From the Head Master

During the week I was reflecting with some of our Trinity boys on the question of “How do you learn to be an adult?” Specifically, in our context, “How do you learn to be a man?”

One of the most moving pieces that I have read on this topic, particularly for boys, was written by Tim Winton and published online in April 2018. You can find it at this link. I commend it as a very worthwhile read for anyone who has an interest in raising boys to be good men, which I assume is most readers of this weekly bulletin.

Winton describes his observation of boys in the surf “Rehearsing their masculinity. Projecting their experimental versions of it. And wordlessly looking for cues the whole time. Not just from each other, but from older people around, especially the men.”

 His description eloquently and powerfully articulates my thinking in this space. It seems to me that, as we grow up, we learn ‘scripts’ about what to do and how to be in different situations.

Some of this learning comes through explicit instruction from authority figures. Most young children are taught from very early days to say ‘Thank you’ when they receive a gift. Likewise with table manners. Students are Trinity are explicitly taught to stand when an adult enters the room, or to surrender their seat on public transport. Some of our learned behaviours are explicitly and deliberately taught to us.

However, I think that most of the behaviours or scripts that we follow are caught, not taught. We observe the people around us, we see how they hold themselves, the way they speak, the things they speak about, and then we try it on ourselves.

One of my family’s oft-told legends was the day that I came home from Kindergarten and ran down to see our elderly neighbour in the garden, and I merrily dropped the ‘F-bomb’ on her. I was being like the big boys who went to my school. Needless to say, there was some explicit instruction at that point from my mother and the neighbour!

As we become older, and our experiences become broader, we internalise a broader range of scripts that we can call on in different situations. How does one act when in an audience? How does one behave in a solemn context? How do you modulate your conduct when with peers, with dignitaries, with employers? What is the way to approach a Saturday night party, or strike up a conversation with a stranger?

The term ‘role-model’ is so familiar to us that I think the concept is de-valued, but there are very few more powerful factors in shaping us. We learn from the people around us. Not just from their example, but also from their response to us. Validation, endorsement, amusement, disapproval. All these responses are potent in their formative effect on a young person.

The point that Winton makes is that silence from adults is not good enough. Dignified silence or withdrawal from displays of toxic behaviour is inadequate. He calls us – particularly men – not to police the boys or to condemn them, but to notice them. To count them as worthy of our attention. To have higher expectations of them. To provide them with scripts that are worth internalising and owning. To show them a better way of being a man and leading them into that path.

One of the challenges for a boys’ school is to ensure that there is both diversity and quality with reference to the scripts for masculinity. Diversity is essential, in that we want to affirm that there are many different ways to be a man. The School ought not to be a sausage-factory, wherein only one sort of man is validated, whether that is the rugby player or the high-achieving intellectual or the scientist. Our School needs to affirm that there are many different ways to be a good man.

And therein lies the challenge: we want good men. We want our boys to encounter and internalise scripts of masculinity that are decent and trustworthy and humble. We want the scripts to avoid entitlement, avoid misogyny, avoid self-centredness, and avoid crassness. We want them to understand what it means to take on responsibility, to act in the interests of others, and to do what is right.

As parents, who are the primary educators of their sons, and as a School community, let’s make sure that we continue to notice the boys, and to provide them with diverse and high-quality scripts for masculinity. In our words, and in our examples, they will learn how to be men.

Detur Gloria Soli Deo.

Tim Bowden | Head Master


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