Caring mentors teach boys to be men

On Monday night I attended the annual Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) Volunteers Recognition Evening. This event is put on by BBBS to thank the many volunteers like myself, who do their best to make a positive difference in a young person's life.

I enjoyed listening to other mentors' stories of the experiences they have had with their young people. It is a good reminder of why I do it.

I started mentoring in 2008. I had my second little brother, Peter, for almost three years until he moved away from Nelson with his mum.

When we first met, he appeared to be very lively, outgoing and confident. I wondered why he needed a big brother - but as I got to know him over time, I felt he had lots of issues.

During the next few years, I worked quietly on small things like manners. At the beginning, Peter wouldn't say please or thank you. This wasn't his mother's fault - he was polite at home - but, to me, he had a problem with authority, so he didn't fit in at school very well.

Also, he wouldn't let anyone give him a haircut. I thought his hair was like a rat's nest, and told him so every week for about three months.

Then one afternoon, I picked him up to go to the BBBS swimming event at Wakefield School. His hair had been cut and he looked so different. He couldn't stop looking at himself in the mirror.

This probably doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was a real breakthrough for me. I was so proud of him.

Every weekend we would go out for a bike ride or fishing, possum hunting, kite flying etc, and I watched him grow. I was just a small support for his mum. She really is a good mum, but boys need men in their lives - not just once in a while but regularly, and for a period of time.

His mum wouldn't have taken him possum and rabbit hunting, and skinned and gutted our catch, although she did make a nice rabbit stew!

I think most men my age would have had the chance to go hunting or fishing with someone when they were kids. Lots of boys with only mum at home might not get to do "man" stuff, simply because their fathers are absent.

Peter had never made anything with tools, so we made a birdhouse. I was amazed recently, watching a group of young men using handsaws. Most had no idea how to use them, because they had never been shown.

What other skills do we take for granted? My Dad taught me everything I know, really - how to catch and fillet fish, hammer nails, chop wood, paint, dig the garden - the list goes on and on. If someone doesn't teach these kids, who will teach their kids?

A few weeks ago, there was a guy on television named Rob Cope, who's wheeling a fridge around New Zealand while promoting his book Men Wanted For Hazardous Journey. He said nobody taught him how to be a man. That's what BBBS is about - teaching and modelling what being a good man or woman is.

While looking at his website (, I came across this quote by Steve Biddulph: "He knows that there must be more, but he does not know what more is."

So, what makes a good man? I don't have to think too hard to list plenty of things I know.

My Dad comes to mind first. He worked hard to provide for five children, and still works hard to help us out if we need it. All my siblings turned out fine, all my brothers are good men, and we all love our Dad.

A good man is reliable. He's there when you need him. He helps those who need help. All these qualities plus many more are what you find in a good man.

So why does the BBBS programme find it so hard to find good men to be mentors? Most will say they are too busy; I think that's bollocks. Too busy doing what? Fishing, mountain biking, gardening? Why not do these things with a child? They will be happy just to have someone's attention for a few hours once a week.

Some will say "Not my problem", but if these young people go down the wrong path, it will be everybody's problem.

I hear you say, "These solo mothers shouldn't have kids", but sometimes it's better if fathers are not in contact with their children. Also, how many fathers have you heard about who have died, leaving young children behind?

Peter used to come for a barbecue sometimes, and then we would play cards - much more stimulating than staring at the TV!

We camped at French Pass for two nights on our last outing before he moved away. I hate camping, but I really enjoyed that weekend. We went fishing - Peter loved catching blue cod.

At night, we played cards and talked. He is a better talker than me, so that's something I learned from him.

Most mentors get as much out of the relationship as the kids do. My first little brother loved cycling, so I bought a mountain bike, and by the time he moved away I was riding more without him than with him.

I was matched with my fourth little brother six months ago. Such a nice boy - very polite, good at school, an average 8-year-old. He just doesn't have a dad. Sometimes he is sad about that, and it's gut-wrenching to see him so upset.

I got a text from his mum a while back thanking me for playing soccer with him. She said he was now confident about playing with his friends at school. Such a simple activity made a difference to his confidence. I replied simply, "That's what I'm here for" - and I am.

I want to see him every weekend, and I miss him if I don't. Last week we played cards, and then he helped me in the vege garden, and learned to dig. We can tick that one off.

Next week, we're going fishing.