Growing up hard

I’ve got my nephew, Reid, staying with me for a few days over school holidays. He’s 13, a good kid, but lacking some confidence. We’ve always got on well, and so a few weeks ago I suggested that he might want to come over some time just to hang out. He jumped at the idea, and his mum was all for it.

The reason I suggested it is that I thought that a change of scenery would do him good and, more pertinently, that what he’s missing right now is any meaningful male influence in his life. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of it, the fact is that ever since his dad left and defongerated to England a few years back there has been no male figure in any of the kids lives, except me – and though I’m fond of them, I’m not about a lot.

The other two get by. Blaine has his very particular interests which he approaches with the rapt fascination of a trainspotter. He gets by because he inhabits a world of his own construction. Schae, the youngest, is a very robust kid. She has a lot of natural verve and wit. She has her challenges, but the lack of a father figure is less of an issue for her than the others.

Reid is different to both. He’s a very sensitive kid by nature. He’s good looking, and will grow into a well made man I think, but for now he struggles with his identity I think. He’s only 13, so that’s going to be in a state of evolution for years to come, but what he lacks is that foundation with which confidence can be built. He had reading difficulties when he was younger which put him behind the 8 ball, and which put doubt in his mind. Unlike Blaine he hasn’t the interests he can escape into.

A lot of this is foreign to me. I’m not a father, I don’t have that practice. It’s different too because it’s very different now to when I grew up – I think I had it lucky. If I look back to when I was Reid’s age I had a lot going on. Like most kids then, and many now I expect, I was big into sport, both playing and watching. Reid plays footy, but hasn’t any particular interest in sport otherwise. At his age I was starting to get into music in a big way. That seems less a thing these days (given the standard of contemporary music, perfectly understandable). I’d been reading for years as well, and had plenty of other healthy interests. Reid hasn’t that, and as a kid of today is disadvantaged by the prevailing mores. It’s indisputable that children of my era were much more social than kids today. Life was different – I was told to get out of the house, and so had to make my own fun, as they say. All the other kids were the same, and so we did things together – in my case everything from street cricket, games like hiacki and even hopscotch, impromptu sports, building tree-houses, riding our bikes. We were active and extrovert. It’s different today.

It makes it harder for the likes of Reid I think. The socialisation I experienced comes slower now, and in much more controlled circumstances. The resourcefulness that was forced upon us – and the confidence that came with it – is no longer a given.

Though Reid has a distinct personality, he’s still largely unformed, and reactive to the events and environment around him. That makes him tentative and uncertain. He has a gentle disposition, but this lack of surety makes him vulnerable to others. Kids can be merciless, it’s their DNA, and unfortunately Reid has been victim of that, and hasn’t as yet got the wherewithal or resources to deal with it.

Part of the problem I think is that he hasn’t that male authority figure in his life. Most, if not all, of the kids he goes to school with, do. They don’t need to think twice, they just are. Reid, on the other hand, has no reference point. Truth is his father was/is a ratbag, and whatever legacy he left is not particularly healthy.

Kids learn by watching and imitating. It sounds grandiose, but I think boys learn to become men in large part from the male influences in their life. They absorb the mannerisms, the attitudes, the perspectives, even the body language. It’s not always healthy, there’s plenty of bad habits passed down from one generation to the next, but it’s fact all the same (and pretty necessary).

Circumstances are that I’m the only male figure in his life. It was very different for me when I was his age, and perhaps it’s very telling in the person I am now. My father was a very strong presence even if he wasn’t always around. One way or another he was a very vivid role model. Then there were my grandfathers, one different from the other, but I was close to both and learnt a lot at their feet. I never had to question the things that Reid now almost exclusively lacks.

So he’s here as of yesterday afternoon, and thrilled about it. Today we went out for breakfast together. I ordered an omelette and watched as he ordered poached eggs and bacon. As he ate I had to guide him in table etiquette – something his mother has been very remiss with. This is how you hold your knife, this is how you cut; and so on. I’m very particular about such things. There’s a way of doing things, and that’s the right way. It was how I was brought up, more by my my mum, and what I expect – manners maketh the man they say, and there’s much truth in that. More relevantly for him right now it’s important in two ways. It’s important to impose some discipline, to set a standard to live by, bit by bit – a surreptitious sense of pride that is the antidote to insecurity. He needs to learn as well – he’s going to go out into the world, he’s going to eat out, and he can’t be embarassed because he doesn’t know better. It’s not world peace, but it is important.

Afterwards we went shopping for groceries to stock up my empty fridge. He seemed to delight in accompanying me in such a basic task. I sensed him watching me, perhaps absorbing some of my mannerisms as I did my fathers. I present to the world the very confident facade od a man who feels in control. That must seem foreign to him, but very alluring all the same. Perhaps in some part that’s why he is drawn to me so strongly. I feel that he draws confidence by being with me, and hopefully he learns from that.

We walked back, sharing the bags between us. “Getting tired?” I asked him.

“A little,” he said.

“Well if you want to be 6 foot 2 (as he had told me earlier) then you need to keep active and exercise,” I said.

We passed a tree. “Do you know what that’s called?” I asked him.

He looked at it. “Is it what they make paper out of?” he asked.

“Sort of,” I said. “What do you think it’s called?”

“A paper tree?”

“Close. It’s a paperbark tree.”

We chatted like that as we went along. I tried to draw him out, get him talking. I wanted him to wonder, to look about him at things and to see them. I wanted him outside of himself and in the world, and to stay there whilst he built that place in himself he could retreat to and habitate in. He’s young and much of that is still to come. Doesn’t matter how old you are, 5 or 50, the way to get the best out of people is to show that you have confidence in them, to give them responsibility, and to give them praise when it is well earned.

He likes cooking – one of his few interests – and is pretty good at it. This afternoon I’ve told him he can make a soup for us. Tonight we’ll get fish and chips and watch the footy together. Tomorrow we visit the Cheeses.

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