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CYC-Online 63 APRIL 2004 / BACK
Listen to this

What might have been: On “relational males” – where have all the good men gone?

Niall McElwee

It’s a cold Fall evening and I am talking with a group of co-workers in a residential home. We get to a discussion on a book I have just co-authored and the central question of whether or not it is of value writing such reports on males in child and youth care when women have had to suffer for centuries at the hands of men and there are far too few women in senior positions in all industries and professions compared to their male colleagues (McElwee et al, 2003). These are fair points. Indeed, a part of me, as a male, felt guilty throughout the research process, as I am all too aware of this inter-generational male on female abuse. One of the men takes a sip of his drink and asks me “What can I do?” And I think to myself, good question that.

The Role of Educators in politicising men in social care
There is a wonderful section in one of Bruce Springsteen's CD's where he discusses his relationship with his father around the time of the Vietnam War. Those who know this CD will remember that Bruce’s father felt Bruce wasn’t “making the most of himself” and was generally “wasting his life”. His dad was always telling him to cut his hair and turn down his music and the relationship was not, what we might term today, a particularly nurturing one. Then, Bruce undertook his army medical as he might be travelling to Vietnam. Luckily for him, and all of us, Bruce failed and his dad simply said, “That’s good”.

When I first heard this piece some years ago, I was incredibly moved as it reminded me so much of the relationships that are all to infrequent between boys and their fathers and men and their fathers and children and youth in care with adult male role models. I know of several men who have never enjoyed a positive relationship with their dads but who, instead, live in the shadow of might have been. And, why is this? What is there in the male psyche that prevents so many of us from truly being ourselves in public? Can men, collectively, move away from the all-too-traditional limiting roles and identities that have been passed on and down to us by our own fathers and male role models? How much of our upbringings affects our direct practice as males in an overwhelmingly feminised field where we are often rostered only with female co-workers as a matter of policy and unable to partake in daily activities judged potentially too “risky” by management? I might even ask, how have we arrived at this landscape?

As I make my way to my residential agency each week, I find myself reflecting on much more than males in just child and youth care environments, although our potential here as effective role models is enormous. I am questioning much more fundamentally the role that us men have, and are allowed to inhabit, in all aspects of our lives as the residential unit is but a microcosm of Irish society.

“Male” environments
Recently, I attended a rugby match with my own dad. I was engaged in a consulting contract for the morning in Athlone and had to travel back to Galway some 65 miles away. I only managed to make the second half of the match and joined my dad in the “Stands”. He was perched precariously on the sixth step up from the ground and I could only squeeze in on the fifth step directly underneath him. My dad rested his two arms on my shoulders and we both enjoyed that relational familiarity between two males who feel safe in a somewhat public display of affection in what is, traditionally, a very masculine environment. We bobbed and flowed with the match and, at times, were pulled apart by a try or a penalty kick, but we somehow naturally reconnected when the excitement levelled off. This connection and reconnection happens on a daily basis in child and youth care and takes place all the time “whilst out shopping for groceries, in the recreational room in a unit, on a beach, in a family sitting room.

It’s March 2004 and I am co-facilitating a workshop with degree students at the College in Athlone. Two of the degree students, Brody and Dave, are presenting formal papers for discussion and both are unafraid to celebrate their “maleness”, the uniqueness each of them brings to their daily work with children and youth because of their own socialisation processes, their own experiences and non-experiences. The other students (all female, but two) are listening and then we collectively engage in conversation about some of the key points raised. In one of my other classes, a Degree in Social Care Practice where there are some thirty students, there are no males and no such discussion could take place. What a shame for all concerned.

And so when I listen to Springsteen now, I am reminded of the importance of relationship. I want my own son to grow up in a society that not only allows him to be a “relational male” but one that actively cultivates this. I very much look forward to three generations of us standing at matches together, secure in the knowledge that it’s ok to be a relational male. Of course, if Conor doesn’t want to attend the match that’s ok too. It’s his choice.


McElwee, CN., Jackson, A., Cameron, B., & McKenna-McElwee, S. (2003). Where Have All the Good Men Gone: Exploring Males in Social Care in Ireland. Athlone: Centre for Child and Youth Care Learning.


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