A few weeks ago, I watched a young boy hitting and tackling and tattling his way through a party. His dad refused to intervene, saying “The other kids have to stand up for themselves. When they’ve had enough, they’ll hit him back. It’s no big deal. Boys will be boys!”
There’s been a lot of conversation the last few weeks about what that phrase means. You know, in places like Steubenville, OH.
So here’s my two cents.
The cinnamon challenge, after all, was invented by boys.
A few years back, Eric came walking into my first period minus his left eyebrow. The whole thing. His team lost the Super Bowl, so he lost his eyebrow. He was proud he had paid up on his bet. That strip of pale skin was a badge of honor.
Shea has some stories, too. He grew up on a sugar cane plantation on Maui, climbing banyan trees, swimming in irrigation ditches and sleeping in caves. He’s been bitten by scorpions, geckos, centipedes, crabs and a parrot. He fell out of the tree in his front yard and broke his nose. Twice. His mom told him to put some ice on it and shake it off.
And the apple did not fall very far from the tree. Last week, Gabriel went downstairs to get a pillowcase out of the laundry room and didn’t come back. I yelled down the stairs to find out what was taking so dang long.
“I can’t get past the dog gate.”
Why didn’t you ask for help?
“I was trying to build a bridge over the gate.”
My sister-in-law reminded me of the family party when her mom heard the boys yelling “Walk the plank! Walk the plank!” They had taken the flimsy cardboard sandwich board and stuck it between the bed and the top of the dresser. When she caught them, Gabe was just about to take the first step.
And there are six boys across the street from us. The youngest ones are Gabe’s favorite accomplices buddies. Mostly they play loud and rough, with the older brothers to referee. It’s when they get quiet that we worry. Like when they concocted a plan to turn the lawn red. By the time we caught them, they had the red dye in the water, ready to go.
All of this is in my wheelhouse as the mother of a boy, along with dinosaurs, rock collections, bug catchers, and pee in the trashcan right next to the toilet.
But violence? Nope. Even when he was hitting at age 3, we doubled down and put a stop to it. We never ever shrugged our shoulders and said “What can we do?” And we surely never expected someone else’s older, stronger child to “teach him a lesson”.
The problem is that we still box boys into two categories: “all boy” and “mama’s boy”. We stopped doing this to girls 30 years ago. But boys are either strong or weak; winner or loser; hard or soft. Worse, we confuse physical aggression with physical strength. Somehow, we feel better if our short son socks the taller boy right in the face. We think this proves that he has “guts”.
And we confuse physical strength with godliness. At a football game a few weeks ago, the opposing coach apologized to Shea in advance for how badly they were going to beat us. “My son is ranked in the Top 100 of five year olds in Junior All-American” he said.
Dad was 5’7” in his cleats and mom was a petite little blond. I am 6’1″ and Shea is 6’5″. Gabe had his Top 100 son by four inches and 20 lbs. Dream on, I thought. We’ll see how they’re ranked when they’re 15.
See? Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard not to get sucked into the competition.
Whether my son plays the violin or football, he has to learn to be a good person. No one will cheer louder than me when he sacks the quarterback fairly. Or wins the violin competition. But that will not be the measure of my success as a parent.
When he reaches down to help the quarterback up, or shakes the other violinist’s hand, then I will know I am on the right track.
When he loses gracefully, cheers for the winners and knows that his wins and losses do not define him as a man, then I will know I have succeeded.
Real men believe in God. They do not use their fists, feet, or weapons to make their mark. They respect themselves, and others, and show courage for what is right in the face of danger or censure.
Maybe boys will be boys. But I didn’t marry a boy. And we are not raising a boy.
We are raising a man.