I think parents and society simultaneously over-protect and under-protect their children. Especially their boys.
Extreme caution is given to the physical safety of our boys to the point that it is paralyzing. They can play bloody violent video games about the end of the world and we don’t care, but the end of the world is upon us if they happen to ride their bicycles without elbow pads. We’re so confused we don’t know what’s dangerous and what’s helpful.
I observed my son’s recess in his former school where two adult homo sapiens who had zero knowledge of children homo sapiens tried to manage the jungle chaos of forty kindergarteners with pent-up energy exploding all over the place. I saw them break up all kinds of horseplay between super energetic boys, chase down runners who were only wildly running in circles, and make tacklers stand against the wall for doing what tacklers are legitimately allowed to do: tackle other tacklers. Only one time did I think they actually interfered with a bonafide fight and I kind of felt it should have been allowed to go on for just a little bit so that the playground enforcers could teach the pesky little punk his place. But, alas! However, the real problem was that horseplay was just as punishable as bullying. In fact, it seemed as if these workers could hardly distinguish the two.
And it’s not their fault. If a child got a bloody nose from the accidental flailing heel in a tangle of boys scrambling for a football there would be hell to pay with most parents. Papers to fill out. A visit from the city police. Parents simply cannot tolerate the notion of skinned knees, bruised legs, and scratched arms, the de facto eventualities of letting six-year-old boys just play. Everything in me wishes I could just say, “Let boys be boys.” After all, I think roughhousing and horseplay with its certain battle wounds is healthy.
When I was a kid growing up in Africa we used to play — everyone hold your breath! – war games! With mangoes and guavas and grapefruits. Our version of the Geneva Convention (and I have no idea how influential our parents were on these rules) was that stones and bricks were off limits. But we pushed the limits by choosing the least ripe fruit, thereby having a weapon of firmer density and therefore capable of inflicting more sting when hurled at our opponent. It was a given that playing hurt sometimes. And our opponents were of all ages. I remember getting nailed with green mangos by sixteen year olds when I was only ten. I also remember going home in the evening with bruises all over and my mother nonchalantly saying, “You boys need to be careful you don’t hurt each other out there.” Apparently, upon seeing the bruises she didn’t think we had actually gotten hurt yet. And I’m proud of her for it.
Occasionally, we’d cross a line. A big boy would throw a fruity projectile at a little boy with just a little bit too much heat and the kid would cry. More often than not I remember the big boys rushing over to the kid and saying, “We’re sorry! Are you okay?” But crying was something we all vigorously tried to avoid.
So, I wish I could say to all the over-protective mama bears that hover around our schools today that they need to just take a sedative and let playground rules rule. Let “boys be boys.”
But, sadly, I’m afraid that we’re stuck in the grip of an irony: the over-protectiveness of our parents today is resulting in an increasingly violent atmosphere at school. I don’t think we can say with a shrug of the shoulders, “Let boys be boys” because boys without fathers do not know how to be boys. And violence, the kind that leaves permanent damage, is a very real possibility now.
In this excellent interview from the New York Times entitled In Praise of Roughhousing we are reminded about the value of fathers interacting with their children, especially boys, in some good old-fashioned physical horseplay. The key to the whole interview is in this brilliant opinion:
We believe that real safety comes from knowledge, not from rules and saying “No!” all the time.
Yes! And dads who play and tackle and wrestle and roughhouse with their boys are teaching them safety and self-control. They are modeling before their sons the ability to be stronger yet restrained. And they are teaching their boys the feeling of their limits because most boys today do not know what they are capable of doing nor do they do know how to measure when they’ve been beat. They become dangerous little packages of explosive testosterone.
The beauty of playing rough with dad is that a little boy can learn self-control in the context of intensity. Children don’t get abstract theorizing. Son, when your adrenalin is is rushing and an endorphin rush is smashing through your system you need to rely on the Spirit to guide you. That means nothing. And playing rough and tumble with your little man gives a real-life context for developing a sense of what it means to get control of one’s self. Naturally, he’ll cross the line with dad, but dad is man enough to take the ear-pull and the scratched neck and say, “Hey, son! That’s not how you fight!”
I have a very intense and strong little boy. He rarely cries and he usually makes others cry. Besides the fact that I think most other children his age are weenies, I have to teach a very active little boy to learn physical restraint. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but I have found that the more I roughhouse with him the more he is able to figure out how to restrain himself when playing with other children. And he’s one tough little scrapper. Our wrestling matches are not for softies. But while I am still stronger, I’m taking advantage of winning and losing on my own schedule because he needs to learn how to win and lose like a man. While I am stronger I’m taking advantage of controlling the difficulty, by easing up or intensifying. While I am stronger I’m training in ways that I will not be able to do soon. In the meantime, he thinks we’re playing!
One of our games is “Trap” and he loves it. He often asks for it. It’s because he always wins, but barely! (Wink, wink!). In “Trap” I contort his body into mine in a bizarre tangle that looks like some kind of cartoonish graeco-roman wrestling lock and then I tell him to try to free himself, “taunting” him with all kinds of “trash talk” about how this is the hold of the century and no man ever has gotten out of it. (And, technically, that’s true, because I’d rather die a thousand deaths than hold a man like that.) He strains, and pushes, and shoves, and twists, and does everything within our rules to get out of the “hold of the century.” And I keep him there, slightly loosening my hold, and trying to sense when he’s almost about to give up, loosening again. He always eventually conquers and lays out on the ground, panting and heaving, and uttering all kinds of trash talk about how weak I’m getting. And so it goes.
Yes, one day I will be too weak. But I hope by then that some subtle lessons of roughhousing will be ingrained into his boyish one-day-to-be-a-man psyche. Here is a random list:
- Sometimes you get hurt, but life hurts generally. Man up.
- Sometimes you win, but win graciously.
- Sometimes you lose. Be thankful for a competitor that has taught you your limits and try again.
- Your body has powerful drives that have to constantly be monitored, even when you’re very excited, mad, hungry, or in the heat of battle.
- You pay the consequences for what you do when your body is in a rush. There’s never an excuse for losing control.
- You can be a fierce competitor and humble.
- There’s a difference in jesting “trash talk” that spurs each other on and the trash talk that is disrespectful and dishonoring to God.
- Giving less than your best is never acceptable unless giving less than your best is best (like when Dad lets you win!).
- There are times to choose losing for the sake of your competitor’s joy (like when Dad lets you win!).
- Respect weakness and age. For years Dad roughhoused and played with you, respecting your fragility; when he starts weakening and getting tired, respect his.
- When Dad lays exhausted on his back and wraps his arm around your neck to hug you he wants you to know that whatever mistakes he makes the only way to really love someone is to give them your time.
Boys will be boys. But boys need to be protected from real dangers like excessive video-gaming, pornography, lazy minds, and over-protective society that doesn’t let them get roughed up. Yes, boys will be boys, but the future of boys should be manhood. A gentle and strong manhood that has learned self-control in the rush of intensity.