of the gender of the worker. This has recently been addressed by the Beyond Male Role Models research project, a partnership between the Open University and national charities Action for Children and Working With Men.

The research team carried out interviews in various locations across the UK with vulnerable young men and women and male and female staff in services for young offenders, care leavers, young carers, and disabled young people. Contrary to stereotypes, we found that young men were thoughtful and reflective about their circumstances.

In the interviews, some young men and staff used the term ‘male role model’, but there was a lack of clarity about what was meant by it. One of the male workers rejected the term as follows: "I don’t have any aspirations to be anybody’s role model because I don’t want them to be like me. I want them to be far better than what I’ve ever been in life." In practice, the researchers found that workers - both male and female - acted less as role models for young men to imitate, and more as mentors or guides with whom they were able to construct new identities and futures. What was going on was an active process of negotiation, rather than passive transmission, of values and behaviour between workers and young men.

Overall, the research emphasises that young people value respect, trust, consistency, and a sense of care and commitment, in workers, and these qualities are key to developing effective helping relationships. Moreover, the vast majority of young men (and young women as well) valued the personal qualities and commitment of staff above their gender or other social identities.

So do boys need ‘male role models’? Increasing men’s involvement in caring is clearly desirable. But our work suggests that simply boosting the numbers of male teachers, youth workers, and social workers, is no panacea. What is more important is to recruit staff, whatever their gender, who can engage positively with boys and young men (and girls and young women), and to make relationship-building central to training, team development and performance agendas.

Reprinted with permission from the Huffington Post, at Also see Huffington’s series Building Modern Men, at

Follow Sandy Ruxton on Twitter: