Why, in the depths of our subconscious, are we scared to be too nice to our boys? 

A few months ago, my husband and I snuck out for a much needed date. We didn’t have reservations so even though we don’t drink, we waited at the bar. The bartender was friendly and chatted with us about the softball game playing on the television screen above his head. At one point he looked up and reminisced, “The first time I played catch with my dad I was five and I got my front teeth knocked out. I missed the ball he threw and BANG! There went my front teeth.”

I don’t like blood, or pain. My four sons play a lot of baseball, so I visibly cringed. He noticed and laughed, “Yeah, and you know what he said while I was on the ground crying?” Unfortunately, yes, I can imagine. I shook my head. “He said, ‘Get up! Stop crying, you’re fine.’” Of course he did. But you were FIVE! I thought.

The bartender went on to tell us about his adult softball league. He requires the women to wear facemasks, “because they’re all getting married or whatever,” he explained with a slight roll of his eyes. The men don’t have to wear facemasks though. I asked him about that and he said, “Well, sure, it hurts to get hit in the face, but hey, it happened to me, and after, I never missed another catch again.” I can only assume what he wanted me to learn from his story is that a good way to inspire better baseball in boys is to knock their front teeth out? I asked my four sons if they wanted to try it. They all declined.

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Our bartender looked back on his experience with an obvious sense of pride. I heard no trace of resentment in his voice. He survived; he toughed it out, and never missed another catch again. All good things? Except, experiences like this teach boys to equate crying with weakness. Usually the same little boys who grow up believing crying is weak also grow up associating tears with women and babies. And, they demonstrate these beliefs every time they use terms like cry baby and sissy. The next logical step for these boys is to assume women are weak and, like children, in need of extra assistance, like face masks in softball. I left the bar insulted.

My husband suggested a movie to distract me; and Furious 7 seemed an appropriate choice. It was a terrifying, testosterone charged experience. I cowered in my seat gripping my husband’s hand the whole time. I walked out with a changed heart, humbly thinking, “Umm, maybe that bartender’s dad was right and we really do need boys who can ignore their feelings and, you know, save the world and stuff.” Don’t judge me. I startle when I see my own shadow. 

Somewhere, deep down in the depths of our subconscious, we’re scared to be too nice to our boys, aren’t we? Okay, maybe you aren’t, but I am. I’m afraid that someday my children will be bullied at school, or there will be another draft, or they will need to defend their future family during a home invasion, or, and the list goes on and on. If I’m too compassionate or let my boys feel too much will I make them soft? Will they grow up and find the big, bad world too hard to handle?

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My four boys all have a unique mix of masculine traits, but none of them completely embody stereotypic masculinity. Some of my sons are naturally inclined to be protective of those around them, others, less so. Some are surprisingly tolerant of pain while others complain about every minor scratch. A few get scared easily. One doesn’t seem to ever feel fear. One of my boys will go months without shedding a tear; a few cry several times a day.

My children have all grown up in the same house with the same parents, but each possess a unique mix of so-called masculinity and what are considered weaker traits. Have my husband and I done something wrong, or right? Do we need to start shoring up their softer qualities to prepare them all to face the world? Should I tell my husband to start knocking out a few teeth?

I  started digging and found some research that put my mind at ease. During the Korean War in the 1950’s, it was reported that only 15% of frontline soldiers actually fired their weapons, even when they were under direct attack. Apparently this original research, not surprisingly, was kept for military eyes only. One of the researchers eventually wrote a book called How to Make Your Child a Winner. I found it on my mother-in-law’s shelf years ago, but the statistics about the men willing to fire their weapons is rather telling.

The book says, “The fighters were physically healthier. They were more masculine. They were more independent, and tended to come from higher socio-economic levels with a more stable home life and closer ties of affection with both parents, especially their fathers.”

A couple of important things to note: First, the soldiers who were willing to fight aren’t described as completely masculine, they’re simply described as more masculine than those who weren’t. Second, having an affectionate relationship with parents doesn’t prevent someone from being masculine. Fighters were both more affectionate and more masculine. Finally, having close relationships with parents was associated with being more able to act under extreme stress, not less.

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If you want your son to be able to handle the stress of  life, whether that’s a bully, the draft, a home invasion, a crappy boss, marriage, or anything else, one of the best things you can do is build a good relationship with him. There’s no need to let fears about weakness interfere. Just love your son and his natural blend of so-called masculine and feminine traits; his human traits. He will take care of the rest.

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