What Aggression Really Means to Boys

How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.

As a kid in West Virginia, I often found myself on the receiving end of male violence. When I misbehaved, my dad would spank me with a metal hairbrush. (He always insisted that I choose between the “flat side or bristles,” thereby introducing me to the limitations of the two-party system.) When my parents were away, or simply out of earshot, my older brother would chase me down and pummel me for having made the unforgivable mistake of being born. When I was at school, or band camp, or hiking with the Boy Scouts, other boys would take the opportunity to humiliate me in all kinds of creative ways: drenching me in spit and watermelon seeds, threatening me with a baseball bat, mashing my glasses into my face until my nose bled. By fifth grade, I was the best in my class at any playground activity that involved dodging or running.

Later, when I grew up, male belligerence still had a way of finding me. One time a guy at a bar in Toledo punched me in the face because he thought I was making a move on his girlfriend; when I was covering the contra war in Nicaragua, some rebels shot at me while I was going down a river on a boat. That was the worst violence I ever experienced, but somehow I minded it the least. It was, unlike most of the other attacks I’d endured, nothing personal.

But even as a kid, I understood that these violent assaults weren’t an inherent or inevitable by-product of boyhood aggression. Aggression was something else, and joyous — wrestling with my brothers, or playing war with peach pits as missiles, or telling jokes intended to gross people out. (Q: What’s the difference between a dead baby and a bowling ball? A: You can’t eat the bowling ball.) Aggression made me want to run faster and jump higher and think smarter and be the best at everything I did. It made me want to try new things. It got me into jams, and it got me out of them. It felt like a superpower I had inherited.

The violence around me wasn’t about aggression. It was about rage. It was about the ways that the boys and men around me had been hurt, and their need to pass that pain along to others so that someone else would feel what they felt. Sometimes I felt that way, too. For all their violence and cruelty, I knew what the boys who bullied me were going through. They were trying to become a man the same way I was: by figuring out what to do with what we’d been given. —Eric Bates

“Playing is the best way to focus young male aggression.”

I’ve seen quite a bit of aggression, both in sports and in social scenes. From the outside, male aggression can look very violent. But when you are actually a part of it, there is a strong connection that takes place, whether it’s between a father and a son, or on a playground. Aggressiveness can be a part of competition, and within competition is play. Playing is such a crucial part of being able to maneuver through feelings. The most poignant example of that is the young man that dares to put himself into the arena. Whether it’s football, or basketball, wrestling. Any sport. He gives his all, aggressively, and sometimes he comes up short. Those moments are the most vulnerable, where I’ve seen people I know cry the hardest. The only time I ever saw tears among my friends was over a loss. Or even a triumph.

Playing is the best way to focus young male aggression, through competition. Aggression becomes a maladapted trait when it’s not channeled. So the most important thing is to cultivate a sense of play. Whether it’s scoring points, or just the interaction, back and forth of making jokes, who can do it the loudest, who can do it the best? I raise my sons where not necessarily everything is a competition, but we do compare. If they sing, then I’ll sing. I’ll run, and then I encourage them to run. I will do a math problem, and I encourage them to try a math problem. It’s not competitive or aggressive, but it’s a comparison.

My sons think that I’m this big, strong, well-accomplished human being, and in actuality, I feel like an 8-year-old, sometimes. Just kind of comparing notes with a 9- and an 11-year-old. And, I remind myself, that they are no different than me, and vice versa. I tell them, hey, just because Daddy’s a big, strong, six-foot, 200-pound man doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have feelings, and he doesn’t have a similar experience as what you have. —James Cook, a Marine and father of two sons

“My friends and I have this game where we kick each other.”

A 13-year-old son: Sometimes we play this game where we take all our backpacks and someone gets on a swing, and then we push them really high and throw our backpacks at the person on the swing and try to knock them off. One time I got hit and I flipped over backwards. And all my friends were laughing and it hurt a lot, but I was thinking, If I tell my mom, is she gonna lecture me like she always does?

Mom: It was harmless, in your opinion.

Son: I don’t really do that many stupid things. My friends and I have this game where we kick each other.

Mom: Are there any parts of the body that are off limits?

Son: No face shots, no balls shots. Never punching, unless you’re actually mad. And my friends have this game, “Try to get the person triggered,” where we try to get the person really mad, so they punch you. And they’ve done that to me like five times. So I beat all of them up and they’re like, “We got him triggered. We did it guys!” We do some, like, stupid stuff like that.

Mom: And are you ever worried?

Son: Not unless someone’s actually mad. We do it for fun, but a few times I’ve dropped someone or trucked them or hurt them, they get really mad, and they come at me, and they’re throwing punches. Sometimes we just do stupid stuff. Like, when I bring my skateboard to school, my friends will take it and push it down the street, and I have to go all the way down and get it. And while I’m all the way down there, they’ll ditch me and lock me out of our friend’s house.

Mom: So you guys are mean to each other for fun? Do you think that that’s the way you become better friends?

Son: I mean, yeah. This one time my friend dropped me in a puddle so my butt got all wet, and I got really mad, so I punched him. But I texted him after and I was like, “I’m sorry, bro. I shouldn’t have done that, just don’t put me in a puddle next time.” And he was like, “Yeah, bro, I shouldn’t have done that either.” And we became closer after that.

Mom: Because you guys make up, you have a closer feeling?

Son: Yeah. All my friends are so mean to each other. And we have some secrets about each other. Like one time P. peed his pants ’cause he got hit in the bladder really hard when we were wrestling. And whenever he does something bad, we just threaten to tell everyone that he peed his pants, and post it on Instagram, so then he never does anything bad to us anymore.

Mom: So you’re blackmailing him. With the fact that he peed his pants.

Son: We blackmail everyone. We all have pictures of each other doing really stupid things, with really ugly faces, and we can expose each other if we do anything. If you wanna become part of the group you have to get dropped by someone. They have to pick you up by your arms and legs and they have to throw you on the ground. So I’ve done that to a few people; it’s kind of like an initiation. And once you’ve done that, you’re in the group.

“It’s useful if boys especially are a little afraid of their fathers.”

Today there is a lot of adult involvement in raising children. Children are constantly supervised and boys are not allowed to work through things on their own. There is always a grown-up interfering — on the playground, in gym class. Everything today is sports training and practice. It’s not wild and free the way it used to be. As a result, they have a hard time finding their place later as men. I don’t want my son to get into fights, but I want him to understand what he’s made of. When I was a kid, I was afraid to get punched in the face. But the first time I did, I remembered it all my life.

I think masculinity has a voice, and I think what keeps men from being their authentic masculine self is fear. Society tells them that aggression is primitive, but it’s not necessarily bad for a man to be dominant and strong. Women are strong; they want men to be strong, too. Fathers should be firm with their children, not let them feel everything they do is okay. Parents spend a lot of time trying to understand their children and relate to them on an emotional level, but I don’t think that’s the right way to be a father, necessarily. I think it’s useful if boys especially are a little afraid of their fathers. I lived in terrible fear of letting my dad down. I don’t think this was a bad thing at all. A Navy SEAL

“A place where not even mothers can be soft with their sons.”

Inner-city teens don’t get psychotherapy, which is cruel because if there is a sector of American youth that deserves the comfort of a psychiatrist’s listening ear, surely it is the one that grows up shouldering the twin burdens of metropolitan poverty and violence. Mental health takes a back seat when your family’s prosperity is not promised; parents struggling to secure your next month’s food and shelter lack the time to check in on how you’re feeling. Kendrick Lamar’s “Fear” is a poem about both sides of this conundrum. The first verse is a list of misguided attempts at motivating a kid through petty threats. They come from a place of love — at the root, there is a mom trying to get 7-year-old Kendrick to toughen up and be a better student — but the refrain of “I’ll beat your ass if …” at the start of each line ultimately makes her another force for her son to fear.

On the receiving end of “Fear”’s nerve-racked tough love is a son who has much more to worry about than mom has taken into account. Verse two finds Kendrick rattling off all the easy ways to lose your life in the hood, in the kind of deadpan we reserve for grocery lists: “I’ll prolly die from witnesses leaving me false accused / I’ll prolly die from thinking that me and your hood was cool.” The frivolity is chilling. You shouldn’t grow up wondering whether your choice of outfit or your night out at a house party or your casual encounter with law enforcement will cut you down before you can register to vote, but precedent necessitates concern. The base cruelty of “Fear” is that sometimes, the inner city is a place where not even mothers can be soft with their sons. There simply isn’t room for it.

All of this sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder. Kendrick’s urge to “smoke fear away” in a blunt in the song’s chorus is the closest he can get to peace of mind. Moralists criticize rap music for its fixation on partying, on the idea that songs littered with liquor and weed are celebrating the stuff, when some of it is self-medication. “Fear” turns the whole idea inside out: Sometimes a pothead hip-hop enthusiast is really just a black boy trying to figure out how he narrowly escaped a system that ate his peers. Craig Jenkins

What Aggression Really Means to Boys