Saturday I had a rare opportunity that I am very grateful I took. My wife and I went out with my wife’s best friend and her two kids to pick strawberries for homemade jam and strawberry wine. These two kids regard me as a favourite uncle, and I have the pleasure of being the “fun” adult in their lives. When we spend time with them, I play with the children while my wife and their mother catch up with one another.
Generally speaking, I try and keep my play gentle, silly, and free of any major life lessons or anything that might be construed as parenting or risky play. Aside from tickling, I avoid contact. Aside from stories I avoid lessons.
In the late afternoon when we had all managed to change, eat, and change into clothes that weren’t covered head-to-toe in mud, my “nephew’s” best friend came over for a sleepover. After the girl had enough of boys’ games and I’d done my dues playing barbies with her, I was in the kitchen trying my best to stay out of the way while still being present in the Adult community when the boys came upstairs with their dukes up.
“We’ve come to roughhouse!” my nephew declared.
“Well what are you doing up here?” I asked him, as they started to advance.
“We’re here to roughhouse with you!”
“Because we can’t hit a girl and you’re the only man here.”
I paused here. I was not their fathers or even a blood relative. To one of the boys I was barely step above a stranger. I was alienated from my Nephew’s father thanks to the inevitable backbiting and side-choosing that comes alongside a divorce. Who was I to wrestle with these boys.
But with their dukes up and their resolute grin-scowls, who was I not?
Throughout this blog I will talk a lot about the needs of a boy to be guided to and shown Manhood. How a boy needs to be raised by a village of men in order to become a Man.
We have a fear of other peoples’ children in our culture. Men especially are terrified of being alone with children, of even being seen looking at them. We have been terrorized into fear, shame, and panic, when our primate heritage urges us to take delight in watching children play. We forget that three centuries ago, watching children play their games was our movies and out television. It is a simple non-sexual pleasure we have painted with the brush of perversity, tainted with fear, and chased ourselves away from with fear of police violence.
And therein lies a tension. I could have done as I always had and took no risks with these boys. Told them I wasn’t really the right person to roughhouse with, and then distracted them with some mental sleight of hand to “safe” play. I knew that if I did, the boys would feel rejected and hurt. It would help grow that fear that our culture has been planting in their head of their own masculinity. I would be saying “no” to doing my part as a member of that village of Men that helped bring them to Manhood.
The fear is insidious because it grinds down our Trust, too. At its heart, it comes because we refuse to trust the parents of the children with whom we are playing to treat us like human beings. We refuse to trust them to honour our good intentions. We suspect them of being willing to blackmail or punish us with the ridiculous laws of the time, for imagined sleights. This woman has invited me into her home, made trusted me to babysit before, and looked to me for advice in raising her son. How could I be integrity if I didn’t trust her to honour that relationship?
For that matter, how could I shut myself off from those boys, and not be a hypocrite?
My nephew is in need of that Male bond right now. His father has made a poor showing in his life, and the next-best thing is a man who lives overseas and comes to visit once in a very long time. The only man in the household is a retired priest who is cold and remote from the children, and does as he pleases, regardless of what it teaches the children around him. My nephew has begun stealing and lying to help cope with the anger and the emptiness that is already starting to creep into his life.
I am not around very often; a single mother living in her parents’ house can’t entertain very often, and I’ve seen less and less of the boy as time has gone on. I had a chance to give him a moment of unconditional Male attention and play, a chance to possibly teach a few lessons. Maybe even convert some of that anger into joy.
“Alright,” I told them, “go back downstairs and I’ll be down to beat you up in a minute.”
This gave me the time to get the express permission that I needed from my friend, and learn the rules of the house for roughhousing… along with giving her a chance to say no for her own reasons, before I headed downstairs.
The boys were all over me in seconds, and I discovered a joyous activity usually reserved for a certain subset of rough-and-tumble fathers: the art of wrestling with young boys.
There is a lot to it: more than I think could easily be put into words without a book to do it in, but there isa beautifully raw masculinity to it that you rarely see in today’s activities. You need to be strong and rough enough to seem like a grand challenge to the boys, and be rough enough to give them a few solid bumps (incorporating pillow-fighting helps), so they don’t feel you are treating them like babies. Tickling and laughter need to be an essential part of it, as part of soften the experience of wrestling them to the floor. Throughout, you teach them boundaries, about form and care (I had to scold a great deal about aiming for the groin or giving wedgies – even threaten to quit). You have to model strength and gentleness and fair play throughout. Finally, you have to know exactly when to take the fall and give the boys a taste of the success they’d had to work for… and that has to be a moment when you’ve pushed yourself as well.
There are so many lessons to teach in a good roughhouse that can devour thousands of words to try and encapsulate. They are ones that requires an adult’s participation; boys left to horseplay together get carried away too easily, and still don’t know their own strength or boundaries well enough to teach it with each other.
And you learn your own lessons by trying to model your father and uncles. Ones I am glad, as a childless man, that I have had the chance lo learn.
I am currently covered in fading bruises and have a few spots where I am stiff from picking up and tossing the boys onto cushions. While they are fading fast they serve as a great reminder of something else I learned about manhood much earlier in life: a few good bruises earned the right way can make you feel alive, if you are open to the feeling.