We recently entertained six 9-10 year old boys for my eldest son’s birthday party. We had planned to take them all to a virtual reality arcade and as we were loading everyone into our SUV I ran into a dilemma: one of the parents had dropped off a booster seat for their son.
Only one of them.
The problem was not that the other boys needed booster seats but that only one did. I was worried he would be singled out. How was I to get that booster seat installed without drawing attention to the fact that he was the only one who needed it? I stood outside the car frozen by indecision. How to honour the parents’ wishes without exposing the child to potential ridicule from his peers? Eventually I decided to ask the boy whether he wanted it or not. I got into the driver’s seat and asked him nonchalantly if he wanted the booster seat his dad had sent with him, like it was no big deal.
And it was no big deal! In fact, he was already sitting on it. He had grabbed it himself when he left the house. He said, “I’m so little that I need a booster seat just to see out the window!” And no one laughed at him. I spent the rest of the night marvelling at the kindness and acceptance of 10-year-old boys. These were a different breed from the ones I grew up with.
The kid who gained 30lbs over the summer break because his step-mother passed away.
The kid who sucked at video games.
The kid who fell asleep first.
The kid with the red hair.
The jock kid.
When I was a child, each of these were categories for ridicule. I was never chronically bullied myself but there were a number of specific instances. The remember names, the insults, the rejection. And I remember participating as well. Anyone who was different was a target. I believe in toxic masculinity just as much as I believe in toxic humanity. When we are at our worst we do incredible harm to those around us. And that harm is often targeted and categorized. I’ve grown up watching boys and men shame each other for all kinds of things that no one made in God’s image should have to endure.
But the boys I see today are nicer than the boys I grew up with. I know that schools talk about bullying more than they did when I was young. I know that we live in a more pluralistic society then I grew up in, which I’m sure contributes as well. I suspect also that parenting is evolving in a positive direction. In any case, it brings me hope. Despite damage to the earth, despite a chronic lack of political role models, despite fake news, gun violence and #metoo, some aspects of our society are improving for the better and our kids are the proof.
Which reminds me that these boys and girls are watching us. We have the privilege of doing the emotional, psychological, inner life work that the generations before us couldn’t or wouldn’t do, so that they can benefit. We’re not going to war. We’re not checked out on assembly lines or working down a mineshaft. We can teach these kids about kindness. And anger. And gentleness. And the usefulness of aggression when properly harnessed. We can help them understand what neuroscience has taught us about creativity and depression and punishment. We can teach them about the benefits of hard work, of becoming a wise steward and caring for others. We can help them be nicer and stronger.
And I suspect we can learn from them too, if we’ll sit quietly and observe for long enough. When I do that, I am deeply encouraged.