Good parenting is key to tackling male violence

Mothers and fathers must be supported to raise children with values and decency

What are Irish fathers and mothers doing that has our streets and our public places so frequently populated with foul-mouthed young men lacking in respect, unrestrained in their obscenity and brimming with aggression?

What are Irish fathers and mothers doing that has our streets and our public places so frequently populated with foul-mouthed young men lacking in respect, unrestrained in their obscenity and brimming with aggression?

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Two searingly tragic narratives have played out across traditional news platforms and dominated social media in recent days. The murder of 23-year-old Ashling Murphy as she ran beside the Grand Canal near Tullamore released an unprecedented volume of community sorrow and outrage. And even as the investigation into her murder got under way, RTÉ’s Prime Time screened its documentary on the suicide of 18-year-old Eden Heaslip in Co Cavan.

These are two quite separate tragedies. But common issues arise around the community reaction to both.

Reaction to the murder of the young teacher has spanned the whole gamut of emotional distress. There has been shock, anger, disbelief and despair. Above all there has been outrage that women cannot feel themselves to be safe; that they are obliged to calculate the risk to their personal safety at all times; that they are constrained in their everyday freedoms by fear of male violence or harassment.

Were not the murder of Ashling Murphy dominating the news agenda, it is likely that the RTÉ documentary on the suicide of Eden Heaslip would have generated an even greater reaction. The horrifying story of how village bullies drove the schoolboy to take his own life last September left viewers appalled. Raymond Heaslip recounted the assaults, kicking, sectarian abuse and humiliation that his son endured, including having his head stuck down “the dirtiest toilet they could get”.

One has to ask what attitudes and values are these parents passing to their children. What standards do they try to inculcate into them?

Research indicates that up to 30 per cent of Irish teenagers experience bullying in one form or another. Eden Heaslip was by no means the first young person driven to suicide here because they were unable to bear the torments visited upon them.

The term “watershed” has been used (by the Taoiseach among others) in connection with Ashling Murphy’s murder. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has promised “zero tolerance” and a “new strategy” to combat violence against women. Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly wants an implementation unit within the Department of An Taoiseach.

Governmental and institutional responses can help. But the State cannot put a garda in every house or classroom. And no system of controls short of incarceration can be guaranteed to modify the conduct of human beings. To find an answer to the problem of male violence and unacceptable behaviour – insofar as it may ever be possible – requires deeper thinking that goes beyond legal or institutional change.

The reality is that, with a small number of exceptions, every young man who believes he has the right to insult a female, or objectify her, or grope her, or intrude into her private space has come from a home where they are in the charge of at least one parent and usually two. Similarly, almost every schoolboy or schoolgirl who thinks it is acceptable to ridicule or harass or assault a child who may be weaker or different in some way, comes from a home where there is at least one parent and, again, usually two.

One has to ask what attitudes and values are these parents passing to their children. What standards do they try to inculcate into them? What are Irish fathers and mothers doing (or not doing) that has our streets and our public places so frequently populated with foul-mouthed young men – and sometimes young women – lacking in respect, unrestrained in their obscenity and brimming with aggression?

The anguished public conversation that has followed the murder of Ashling Murphy has mobilised the demand for change in male behaviour. That is important. But there are dangers in limiting the debate to a gender issue. This goes well beyond the culpability of men or any sense of gender-based entitlement.

Parental responsibility has to extend beyond stocking the fridge-freezer and having wifi in every room

Wider than the question of male behaviour – but also encompassing it – is that of poor parenting. It seems that many Irish parents are unable – for whatever reasons – to inculcate decent values into their children’s character. For every young man who shouts insults at a female and for every schoolchild who shoves another’s head down a toilet, there is a parent – or parents – responsible for their formation.

Margaret Thatcher infamously declared that “There is no such thing as society.” But she had a point when she said that no government can do anything “except through people”. Cross-governmental task forces, new legislation and beefing up the support and intervention agencies will only go so far. The real task is to educate and guide parents and provide the sort of supports that can enable them to raise children with values and decencies.

Prof Sam McConkey’s suggestion that men should have some form of licensing or qualification before going “out into the social sphere” was perhaps infelicitous. But the direction of his thinking is not wrong. The formation and embedding of decent values has to be done early and it has to start in the home, long before young people go “out into the social sphere”.

Many parents are not well-resourced, financially, emotionally or in any other way. The challenges of running a home and maintaining relationships can be overwhelming. Teaching children about values and decencies is often simply not on the agenda. But parental responsibility has to extend beyond stocking the fridge-freezer and having wifi in every room. This is where parents need education, encouragement and support – and this is where government intervention and spending should be focused in responding to these tragic events.

Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Times. He is currently chair of CaliberAI

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