THERE IS PHYSICAL TENSION AND A NEED FOR CONNECTION IN EVERY RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEN AND BOYS.
On a small field outside his Florida apartment, my nephew Zach and I were kicking a soccer ball around during one of my visits from New York City. At age ten, he was relatively new to the game, and since I had played high school and college soccer, he was eager for instruction. The soccer interlude also gave us an hour alone together at a time when he needed it: my sister was in the process of divorcing his father and I was an older male Zach looked to for support.
Fifteen minutes into our play, I took a casual defensive stance, ready to strip him of the ball as he dribbled past. But Zach surprised me, pulling the ball back and away, making a sharp cut to his left. My right foot flailed, barely nicking the top of the ball and throwing me off balance. I dropped solidly and awkwardly to the ground, and felt a sudden rush of anger.
This seemingly trivial event, which any passer-by would have found amusing, I had perceived as a threat. In some deep recess of my lizard brain, it must have registered that this boy was here to replace me.
I looked up at Zach standing over me then and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to get up off the grass and hurt him. I was going elbow him, tackle him, pelt him with stinging shots. I wanted to smash the life out of him.
But I didn’t. Instead, I lifted myself to one knee, put a hand up in the air and high-fived him. It wasn’t love that had short-circuited my rage and it wasn’t reason either. It was, more likely, a distant echo of my own boyhood breaking.
Zach and I played on for another 45-minutes, and when we returned to the family apartment, he heard me tell his mother how strong a player he was.
“Zach ran rings around me out there,” I said with genuine admiration.
“He’s just started playing,” she responded.
“Well, he’s a natural. Way better ball skills than I had at his age.” As I spoke, and his mother listened, I saw my nephew glowing.
While I’m aware that the competition between men and boys is an old and mythic affair — often manifesting as a reluctance to shower admiration on our male progeny or get out of their way — I am still disturbed by the level of damage I was ready to inflict upon my nephew.
A few months later, I felt a similarly hostile impulse bubble up at a party I attended in rural Connecticut. One hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking carpenter named Tom was there with his lanky twelve-year-old son. As the night grew late and the boy grew tired, I watched as he climbed into his father’s lap for an extended cuddle. I was surprised to see Tom unabashedly stroke his son’s hair, kiss him lightly on the head and envelop the boy in hardened arms. I walked off to snicker at the scene with another male guest.
Driving back to the city that night, I wondered why I had found this unselfconscious exchange of affection between Tom and his son so off-putting. Then I realized what it was: I was envious. I wanted to imagine that I could have had the same tender exchange with my own father.
The stakes — and the potential for injury, both physical and psychological — are probably greater for boys whose nascent masculinity is expressed in unconventional or idiosyncratic ways. I thought I was going to see this kind of exuberant boyhood innocence being extinguished as I walked through New York’s SoHo neighborhood recently. A tall, burly man was coming toward me on the sidewalk clutching the hand of a young boy, not more than four or five-years-old. The man was so big, his stride so long, the child just sort of stumbled along at the end of his arm, hair bouncing as he went. When they were ten yards ahead of me, I heard the boy say, “Daddy, let’s skip.”
I cringed. This didn’t look like a guy who skipped or one who encouraged it in his son. I readied myself for the hissing reprimand, the scolding remark that would harshly define, in an instant, the boy’s budding sense of what it was to be male. But without a moment’s hesitation, the big man looked down at his son and started to skip. I watched as the two moved playfully along the sidewalk together, the boy glancing down at his father’s enormous shoes, as if thinking, “Those are my Daddy’s feet, skipping.”
Skipping isn’t the point. Neither is playing soccer without competitiveness or aggression. It is, rather, about something more subtle, and more precious, passing between man and boy. The same something that caused my nephew to approach me after dinner on that day nearly two decades ago and ask me if I wanted to go outside and watch the stars together. I took his hand and we did.
(A version of this essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project website.)