Childhood struggle and the mark of a leader

Reflections: Malcolm Turnbull has talked openly about being abandoned as a child.
Reflections: Malcolm Turnbull has talked openly about being abandoned as a child.

Full marks to our Prime Minister for talking honestly about his terrible childhood in the national press this week. 

As an eight year old boy, Malcolm Turnbull’s mother abandoned the family and left the country with another man. Soon after that, his dad put him into boarding school, where he was bullied by boys much older than him. 

Its extra-ordinary how many of our leaders had rough childhoods. 

John Howard suffered significant hearing loss as a child, greatly affecting his ability to socialize, and his father died when he was sixteen.

Kevin Rudd was bedridden at five, with rheumatic fever which affected his heart valves, later needing multiple surgeries. And at 11 his father died, and the family lost their farm.  He too was sent to boarding school, but as a “charity case”, an experience which he described as “tough, harsh, and unforgiving”. 

Senator Eric Abetz’s parents were German migrants, his father had fought on the Russian front, a nightmare of violence and death, and on arriving in Tasmania’s rough northern suburbs, he was often bullied by schoolmates. 

When our male leaders talk about their struggles, it shows a different side to them and sets a good example at a time when we want to see male vulnerability instead of blustering and aggression.  

An abandoning mother is about as traumatic an event as one can imagine for a small boy.  Of course, when one reflects on this, it’s likely that such a parent would not have been very committed or bonded in the first place, to even consider such a step, and that an entire childhood up to that point may have been one of reduced attachment.

Sometimes though,  a terrrible childhood makes one determined to be a better human being than one’s forebears. Malcolm Turnbull’s clear sense of family values shown in the Barnaby-gate scandal was not just a strategic move, I think he was as appalled as he sounded.   

The whole boarding school tradition, too,  has filled the rooms of psychologists and psychiatrists since the 1970’s,  when men first began to be able to admit to having trauma and anxiety in their lives.  Before that alcohol filled that gap, with suicide and family violence its frequent compatriots. 

Boarding schools are better places now, but its still problematic to have young children in group settings without lots of caring adult presence.  For boys, it quickly becomes a jungle, as anxiety makes them struggle for dominance.   

Its likely that the future of our world depends on a change in the nature of being a man, and being able to be open and honest about ones emotions is at the core of that. 

American researcher Brene Brown has pioneered this field, and her TED talks on the subject are among the most popular ever shared online  She teaches that nothing worthwhile in life ever occurs without vulnerability. 

Falling in love, making friends, being willing to change and grow through the relationship challenges we all have in our marriages, and with our children as they enter their teens and no longer see us as perfect.   We have to be able to say “I don’t know”.  “I was scared and lashed out, and I am sorry” “I am too sad, to be able to respond right now”. “I am not sure what to do, I will need some time to think”.   

People can only get close to us if they can see the real us, and hear what is in our hearts.  Men have worn masks for centuries - tough guy, cool dude, funny joker, corporate man, and the women and children in their lives have found it tragic and lonely to have such a man as a husband or father. One woman described it to me as “being married to a log of wood”. 

Its wonderful that younger men today are willing to weep, to admit to being lost at times, and paradoxically this actually makes them more resilient and able to show backbone too.  We bounce back.  And our strength comes from commitment and honesty, not from being rigid or hard or cruel. 

In her new book A Certain Light, about surviving an air crash but losing her legs in the aftermath,  journalist Cynthia Banham writes that “Suffering actually connects people. It makes us realize our humanity and the humanity of others”.  

Lets hope more of our politicians move in this direction, not to gain sympathy votes, but to come out from behind ideological barriers and make our world kinder and more co-operative.

Bluster and aggression don’t give good governance, or build the bridges necessary for the terrible problems we face.  A politician who admits to not knowing what to do would take a risk, but start a revolution.  

Steve Biddulph's new book Raising Boys in the 21st Century, will be out in April.