Article written by Hugh Wilson
I was in the local playground recently with my five-year-old son when I noticed a small group of older boys gathered next to the big climbing frame. Luca noticed too, and dragged me over to investigate.
A young boy – maybe seven – was perched on top of the sloping roof of the frame's castle tower. He was crouched, as if preparing to jump, but looked terrified. Tears were welling up.
He was the centre of nearly everyone's attention, but his dad was sitting on a bench a few yards away and doing a good job of appearing entirely oblivious to his son's plight.
After a few seconds, the dad sighed and looked up. "If you're going to do it, just do it," he said. "If you're not, I don't want to know. Don't say anything, just do it. Or admit you've failed and we can go home. But don't go on about it to me if you do."
For a split second the boy looked humiliated and rejected. And then he sprang, leaping from the roof of one piece of playground equipment to the roof of another, a few metres away. He grasped the sloping roof of the second climbing frame, steadied himself, and stared down at his father in triumph and relief.
His dad's demeanour changed with the speed of the boy's leap. "You've done it son – I'm proud of you." They walked off together hand in hand, all smiles and with what the man obviously considered one of life's great lessons for boys – never back out of a challenge – well and truly learned.
I was thinking about all this recently when I came across the story of an American man convicted of beating and starving the three grandsons he claimed to love during a hike in the Grand Canyon. His defence was that he adored them, but they needed to toughen up. The playground tyrant's justification was almost certainly the same.
Why do we still do this to boys? Luca was aghast at the playground scene, and so was I. The jump was tricky and dangerous, but the kid's obvious humiliation and the possibility of a broken arm was worth the risk as far as good old dad was concerned.
If you say you're going to do something, do it. Never chicken out, whatever the potential consequences. Don't come crying to me, son.
The whole thing made me feel uncomfortable, and not just for the poor boy. I thought about my own parenting style, which tends to border on the neurotic when it comes to Luca's physical exertions. I feel the need to hover around him, arms at the ready. To be fair, he seems to like things like that too.
Maybe I mollycoddle him. Maybe I'm turning him into a sissy. As his dad, aren't I supposed to teach him how to be tough?
And then I came to my senses. The answer – or my answer – is no, I'm not. I don't want my boy to toughen up, and I don't want him to think that showing fear is a weakness and backing out isn't an option.
Isn't half the trouble we have with young men their inability to walk away from a challenge?
And I also thought about my own childhood, when boys from my football team were told off by watching dads for 'not getting in hard enough' and 'letting that striker make a fool of you'. One boy – still a friend of mine – was called 'an embarrassment' every time he made a mistake.
My friend gave up football as soon as his dad no longer had the authority to make him play, even though he was probably the best defender in the school. Today he also lives in another country, although I have no idea if there's a connection.
My dad wasn't like that, and I still play football. But I do remember my dad watching me have the kind of play fight that gets out of hand with a slightly older kid in our back yard when I was about six, only breaking it up when I burst into tears.
I thought those attitudes towards boys were a product of their times, now consigned to history. But the park incident reminded me just how entrenched the idea that boys should be tough still is.
I remember not so long ago being out with a bunch of male friends – some dads, some not – and explaining to them that we bring our son home from school for lunch because he's intimidated by the scrum of older kids in the lunch hall and playground. Lunchtimes were miserable for him when he was there and were souring his whole school experience.
Several of my modern, 21st century friends raised sceptical eyebrows. Lunchtime was when boys learned to look after themselves, to run with the gang, to face their demons. What they were really saying was that my son needed to man up. Chuck him in at the deep end and he'll soon learn to swim. That's what boys do.
I'm sorry, but that's not what my boy does. He'll go back to school lunches when he's ready and when he wants to. I'll never urge him to make that leap, or to walk the Grand Canyon under a scorching sun. I refuse to make him miserable to make him a man, and I refuse to believe that the urge to do otherwise is anything except potentially damaging and pathetically selfish.
Because it's not really about the kids, it's about the dads. And surely if the world is hard for young men, it's because it's full of young men who were taught that losing, or showing fear, or chickening out of something potentially dangerous or humiliating, was somehow unmanly.
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