As someone considered a member of Generation X, albeit close to the borderland between Gen X and Millennial, my formative years took place in the 1980’s.
When I was growing up as a boy in America, “toxic masculinity” was not a cultural meme, and I, the son of an immigrant, was never criticized for my “privilege.”
I played sports, watched wrestling (then known as the WWF), rode my bike around the neighborhood, explored in the woods near my house, awkwardly chased girls, and did all the other things young boys have been doing since time immemorial.
My friends and I were physical with each other in the playground. I remember one incident in particular. It was spring. I remember this detail because I recall the gentle breeze and bright sun that I associate with a New York spring. I was in the fifth grade. My then best friend, J, whose growth spurt hit well before mine did, got mad at me for something I said or did. I have no recollection of what I did, and it doesn’t matter since apparently, I broke some unwritten playground code that day.
During this particular incident, he was chasing me around the playground during our school lunchbreak. I was afraid because I knew I couldn’t compete in a physical altercation with him.
He enlisted two other mutual friends to help him in his pursuit of me. While he was bigger than I was, I was faster, so he wasn’t going to catch me on his own. The other two traitors finally caught me. I was defeated, but not ready to surrender. They dragged me by my arms to J who was going to rough me up a little, as boys are wont to do when there has been a violation of some code.
So, I did what any other kid in my position, with both arms incapacitated, would do – I kicked him in the nuts.
I remember watching him go down as he gave me that universal look of pain familiar to any male who has been kicked in the nuts. It was one of those delayed reactions where your mind tries to process whether it was a direct hit.
In this case, it was.
At that exact moment, a teacher saw us “fighting,” and sent us both to the Principal’s office.
Sitting on the bench outside the office, waiting for our punishment, J and I sat as far from each other we could manage.
Three minutes turned to five, then five to ten, and we were still waiting. There was tension in the air. Poor J was probably still experiencing the after effects of that nut shot, and I was nervous about getting in trouble, but also about the prospect of dealing with the consequences from him that were sure to come.
Then, remarkably, something happened. We both turned to each other and started laughing.
We slapped each other five, and J asked me if I wanted to come over his house after school that day. I quickly agreed, and all was right with our friendship and the world.
Our fight was over.
I don’t remember the punishment that was meted out to the two of us, though I don’t think it was substantial. We went in with a united front, arguing that they were wrong. It was not technically a fight, we were merely playing a game.
It was just how disputes were settled (except maybe the nut shot, I admit that was a cheap shot), and whenever we got a little rough we knew that we would still be friends. It was the way of the playground.
The world is completely different today for boys and, as the father of a five-year-old boy, this is disconcerting.
There was nothing “toxic” about the way we, as eleven-year-old boys acted. We learned important lessons on that playground each day and, yes, some of them involved the threat of various forms of justice if certain lines were crossed.
That is a reality of life. If you don’t have situational awareness and step out of line in the wrong place to the wrong person at a bad time, it might not end well for you.
Boys of my generation internalized this situational awareness. We knew there could be consequences for our actions, sometimes physical, and we acted accordingly.
Today’s boys don’t get these same opportunities to develop the kind of awareness they need to internalize to stay safe in an unfriendly world. When the threat of physical retributive justice is removed in total from their lives, they don’t develop the knowledge, skills, and ability to stay safe.
When we remove the “Code of the Playground,” we remove a rite of passage so familiar to those of my generation and before. When we sanitize the experiences of boys to such an extent so that they are not permitted to experience and enforce norms of playground justice on their own, we remove the kind of socialization that boys have always experienced and need.
I suffered no ill-effects from this incident or any other similar disagreements that happened growing up, and J quickly recovered.
The benefits we experienced, however, cannot be quantified. I learned to be aware of my surroundings, to not mess with those bigger or tougher than me, to use my strengths, to form alliances, and to compromise when necessary.
I fear that our boys don’t experience these similar rites of passage that included real consequences, and that they have been replaced by simulated experiences in virtual reality on video games. They are not the same.
It is up to fathers to do our best to create the sense of situational awareness that we learned by experience, and to create new rites of passage where our boys can learn the skills of negotiation, compromise, de-escalation, alliance building, and physicality, if necessary, that we learned in a variety of ways, including on the playground.
We must teach our boys about the reality of violence, and that there may be consequences if they act in an anti-social way. In short, it’s up to us – and only us since no one else will do it – to explicitly and creatively teach them the lessons we were able to learn on our own at the playground.
by: Chris D
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