When sons become young men, a new threat enters their lives

There’s a long-running debate over which age is most difficult to parent. How do the sleepless nights of the first year compare with the terrible twos? Are tweens more difficult than teenagers? Or are eight-year-olds the real monsters, as one recent survey suggested. Puberty starts to kick in, there’s a push for independence, peers become important and, all of a sudden, your angel has a whole lot of attitude. But what happens when independence comes with a car, school pride turns into a menacing shade of tribalism, and peer pressure means getting drunk and experimenting with drugs?

What about when every Saturday night comes with the fear you’ll get a call from Accident and Emergency? Just when you think it’s time to hang up the parenting boots and park the helicopter, along comes a dangerous new phase – raising young adults. Things get very challenging.

My eldest son’s first year out of high school was marked by the most heartbreaking tragedy. A young man, 18, full of hope, full of promise, was felled by a coward punch in Brisbane’s nightclub precinct, leaving him with a fatal brain injury. His smiling face, a picture of innocence, beamed from every news outlet. His story – a tragic tale of random violence that wrought unfathomable grief on his family and friends – a reminder to parents like me of the vulnerability of young men.

I knew so many boys just like him. It was impossible not to be devastated by this senseless act of violence, and not to think that it could have been my son. In the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Despite the publicity, it felt like every month I heard of another family friend assaulted. Boys I knew – out drinking with mates – in hospital with head injuries. Everyone had a story. The most chilling among them a friend’s son, punched in an unprovoked attack outside a bar, then repeatedly kicked in the face while unconscious.

None of this would come as a surprise to police who patrol the streets of nightclub hotspots in our capital cities, dealing with the parade of paralytically drunk teens getting into trouble, or the medical staff who treat them.

But I was shocked by the number of assaults I heard about that year and the brutality of the attacks. They left me sickened. They also left me nervous. Every Saturday night I’d lie awake waiting until I heard the reassuring sound of an Uber pulling up outside, the click of a key in the front door.

When it comes to street violence, young, single, intoxicated males are in the highest risk category. Put them in a long queue for a nightclub or a taxi and, chances are, something will go wrong.

It was against this background that I began researching my novel One Punch, going through the painful stories of assault victims and their families – lives shattered, forever changed, by one catastrophic event.

And the perpetrators? I had a pretty clear idea what they looked like: thugs raised on a diet of violent video games, pumped up on steroids, maybe brutalised by their fathers. Lock them up, throw away the key.

Like every issue, the reality is much more complicated. Sometimes the perpetrators look a lot like the victims – kids with bright futures ahead of them, their lives forever changed by one catastrophic decision. How does a parent deal with that? What happens if your son or daughter is facing jail when they’re meant to be starting uni?

These are the questions I sought to explore, finding my own prejudices challenged when I discovered parents in my community were facing these challenges. One boy, just out of school, was jailed for eight months for a single punch. Another young man fled after a drunken bar fight. His parents marched him into the nearest police station to face the consequences. He was jailed for 18 months. What a way to start adulthood.

After raising two boys, sharing stories on the sideline of sporting events, at book clubs and parties, all I’m sure of is this: parenting is a tough, imprecise enterprise, and the moral high ground is a precarious place to stand. As soon as you get smug – think you’ve nailed parenting, have the answers, and start judging others – you’re in for a fall.

(Affirm Press) by Julie Fison is out now.

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