My son, Field, may be nine years old today, but sometimes when I reach for a five, his instinctual response is still to hold my hand instead. His tenderness melts my heart. I’ve written before about what a sensitive soul this guy is. There have been times it’s been the most challenging part of parenting him, but more often than not these days, it’s my favorite part.
I once heard that age eight is the year boys typically begin to absorb toxic messages of masculinity — the start of them being made to feel ashamed and less “like a man” for expressing their feelings. It broke my heart to think of where Field would put all of his big emotions if he became ashamed of them. But interestingly enough, Field’s eighth year fell at the same time Covid hit, keeping him socially distant from those potential cultural influences I’ve feared could strip him of his truest self. Granted, he’s admittedly got a pretty tight and nurturing school/family/social bubble as it is, but I’m thankful for the extra year of limited influence. I hope it might strengthen his self assurance as his experiences broaden.
What’s fascinating is that even without the added pressure to “toughen up”, in many ways he has become stronger in the past year all on his own. Not because he’s afraid of his feelings, but because he’s matured and become more aware of how to manage them.
Yesterday, he looked down from the Urban Air ropes course and shouted, “I’m TERRIFIED.” He did it anyway and his daddy noticed his voice catch when he got down from the platform — no emotional breakdown from 30 feet up, but proud and slightly overcome with his own ability to face a fear after. On the flip side, true to big-day-anxiety birthday form, he had a small meltdown over nothing this morning. Only this year, instead of letting it consume him, he took himself upstairs for a quick breather. A few minutes later, he returned, apologized, and told me he’d worked a puzzle because they help him reset when he’s “feeling stressed”. Whatever works, pal. God bless, we’ve come a LONG way.
I wonder what other positive coping skills our boys might learn on their own if given a chance to do so. If rather than being talked out of their emotions by second grade, they were given just a bit more time for their minds and bodies to agree on effective ways to use them in navigating the world. We might be surprised to see that they need little more than a manners manual in terms of guidance to becoming “real men”. I don’t think we need to worry that if they aren’t always holding it together at age eight, they’ll be coming apart in the boardroom at 38. But if we allow them to embrace their innate tendencies, odds are they may carry an extra measure of kindness and empathy into adulthood.
Life will teach them to be strong, no doubt about that. And in their most trying times, it might serve them well not to compound whatever grief, or disappointment they experience with the idea that uncomfortable emotions are meant to be stifled. My wish this year is that Field continues to balance the strength that comes through age with the God-given tenderness he entered this world with. I trust if he’s able to maintain a healthy perspective on those big emotions, he will learn to put all of that love, stubbornness, anger, compassion, sentimentality, etc out into the world in some beautiful ways. And you can guarantee as he does, his mother will be watching from the wings, completely unable to keep her own composure.