I’ve always wanted to have kids, but I never pictured myself as the father of three sons. I’m not exactly brimming with testosterone. I figured my wife and I would have girls, and we’d spend weekends making papier-mache unicorns. I was wrong. I’m the proud – if overwhelmed and underprepared – father of three boys. A few weeks ago, Esquire – the magazine where I work – asked me to write an essay on how to raise good men. I don’t have the answers. My men are still proto-men (a six year old and twin three year olds). But I wrote about some things my sons have taught me. Namely, which male values are overrated and which are underrated. Here are two of them from the article. The rest of the piece can be found in the latest issue, the one with a smiling Tom Cruise on the cover. (The article’s not online yet, but eventually will be).
Maybe it sounds more acceptable if I call it stoicism. Either way. We’re told nowadays to express ourselves, let our emotions flow out of us like milk from an udder. But lately, I’ve become a fan of the Victorians and the Mad Men and their immovable upper lips.
This is because watching young boys get angry is a scary thing. The force of their rage is Krakatoan. If one of my sons’ desires is somehow thwarted—another brother won’t share the yellow Hungry Hungry Hippo—his eyes bulge and his fists clench like a silent-movie star. The sounds that come out of his mouth don’t resemble anything human or even animal. They’re more akin to heavy machinery, maybe a malfunctioning steam turbine.
We romanticize boyhood as a glorious time, which it can be. But every day has dozens of lows as well. The emotional whiplash must be exhausting, like living inside Alec Baldwin’s brain.
Every night, my eldest son and I talk about what he did right and wrong that day. If he cried—unless it was because he was hurt or had a life-changing crisis—it’s a nickel off his allowance. Yelling at inanimate objects—which I believe to be a uniquely male trait—another nickel off. I try to explain to him that anger begets anger. There’s wisdom in Hank Hill’s approach: Bottle up your anger and push it way down in your stomach.
The irony is, of course, that I can’t control my own wrath. At least not when my kids’ happiness is at stake. Like when I went to the street fair recently and the juggler stopped juggling to take a cell-phone call. And then talked for like fifteen minutes while Jasper looked on all eager and hopeful. “Excuse me,” I said, after three minutes. He turned his back to me. My face flushed, and my pulse quickened, and my wife had to pull me away as I began shouting in rage.
OVERRATED: BIG BALLS
Boys are born with huge ones. Literally and figuratively. Literally because they’re filled with fluid and look disturbingly like ripe plum tomatoes. Figuratively because they have yet to learn fear.
I remember walking with my sons down a country road in the Poconos. Lucas was a hundred feet in front of me, with my friend David. I watched Lucas stop, bend down, and pick up a thick, black, coiled rope from the dirt. He held it aloft, twirled it around, admiringly. Then I saw my friend David start making wild gestures. “Nooooo!!! Nooo!!!” That must be one dirty rope, I thought. David pulled Lucas toward him and screamed at him to drop the rope. Then the rope slithered away. I almost vomited. I spent the next two hours on Google trying to figure out if the snake was poisonous, just to torture myself with what-ifs.
Part of my job as a father, I believe, is to shrink their balls. One of the few agreed-upon conclusions of those who study male- female birth differences is that boys’ brains are wired for more risk taking. Which is fine when it’s a noble risk. But boys are prone to such stupid risks, it gives me a stomachache.
I’m trying to train their brains early to do cost-benefit analysis. I don’t forbid them from jumping off the wall. I say, yes, it would feel good to jump off that wall. But how will it feel when you land on your knee and cut it open?
They still jump, but I sometimes get them to pause.