“Look at this dad”, yells Tyke as he hoists himself up the kitchen ledge with his arms. He feigns a pull-up, actually manages two (I’m thinking those tiny shoulders and that tiny back must hurt) and he drops back to the floor, staring at me in triumph.
He’s still w-ing his “r”s, which I find unbelievably endearing. I smile and grant the look of approval he so eagerly seeks. The days I do a little workout at home (busy lives, etc) he joins me for the push-ups. When he was two, he’d get down on all fours and try to go all the way to the floor before grimacing and pulling himself back up. That technique soon evolved into a half-drop, as he utilized the rest of his stwength to flash his beaming smile at me. These days, he also keeps count and encourages me to finish my eggs and eat meat.
Stwong. For better or worse, children first learn this concept through its physical manifestation. The ability to run faster, climb the jungle gym, do cute pull-ups, watch adults work out. Somewhere along the way, this manifests into something insiduous. How do I teach my son about the insidiousness of strength? The false sense of bravado most men subconsiously gather through their teens like squirrels stowing away nuts and berries. It begins with “men are strong” and slowly makes its way to “men are stronger”. This gets peppered with phrases like “the weaker sex” or its contemporary, more politically correct and equally insulting version, “fairer sex”. It gets reinforced with gallant opening of doors, fixing flats or other modern Herculean feats of wonder designed to elicit admiration from women.
From there, it’s a short and pleasant stroll to the lifelong delusion that men can do what they want because they tend to have bigger muscles.
I want to tell him it’s not strength that lets a man violate a woman’s modesty, her personal space, her self-respect. It’s primal instinct. Strength is the ability to rise above that primal instinct.
When he’ll casually bandy about words like “pussy” and “balls”, I’ll tell him the latter is probably the worst example of strength. Flimsy, delicate and can make its owner crumble into a whimpering heap with a just a mild blow.
I’ll tell him about women. I’ll tell him about the strength they exert over themselves as their bodies are taken over in the process of giving life. Taken over by well-wishers, nature, primal spasms and excruciating pain I know nothing of. Every physical sinew’s mutiny held at bay by nothing but her determination. Just so that she can bring into this world another human being who’ll either learn about strength the hard way like her mother, or through delusions of masculine physical grandeur reinforced by society.
I want to tell him it’s not strength that lets a group of kids bully someone smaller, more timid. Actually, they’re weaker and are crying for help. I live in constant dread that he’ll be the one who will have to understand someone else’s weakness someday and stand up, not with physical fury, but real strength. That of the mind. That of conviction. That of understanding.
He’ll learn about love. He’ll learn about the strength it takes to tell someone you love them. Strength they had to muster because their world turned upside down and eating and sleeping and relaxing and studying and playing and hanging out was just too painful with that huge slab of genuine affection crushing their chest.
I dread these lessons of strength. It’s going to be tough for me. I’m a man after all. Perhaps the first sign of real strength is to admit you don’t really understand it. It took me years to get to this point. I lived in a fool’s paradise. I’ve hacked away at that dense jungle of ignorance, guided by examples of real strength. I learn everyday and I want to ensure my son doesn’t take as long as I did. But it will be so tough.
I’m grateful he has a fierce tigress of a mother to teach him that.
The other day she took tyke for his vaccinations. She had told him to expect a needle and some pain because she doesn’t believe in lying or unnecessarily deceiving. Tyke had nodded solemnly. He’s four now, and understands a lot of what’s going on. When the doctor called him in, he sat down and waited for the needle. The first shot was simple. He was taken aback, but quickly regained his composure. The second shot was going to be more painful. It stunned him. His face was in shock but he blinked back tears. Mom saw him look up, fight his fear and stay still through the pain. There was a stray tear that had managed to make its way to one eye. He wiped it away and told her proudly “mommy I took the shot and didn’t cwy. I was stwong.” My wife held back her own tears and called me to tell me about my son.
Perhaps he knows already. Perhaps I worry needlessly.