Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I Am Raising a Brad

     “He's such a boy."  “He's all boy, isn't he?"
     Those are the comments I hear most often about my son.  Sometimes they're said with an affectionate smile and sometimes with an exasperated sigh.  Sometimes they're said both ways by the same person in a matter of minutes.  My replies are always polite but inside I'm always wondering; what the fuck does that mean?
     Yes, I know what they mean.  My son, Brad, is rarely clean not because he doesn't bathe or put on clean clothes but because he's likely to run through some mud right after he does.  Brad eats a lot and often like a pig at a trough.  He knows table manners and can mostly use them when he wants to but if something is really good, or he's really hungry, his eating can become barely contained chaos.  His sports are football and wrestling, the most contact of contact sports.  He likes superheroes, video games, toy guns, real guns, and being in the woods.  He barely cares if his clothes fit much less what they look like.  He's such a boy.
     No, I don't know what they mean.  The second thing I'm most often told about him is how empathetic he is.  Brad is adorable and gentle playing with little kids, especially little girls, and he loves doing it.  He thinks the bookstore is the best place in the world.  When he gets the urge to dress up he always puts together a sharp looking outfit.  He has a great fashion sense and I often use his advice when shopping for myself or getting ready for a date.  He says “I love you" often and still sometimes cuddles with me.  He's all boy, isn't he?
     There's a lot of talk online about boys that like to play with girl's toys and acceptance and understanding, and they are important conversations, but they often devolve into silliness or ignorance.  In some forums there's wasted anger over McDonald's offering boys and girls toys in Happy Meals.  In worse forums there's even derision towards parents that allow their boys to fit into some of the boy stereotypes as if it's impossible to raise a child that will skin a deer and still believe in the equality of women.
     Of course, the opposite groups are usually worse.  I think it all goes back to the stupidity of thinking we can and should mold our children into who we want them to be.  If we want them to be different we think we can make them different even if they just want to play games with their friends.  If we want them to conform we think we can punish them into conformance.  As a society we seem to think that parents can and should be in complete control of what and who their children become.
     Look at the metaphor we most often use.  We talk about molding and shaping young minds.  Christians have a prayer that says they are the potter's clay and, of course, Christians think of themselves as God's children.  We think of kids as this liquid mix we can make into anything we want before it hardens.  Well God might be able to make a person into whatever God chooses but I think the idea that a parent can, and should try to, make a child into anything they want is foolish and the source of much bad parenting.
     I think sculpting is the more appropriate metaphor.  When a sculptor looks at a piece of stone the shape of what that piece can be is already inside.  It is the artist's job to chip and cut and polish carefully to bring out the best version of what that is.  That's much closer to parenting I think.  I believe most of what a child can be is there at birth and our job as parents is to just try to help them become the best version of themselves that's inside there genetic piece of stone.
     What do I mean by this?  I mean that, of course, we should try to instill basic morality in our children.  We should try to chip away the parts of the stone that are lying, cheating, and stealing.  When it comes to their personalities though, and their likes and dislikes, we should be mostly hands off unless it involves morality.  I'm talking about a much more subtle style of parenting that is also scary because it acknowledges that we aren't, and shouldn't be, in complete control of who our children become.
     I want Brad to be a reader so I read around him, let him know I value reading, and make books available to him.  I don't force him to read anymore than is necessary for school and I don't force him to read certain things.  Brad has become a reader on his own. I sometimes wish Brad were a little quieter and less assertive.  Today he pointed out that I need to trim my nose hair while we were at the eye doctor.  He is often embarrassing like that but I rarely punish him.  I try to explain to him why it is embarrassing and explain to him when it is and isn't appropriate and worthwhile to be so blunt.  Slowly he's learning to think before he speaks his mind but he isn't learning to never speak his mind.  I think that's for the best.
     I think that is something most parents don't understand.  Often the flipside of what we think are our children's most negative aspects are their best qualities.  If we punish our sons for playing dress up we might be keeping them from becoming the next great fashion designer show .  If we punish our daughters for playing in the mud we might be ruining the next great archaeologists.  I'm not saying never punish, of course.  The parents of one of the Columbine shooters found a Nazi flag in his room and ignored it as just a phase.  If I find a Nazi flag in Brad's room I'm going to beat his ass.  Then as I'm icing both his black eyes I'll reeducate him about the Holocaust.  Basically lines have to be drawn but if we draw too many we box our children in.  Call it the Teddy Roosevelt philosophy of parenting; “Walk softly and carry a big stick."
     I have hints of who Brad is going to be as a man.  He's a lot like me except when he's not and I don't want him to be.  I wish I was as outgoing and confident as he is.  He's a lot like his mom except when he's not and I don't want him to be.  I wish she could handle setbacks and frustrations as calmly as he does.  My son is a young person with a penis who likes many supposedly masculine things but I'm not raising a boy.  I am raising a Brad and it's not my job to tell him who he'll be but instead to make sure he becomes the best Brad he can be.  I look forward to seeing who that is.

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