How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo.
My son Theodore is almost 12. His bones ache from growing so fast and his lip is sprouting a cactuslike fuzz. Sometimes I find myself searching his rapidly shape-shifting face, looking for my lost baby, until he gets uncomfortable and tells me to stop staring at him.
His sister Louisa is two years his junior but as close to him as a twin. One night last fall when they were supposed to be getting ready for bed, I heard a thud and Theodore started hollering. When I got to the top of the stairs, he was cupping his hands under Louisa’s chin as blood gushed from her mouth like some nightmare fountain, running down her chest, saturating the ends of her hair, dripping all over the floor.
I went into triage mode, not even asking what the hell happened, but the story trickled out as Louisa spit blood from a badly split lip into the sink: Theodore had gotten the hilarious idea to hide at the top of the stairs to ambush his sister, throwing a bright yellow Moroccan pouf at her. He’d spent the summer playing on a travel Little League team and had underestimated the new strength of his throwing arm. The pouf hit her squarely in the face and now Louisa looked like a victim of domestic violence: bruised, swollen — and slightly bewildered by the betrayal. “Why would you do that?” she kept wailing at Theodore as he looked on, ashen, mumbling that it was a joke.
In the past, I’d tried not to get between them when they fought. Louisa is smaller and younger, but scrappy. And Theodore is a natural diplomat. I never wanted to tamper with the gender and power balance they’d struck on their own. But our family was entering a new era: My first child, the boy I’d grown from scratch, was becoming a physical threat to others. Not because he had a violent nature, not because he wanted to hurt anyone, but merely because of his male biology. His body was becoming like an unruly piece of heavy machinery he wasn’t licensed to operate.
Theodore had just started middle school. He was under stress and that — coupled with hormones, I’m sure — was making him a little nasty to me and his three little sisters. It was normal adolescent stuff, but the timing was unsettling, with the headlines dominated by the Las Vegas mass shooting and the cascade of #MeToo revelations. I didn’t think one hassock to the face meant my son was going to grow up to be a domestic terrorist or a Weinstein, but I also didn’t want him to become a more low-level schmuck, someone like the microaggressive dudes I know who say how they’d love to have a female president but Hillary’s naked ambition was such a turnoff, you know?
One of the coping mechanisms I’ve developed in the Trump era is reading about early American history. What has struck me is how the Overton window for who’s considered fully human, and what rights go along with that humanity, has shifted. In Puritan churches, ministers used to cite, as an example of God’s providence, the fact that thousands of Native Americans died of smallpox. They imagined Jesus was on the side of genocide. Contemporaries who dared to suggest Native Americans were humans, too, were often exiled, accused of witchcraft, punished with whippings, even hanged for sedition.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what gave those dissenters the ability to see past the cultural norms of their time. In a time when literacy was low, communities were insular, and merely surviving was back-breakingly difficult — how were they able to be so courageous and forward-thinking? How could I be more like them? How could I make sure my children grew up to be more like them?
That night, as I laid awake, plotting my response to the Incident of the Pouf in the Night, I made a unilateral decision to toss all of Theodore’s toy weapons: the Nerf guns, the lightsabers, the cap guns, the wooden sword he had made with his grandfather and lately taken to sharpening with a pocket knife (what the hell was he sharpening it for?). We were going radically pacifist. (My husband travels constantly for work and was in another time zone, but I knew he’d back me up; he is thankfully free of all that, “Rachael, you’re going to make the boy into a sissy” bullshit.) Not only were we not going to become violent sociopaths in real life, we weren’t even going to pretend to be one around the neighborhood after school.
I know studies show that kids who play with guns are not more likely to grow up to commit gun violence. And I know it’s normal for kids to play at shooting games. But … should it be normal? I don’t need a study to tell me a toy gun won’t make Theodore kill his wife someday. But could it turn him into one of those “thoughts and prayers” types, who can’t see past his own romance with gun culture to fight for changes that might stem the epidemic of gun violence in this country? If you grow up seeing guns as harmless fun, does it make it easier to see the incidents when they kill and injure people as aberrations — the wrong person with a gun, tragic but unpreventable — rather than what they truly are: examples of guns succeeding in their primary purpose?
And, for that matter, what makes guns so much more fun than other family-destroying public-health crises? We also have an epidemic of opioid addiction, but nobody plays at being a junkie. You don’t see Hasbro selling plastic heroin works at Toys “R” Us. They don’t even sell candy cigarettes at our local five-and-dime these days. Kids don’t think smoking is cool anymore; they think it’s gross. It’s all perspective and, the way I see it, my son’s toy guns were giving him the wrong one.
The next morning, Louisa’s lip was too swollen for her to eat. She took a yogurt for lunch, hoping she’d be able to slurp it down. I drove my son to school instead of putting him on the bus and we talked about what had happened.
I told him how much time I’ve spent in my life worrying that men will hurt me. I told him his sisters would one day have to do the same things I did — keep their keys in their hands, look over their shoulders on dark streets, be attuned to the potential for violence of any man with whom they’re alone.
I told him that his sister would likely never be as strong or big as he was and that he should look at his masculine physicality as a superpower. What was he going to use that strength for? To hurt people or help them? To cause them pain or bring them pleasure and joy?
I told him that I wanted him and his sisters to be better than I am. I want them to come up with ideas for progress that I can’t even imagine with my old brain, forged way back in the 20th century. I told him that pretending to shoot people and ambush them for fun linked his consciousness to people like the Las Vegas shooter. I wanted him to be in a mind meld with someone like Ghandi or Malala Yousafzai.
He cried when he got home from school and found that I’d already taken his arsenal to the dump. He was particularly pissed about the sword he’d handmade with his grandfather (and, admittedly, I took it too far with that one). He stomped to his room and refused to speak to me for a day.
I have no illusion that taking away Theodore’s guns is a game-changing heroic act. Toxic masculinity lies in constant wait for my boy: bad porn and frat parties and the sleepwalking of white, male privilege. But I have no regrets. I predict that by the time my grandchildren are born (Trump, Kim Jong-un, and the nuclear arsenal willing), giving a baby a plastic gun to play with will have gone the way of praising Jesus for genocide. I’m not denying that boys and men seem to have a predisposition towards aggression (and things that go bang and explode), but I don’t believe in throwing up your hands and saying “Boys will be boys.” I believe boys — and girls — will be whatever we make possible for them. I want to make it possible for my children to be lovers, not fighters. I want my children to be part of the Parkland generation, the one that makes that leap of imagination and faith and courage to find a way to ensure that no child is ever shot again.
*A version of this article appears in the March 5, 2018 issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!