Who is responsible when Year 9 boys at the expensive independent Knox Grammar School in the north of Sydney post disgusting and abusive material in a private chatroom on Discord, their social media platform-of-choice?

Is it the school?

Whenever children are involved somebody must be responsible. Early in my teaching I was taught this important lesson. A 7-year-old had twisted his knee playing boisterously after school. When parents raised it with me, my first reaction was to think it was not my problem because it took place after school. But of course it was my problem. It was an important lesson.

Those who have given Knox a shellacking in talkback and media over the past 24 hours would also say that when boys behave badly it is the school’s problem. But perhaps they should keep their powder dry. Not only was the students’ behaviour not sanctioned by the school, it was contrary to a strictly enforced school policy – and some of the perpetrators have now been expelled.

And in any case, a 14-year-old is not a 7-year-old. At what stage should we start to expect teenagers to man up and face the consequences of their actions? In the old Dennis the Menace movie, Mr Wilson proclaims on discovering the mashed remains of his prize-winning plant, “In a tragedy of such proportions somebody must be to blame.” Mr Wilson blamed Dennis. Shouldn’t we keep it simple and, like Mr Wilson, blame the boy?

Or are we dealing with a phenomenon more complex?

Although neuroscience is quick to remind us that boys’ brains are still developing, impulsivity is entirely different from acting coarsely, cruelly and without respect. Impulsivity and nastiness are night and day different. One is a fact of neural development, the other a lack of moral upbringing. There is never an excuse for treating others badly. If we accept that boys are not compelled to act in atrocious ways surely we must ask what else is influencing them, and ask why their families, and fathers in particular, are so ineffectual in countering those influences. Surely, in the misbehaviour of the Knox boys we are witnessing the impact of ineffective families and feeble fathering?

This conclusion is affirmed by the CEO of The Fathering Project Kati Gapaillard who told The Australian of the growing wave of men struggling with fatherhood. Her non-profit targets fathers of primary boys and is now seeking funding to provide early intervention support for dads.

There are very specific actions every father can do to be more effective.

1. Be united with your wife or partner, at least in everything pertaining to your child. Lack of consistency confuses a child; consistency is gold. Unity is not automatic, so work at being united. No task is more important. Find time to compare notes and prioritise weekly. Don’t play catch up; be a proactive spouse and parent. Invest in your relationship. Don’t assume you know what your spouse is thinking. Talk daily about your child.

2. Above all support each other. Give of yourself. The medium is the message. The most important lesson your relationship conveys is that unless we live for others we will never achieve happiness and peace of soul. Does it do this?

3. Be joyful. Your son is looking to you to know what will make him happy. Show him. You are teaching your child to negotiate life. Put people before things. Show that your joy is in your family. Fix your face.

4. Create habits of trusting one to one conversation with your son. Perhaps you can tell a little boy what to do and if he is obedient he will do so. But if you tell a teenager what to do without entering into trusting dialogue you can have no idea what he is thinking or doing when out of your sight.

At Redfield College, where I used to be the headmaster, we reported back to parents on an anonymous survey completed by the boys. As boys proceeded through secondary school, their relationships with their fathers polarised. For some it improved dramatically for others the line dropped out. Talk weekly at least. Schedule it or it won’t happen. How will you know what your son is doing online if he does not tell you? Don’t be happy with a C grade relationship with your child.

5. Share from your heart… you are passing on the guidebook for life. Give real reasons so that your son can later tell himself what to do. That means you need to be prepared on every hot button issue. Don’t let House of the Dragon or Discord set your son’s moral compass. You have the duty to teach your child to distinguish what is right from what is wrong. Truth is liberating… do you really believe that?

You will measure the success of your parenting on whether you have passed on your most cherished values and if your son, in the years ahead, is successful in permanent loving relationships, with God and others.

For these reasons I have written Parenting for Character and Parenting for Faith.  We live in a society dismissive of reality and cynical of truth. Most of our fellow countrymen and women disavow religion. Many shamelessly pursue a materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle. If parents are ineffective in passing on their most cherished values and religious faith, nobody else can plug that hole.

Mr Wilson was wrong … the problem is not in the boy, but in the parent.

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...