Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.
As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.
Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.
“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.
I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?
They both looked . . . immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.
I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home. Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.
In this short piece in The Globe and Mail, this mom’s friends need someone to tell them what our friends realized: Hey, it’s okay if your boy wants to swing sticks around. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, or that he’ll inevitably grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath or a steroid-fueled abuser. There is a place for fighting boys in the world, if we let there be a place.
When I was pregnant I dreamed about the sweet, sensitive child I would have. I imagined us sitting at the table engaged in some means of creative expression, perhaps painting or writing stories. I imagined sitting quietly in the park listening to the birds and finding shapes in the clouds. But it was not to be.
My wild boy chases the birds, leaps from the park bench. He runs and jumps and yells and climbs. More than once I’ve felt pangs of envy while in the company of friends and their sweet, quiet little girls.
Before you lambast for not valuing her son, read on. It’s clear that she loves and enjoys her boy, and gives him reasonable rules: he wants to swing a stick? She tells him, “Be careful,” and leaves it at that. She says,
I’m through apologizing for Malcolm. His wildness is not a product of permissive parenting or the negative influences of a violent TV culture. His wildness is his own, and as such I embrace it even if others do not.
But what is she supposed to do when her boy comes into contact with other boys, who are repeatedly told, “Put the stick down”? She notes:
I have heard many open-minded parents declare: “If my son wants to play with dolls or dress up in girls’ clothes, I’m totally fine with that.” But what if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children’s play?
Yes, we are, and it’s making a mess of the world. It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.
Boys playing with sticks is not a meaningless game. It’s something that little boys absolutely must be allowed to do, if that’s how they want to play. A boy who wants to pick up a stick needs to know that he can, and he may, and that his affinity for sticks is not a bad thing. He needs to know that a stick is a powerful thing, and that the world needs men who know how to use their sticks.
Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness. Boys who are not allowed to whack and be whacked with sticks never learn what fighting is like. What’s so bad about that? Well, they may end up hitting someone weak, with no idea how much it hurts to be hit. Or they may end up standing by while the strong go after the weak – and have no idea that it’s their job to put a stop to it.
Either way, the weak suffer. The whole world suffers.
Boys aren’t a problem to be fixed. Parent should correct the little details when the way they play really hurts someone else, but we should let the main energy of our children go the way it wants to go. If that means finding shapes in clouds or writing stories, that’s fine. Don’t push our sons to be fighters if they doesn’t naturally run that way.
But if they naturally want to turn everything they touch into a weapon, then that’s fine, too — as long as they know there are rules. If your boys wants weapons, then keep weapons in your house. Make a place for them. Give your boys permission to be who they are, and encourage whatever good impulses you see in them.
And give other parents permission to let their kids be kids, too. Some parents aren’t hearing it from anyone else. If your house is the place where their son first lays hand on a sword, don’t apologize! But let him know that swords come with rules. Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.
In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.
There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules. But it’s become impossible to talk about that kind of boyhood, without being accused of trying to turn boys into one extreme or the other. When I say that my son carefully carried around caterpillars when he was a toddler, I hear that I have a secret desire to castrate men. When I say that my husband protects our family, I hear that I’m perpetuating rape culture and the myth of female victimhood. When I say that there is a difference between men and women, I hear that I am the problem – I’m the reason there’s violence and unhappiness in the world – I’m the reason we can’t all just get along. I hear that if only we would all agree to put the stick down, we’d be fine.
Yes, well. When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away. They’ll know because we let them have sticks, we let them find out what sticks can do, and we told them what sticks are for.
Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.