I was watching an online video titled “Boys Will Be Boys” recently (that was more or less just a collection of boys punching their siblings), when I realized that I’ve never seen my 9-year-old son throw a punch. Not once.
I’ve seen him frustrated. I’ve seen his face turn red. I’ve seen him yell at his younger sisters because they went into his room unannounced, or broken one of his toys. But I’ve never seen him react to something with physical aggression. I’ve never seen him clinch his fists or talk about fighting someone. He’s never been sent home from school for fighting. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t been faced with confrontation at school. I know that he has. But he’s never reacted with punches and kicks.
And when I thought about that, I wondered what it meant. I remember getting in a few fights by the time I was his age. Not many, but a couple. I can’t recall if I won or lost. I can’t recall there being any blood shed or if I landed any punches. But I do recall not liking it. I didn’t get a thrill from fighting like many young boys did. I found it frightening — enough so, that I remember trying to find ways not to fight. This doesn’t mean that I was a push-over; I don’t think that was the case. But I did find ways to get along with people. I did what my mother always told me to do, the same phrase we often tell our children: use your words.
When I think of my son Tristan, and his interactions with kids at school and church, I wonder if he does the same. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There’s a lot of pressure on boys to be the biggest, the fastest, the strongest — and to prove that, a boy often feels he needs to throw a punch. In fact, in boyhood, it often feels like you always have to be proving yourself as a man. It’s all part of masculinity; the competition.
Or at least that’s the way I understood it growing up. I often told other boys that I’d been in fights. I told them that I’d punched some kid at the park, or whatever, just so they would think I was tough. I lied about a lot of things like that, rather than just say that I didn’t enjoy confrontation, because admitting to that meant that I was a wuss (or something else more derogatory).
But as I’ve gotten older, I started to realize that violence, or the ability to engage in violence, isn’t all that important. In fact, it’s illegal. Of course, over the years I’ve seen this kind of unspoken male dominance thing crop up in other ways, too. There are people I’ve worked that have been more or less bullies, and now that they can’t punch someone, they talk over everyone. They seem to conduct themselves as the loudest, correct-ist, mansplaining-ist people in the room, and because no one talks back, they assume that they are right. I hate people like that. And I’m in no hurry to turn my son into something similar.
I’m much more interested in teaching him the skills of compromise, understanding, and conversation. The ways I learned to use my words rather than my fists have been some of the most beneficial skills of my life. And I see other men struggle with hyper-masculinity and intimidation every day.
This isn’t to say that being a bully doesn’t work out for some people. (Just look at the U.S. political climate right now, and I’m sure you can see a few examples.) But more often then not, I’ve watched men who spent a good deal of their youth throwing their weight around, and coming at everything with violence and aggression, only to find themselves blowing through marriages and isolated socially. No one wants to put up with their hyper-masculinity and inability to compromise.
I don’t want that for my son. I want him to have lasting friendships based on love and compassion for others, not a fear that they might get scolded if they speak up. And I want him to be in a rewarding marriage that is based on partnership rather than domination. So when I think about the fact that my son isn’t particularly aggressive — that he’s never thrown a punch or raised his voice to argue his point — I don’t get nervous like a lot of men might. I feel comfort in knowing that he is learning to communicate in other ways that will ultimately benefit him in the long run.
Not long after thinking about all of this, I was sitting on the sofa next to my son, watching Pokémon, when he let out a long breath and said, “Dad, I like pink.”
He wouldn’t look me in the eye when he said it, as though it were a very shameful thing. And as I looked at his little head hanging low, I suddenly realized I was faced with a few choices. I could tell him that liking pink was okay and that he should go to school and announce it. Perhaps he could help create a culture shift at Johnson’s Charter School, one where all the boys liked pink, even if it meant him potentially turning into an outcast. Or, I could confirm an age-old, stupid, and outdated status quo: react with anger, like my father would’ve, and tell him that pink is only for girls and then spend the next several days fretting about my son and trying to find ways to “man him up” by teaching him to throw punches.
What I ended up doing was something much more subtle.
My son was still looking down. I hadn’t spoken yet. “Rick said he likes pink, too,” he continued. “He’s the only other boy I know who likes pink. Most of my friends say pink’s for girls.”
Then I said something I wish my father would’ve said in a situation like this:
“I like pink. Now you know three boys.”
He leaned into the couch, snuggled up next to me, and we finished watching Pokémon.More On