By NIKKI MACDONALD

Radon clearly remembers their first meeting. Six-year-old Connor was playing with his Lego blocks at the house of his nan, who is also his guardian. He looked up at this complete stranger and asked: “Do you know how to tie a hook on a fishing line?”

In the three years since, Radon Mailau and his “little buddy” Connor Bradshaw have spent their weekly Sunday afternoon meetings hiking, playing with slingshots, cooking massive piles of potato chips and making Wolverine claws and a failed crossbow.

Connor bounds off the couch to fetch the bow’s second iteration, which is still being whittled and machete-hacked from tea tree.

And, of course, they’ve been fishing – not very successfully – from the small wharf at Seaview.

“I felt a bit like I wanted to have a male around, to teach me maley stuff,” 9-year-old Connor explains, when asked why he wanted to join the Big Buddy scheme for fatherless boys. He laughs self-mockingly: “Maley stuff?!”

A couple of suburbs away in Naenae, boxing coach and youth mentor Billy Graham looks around his gym, which pulses with testosterone with every jab into the bags. “One of that lot has a dad,” he says, gesturing to half a dozen teenage boys thrusting with gloved hands.

“Boys are different. We’re wired different. You’ve got a mum bringing a girl up, that’s perfect, but a boy wants someone to wrestle with and compete with and ‘I can do more press-ups than you can, Dad’. So we’ve got a problem in our society.

“Young boys want a man. My boys want me to be the dad, and they want me to be the man, they want me to be the disciplinarian. They want me to go for a run with them, not tell them to go for a run. They want me to work out with them on the bag and hold the bag for them …

“We’ve got supermums but no dads.”

In 2013, 30 per cent of households with children were single-parent families, up from 10.4 per cent in 1976. At the last count, 84 per cent of those single-parent families were headed up by single mums.

But that’s not the biggest problem, argues Celia Lashlie, former prison officer and author of He’ll be OK: Growing gorgeous boys into good men, who brought her own son up as a single mother.

The bigger issue is that boys growing up with physically or psychologically absent fathers aren’t getting that man-time elsewhere either.

In almost every childcare centre and primary school in New Zealand, women dominate. In early childhood education, a paltry 2.2 per cent of teachers are men. If there is a bloke around he’s probably the principal or caretaker.

But does it really matter if boys don’t have blokes in their lives? Women can do anything, right? Wrong. They can’t model masculinity.

Boys know who their role models are – successful, rich, chick-magnets such as Richie McCaw, Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher. But that’s not how they decide who they want to be.

Lashlie – an ardent feminist – uses the example of the recent royal tour. Ask any teenage girl if the Duchess of Cambridge is a good woman and they will say “of course”. Ask a boy if Prince William is a good man and they’ll say “I don’t know, I don’t know him”.

“What boys do is they look at men and they play with the sense of who this man is. This man is very funny, this man is very gentle, this man is good at sport. They bring that piece of that man across and kind of rub it against themselves – do I want to be like him?

“To grow into a fully operational man, they need to have a lot of men around them to watch and experiment with and feel what it is to be male, and have it reflected.”

Boys need to immerse themselves in the qualities of men. And that includes the bad ones mothers don’t want them consorting with.

“One boy said to me ‘My dad is a great mechanic. I didn’t grow up with my dad, but I’m going to be a mechanic and I hope I can be as good a mechanic as my dad.’

“I smiled and said ‘That’s nice’. He looked back and said ‘Yeah, but emotionally he’s a wanker’. So you separate that out.”

Lashlie says men don’t teach young children partly because of the “extraordinary mythology that every man is a latent paedophile”, and partly because the whole system of education has become feminised. Translation: involved processes, endless detail and everything in triplicate.

“Men’s pragmatism gets in the way and they say ‘Oh, bugger this, I’ll go and do something else’.”

It’s nearly lunchtime at Castle Kids nursery on the Kapiti Coast. Which mean it’s time to tire out the tots before their afternoon nap. Dave Boyd runs them around the scrap of bush out the back, before lining the boys up at the top of the ramp for a race on bulbous plastic trikes. There aren’t enough bikes to go around, so Boyd scoops one toddler up and plops him on his lap for the descent.

When 55-year-old Boyd began training as an early childhood teacher there were three men in his class. By the second year only he remained.

He originally trained in horticulture but was looking to change career when, in his 40s, he was facing possible redundancy at his employer TVNZ. Someone noticed he had a flair with kids and suggested early childhood teaching.

While going back to study was scary, he saw it as a way to make a difference in kids’ lives.

Boyd is a dad, foster dad and granddad and most of these toddlers also have fathers at home. However, many are immigrant children with no extended family. And some are there from 7.30am to 5pm.

“I do a lot of the rough and tumble sort of activities that parents don’t always have time to do. Female staff tend to want to cotton-wool kids, whereas guys will want to extend them. I always stress that, taking the bubble wrap away from the kids, let them experiment with life.”

Boyd does everything: at lunch, he spoons yoghurt (“beep, beep”); at nap time he stays with the children until they fall asleep and, yes, he changes nappies.

“When I first started here I had one mum who went ‘I don’t want him changing my daughter’s nappy’. But she came back to me later and apologised and said ‘How can I judge you when I don’t know you?’ ”

Fear of being branded a paedophile is one reason few men become early childhood teachers, Boyd believes. You can’t become so obsessed that it affects your teaching, but you do have to think about it.

For example, as a male teacher, you never initiate “huggles”, you let the child come to you.

Another reason is the low salaries.

Wanganui Intermediate principal and chairman of the New Zealand Educational Institute’s Principal Council Charles Oliver doubts there are fewer men teaching young children than previously. “The difference is that in the past, children came from two-parent families.”

And the problem, he believes, is more complex than just boys growing up without blokes to look up to.

“There is a subgroup of very angry young people coming through the system, who do not have male role models and actually resent women. Because they only live with their mother, they’ve always been told what to do by women. They go to school and women tell them what to do. A lot of these kids are really angry and they see women as the cause.”

His own school is fortunate to have a staff that is about a quarter male. Nevertheless, in 2007 it employed a former personal trainer as a full-time male role model for kids with emotional and behavioural problems.

Wellington Kindergartens have gone a step further. Back in 2008, general manager Amanda Coulston looked at the high unemployment rate for young men and the shortage of blokes in early childhood education and figured two and two made four.

Well, eight, actually. In 2011, when they finally got funding from Work and Income for the YMen pilot, the association offered six-month internships to eight long-term unemployed guys in Wainuiomata, aged 18 to 25. At the end of the programme one went into fulltime work. Two went on to further, unrelated training. Five were accepted into the early childhood degree programme, of whom four have stuck it out.

And that was just the first cohort. In three years, 22 young men have completed the programme and gone on to study to become teachers.

Which proves the biggest barrier is lack of exposure and opportunity, rather than lack of interest, Coulston says.

“Young women are brought up to be nurturers. Young men aren’t even encouraged to do babysitting. There’s huge benefits for the young men, but also for the children. They bring a different energy.

“To have them sitting down reading is a really powerful message to young children, whether they’re girls or boys, that learning is something everyone can do.”

She also found that fathers hung out more often at kindy, dropping their children off and talking to the young men about the rugby or their weekend.

“So the children saw their fathers engaging in their place of learning.”

Lashlie says what’s needed is a 10-year plan to get more men in early education, and enough blokes to make some noise to drive it.

“One male teacher looked at me – a principal, a good man – and said ‘We really need a men’s revolution, don’t we?’.

I said ‘Yes, you do’. He looked back and said ‘I don’t suppose we could get you to do it for us?’ – if that isn’t a bloke’s response! ‘No, you’ve got to do it yourselves’.”

Perched on the edge of the raised boxing ring, back against the ropes, Billy Graham holds his young crowd in thrall. There’s complete silence, like a prayer circle, while he recounts to the juniors one of his boxers’ winning fights in Christchurch.

“The other guy was bigger and taller. I asked Kizsa if he was OK with the match-up. He asked me. He was trusting me first that I would not see him get hurt.”

Graham is mentor, surrogate dad, no-swear-enforcer to boys from all backgrounds. Some have no doubt spent time at the cop shop across the road.

“If you’re not firm with them, they’re like the wind. They really want stability, and stability is kindness and love and consequences for your actions.”

Graham remembers his own boyhood. He was “a handful” and boxing gave him “other men that were older than me to look up to and say ‘I want to be like him one day’.

“There’s no dads around so we better find some good mentors for our kids, and mostly it’s found in sports clubs. If I had my choice, I’d have sports clubs every possible place.”

He flicks the switch to illuminate his brag wall of photos from countless trips with the boys to America. He’s an instant proud dad.

There’s Troy on the rowing machine, Troy at a black tie dinner, Muhammad Ali – “I’ve got one of Troy with him”.

Troy Broad is a clean-cut former Naenae College deputy head boy who’s been training with Graham since he started the gym in 2006.

Now 18, he was 10 when he converted from rugby, and he’d already been seven years without a dad.

“I always wanted a father figure to be around, just someone to look up to. It’s quite important. Without someone to look up to, you don’t really have anything to strive for, unless you have that really strong motivation, and I didn’t really have that back then.”

Mum Rochelle didn’t think he was missing out growing up without a dad, but it was good to know that, if he had a problem he couldn’t talk to her about, there were other options.

She’s clearly one of Graham’s “supermums”. She still accompanies Troy to training two to three times a week, to watch him strain and spar. She’s been to so many tournaments the boys call her camp mother.

“Billy says I’m hard but I’m fair. I have to be my man dad,” she laughs.

On the opposite brag wall Graham points out a rangy-looking teen.

“That guy was a champion, came to America. We thought we had him,” he says dolefully. “Now he’s in a gang. Breaks your heart. We’re interested in boxing, but we’re more interested in changing attitudes.”

Organised sport, with its uniforms, travel and subscription fees, can be beyond the reach of many families. In 2011, about half of all kids belonged to a sports club.

Another option is linking boys craving “maley stuff” with willing volunteers, such as 43-year-old Mitre 10 worker Radon Mailau.

Connor is Mailau’s second “little buddy”. The first moved away but the bond was strong enough that when he returned to visit, aged about 16, he dropped in to talk girls.

Mailau and his wife don’t have their own children, and for him, locking in a few hours every Sunday feels like a meaningful way to give back.

“The whole dollar-a-day thing didn’t really do it – that’s a pretty easy thing to do and not think about it. It’s challenging but it’s rewarding seeing people change.”

The Big Buddy programme was set up in 1997 by West Auckland non-violence group Man Alive, who were concerned that about 80 per cent of the men in prison and the justice system didn’t have fathers. Corporate convert Richard Aston took it over in 2003 and since then they’ve matched up about 545 Wellington and Auckland boys with mentors.

Because of the obvious risks, Aston designed, with the help of psychiatrists experienced in dealing with paedophiles, a “360-degree” assessment process to spot potential abusers. They’ve identified four.

The Big Buddy volunteers range from a 21-year-old student to millionaire businessmen. Many are 40-somethings looking for something more meaningful than the pursuit of money.

Some grew up without a father and want to redeem their childhoods through offering that to another boy. Others had such great fathers they are shocked to realise not everyone else has.

One young bloke wanted to find out if he was built for parenting. When he did have a baby, the third person to meet that child was his little buddy.

While caregivers will sometimes request mentors because they’re at their wits’ end trying to deal with a tearaway boy, the approach is often led by ordinary boys wanting to spend time with men.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’m constantly blown away,” Aston says. “Sometimes we get all this shit in the news and think it’s just a bloody hard-arsed world. It’s not. There’s hundreds of people who want to care for someone who starts off as a stranger and becomes part of the family.”

Aston gets requests from Christchurch to Waikato to Bay of Plenty and would love to roll the programme out nationwide. The problem is funding. At present Big Buddy gets about 10 per cent from government and the rest from the Lotteries Commission and the Todd Foundation. He estimates it would need a couple of million to go national.

Doing nothing, argues Lashlie, is not an option.

“In this day and age we’re so concerned about giving them the right vitamins and getting them off sugary drinks and discovering if they need to be gluten-free. We have this huge push for physical health. Well how about the emotional health of boys? Aren’t we obliged to actually grow that as much?

“To grow emotional health for boys, they have to be amongst men. And if the men aren’t there, we all suffer.”

- The Dominion Post