Male mentors step up to fill the hole in children’s’ lives

Cathy Keen

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Desperately needed as youth mentors, some men are answering the call despite negative publicity about male transgressions that can keep them at arm’s length from children and teenagers, says a University of Florida researcher.

Today’s high rates of divorce, single parenting and working mothers place a greater premium on men in the community to nurture the next generation, but frequent media accounts about male pedophiles, pornographers and child abusers cast suspicion over well-intentioned efforts at helping, said William Marsiglio, a UF sociology professor and expert on men’s and family issues.

“Despite the challenges, there are men who develop a passion for working with kids _ sometimes to the point of thinking of youth work as a ‘mission’ or ‘calling,’ _ and they do make a difference in kids’ lives,” he said. “They are quite capable of establishing meaningful, close relationships with kids in public settings, and they can help young people manage their developmental needs.”

Marsiglio chronicles men’s life experiences with young people in his book “Men on a Mission: Valuing Youth Work in Our Communities,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

He interviewed 55 diverse men ranging in age from 19 to 65 who worked with children and teenagers as coaches, teachers, Big Brothers, Boys & Girls Club staff, Boy Scout leaders, 4-H Club agents, camp counselors, youth ministers and other authority figures. He also observed 11 of the men interact with the young people they guided.

The number of at-risk youth in American society has increased over the last few decades, but even those with supportive fathers and grandfathers can benefit from having other male models in public settings, Marsiglio said. A coach on the field may be better able than family members to instill ideas about competition and good sportsmanship, for example, just as the respectful manner a male teacher treats a female colleague is better observed in a classroom than discussed in a household, he said.

The men in Marsiglio’s study found creative ways to relate to youth despite society’s taboos, including instituting a “hug day” at an alternative school; “circle of trust” talk sessions where at-risk teenagers sat on the floor to share their personal struggles with issues such as drugs, alcohol, violence and sex; and a freestyle rap exercise as an ice breaker for a sexual abstinence program. One 4-H director encouraged a group of boys and girls to take on the images of clowns _selecting their own personality, costume and makeup _ and practice sharing various performance techniques, which they used before audiences in nursing homes, hospitals and parades, he said.

“The clowning program was a way to nurture kids’ inner spirits and enhance their self-esteem,” Marsiglio said. “It helped them to develop their own personality and come out of their shell. Parents were sold on how much it changed their sons and daughters.”

Marsiglio said he was impressed by the men’s eagerness to do whatever it took to improve kids’ lives, including using their own money to pay for eye exams, winter coats and summer camps. For some men, the work was strictly volunteer, while those who were paid for their efforts often devoted many hours beyond what they were paid for, he said.

Their motivation stemmed from the desire to leave a mark on the next generation in the spirit of “passing it on” to a range of various personal experiences, Marsiglio said. Some wanted to repay a debt to an organization that benefited them as a child, such as the Boys & Girls Club; some hoped to fill in gaps that once existed in their own life, such as not having an attentive father; and others wanted to expand youths’ opportunities to learn and grow, he said.

Even so, participants in the study were well aware of public scrutiny to the point that a few were reluctant to touch young people in any way, even to shake hands, Marsiglio said.

“Men have clearly become more cautious of their behavior around kids in terms of how they touch them and are very reluctant to engage in serious forms of affection, such as giving hugs or pats on the back,” he said.”But even those men concerned about society’s perceptions sometimes followed the adage that everyone needs a hug. They considered it irresponsible to deny affection to kids who are neglected or abused at home.”

Ultimately, the men’s contributions not only improved circumstances for the youngsters, but added to their own personal development in varied ways as well, Marsiglio said. For example, “those who were fathers became more responsive to their own kids in certain ways,” he said. “And for men without children, it gave them a blueprint of how to be a good father.”