A friend of mine, in her college days, had a bumper sticker that offered this peaceful counsel: Don’t Buy War Toys. Once, she and a companion were stuck in a traffic jam on the highway, next to several young men in a pickup on their way home from deer hunting. The traffic was creeping along, one lane inching forward and coming to a halt, the next lane overtaking it momentarily before stopping a few yards ahead. Every time my friend’s car had to stop, the men in the pickup pulled alongside, windows cranked down, and held up various examples of the deer-rifle genre. They also hollered in tones of good-natured hilarity that became more good-natured and hilarious the lower my friend’s passenger cringed in her seat, “Hey, ladies! Don’t buy war toys? Like this?”
As it happens, in my family, with boys in the house, we do buy war toys—not nuclear missiles, of course, just the normal assortment of blasters and cork shooters and swords of various kinds, including an actual antique Indian scimitar in a moth-eaten velvet scabbard, which was the one thing our eleven-year-old wanted for his birthday.
We don’t buy toys of any kind often, mind you, relying as much as we can on nature to provide materials for hours of imaginative play. And what nature provides a lot of are war toys. Even as I write this, my front porch and my back steps are littered with sticks. The boxwoods outside my kitchen window have gone bald under the constant swashbuckling onslaughts of my stick-swinging seven-year-old. Lightsaber, scimitar, muzzleloader: A boy with a stick in his hand has all those things and more. So when somebody wants a weapon for Christmas, we say, Why not? People don’t poke each other’s eyes out with cap guns.
Girls may like weapons, but boys like the actions that weapons enable. They like shooting and slashing and stabbing at things, and if they don’t have anything to shoot, slash, or stab with, punching is good, too. Hand a girl a rock, and she will make a pet out of it. Hand a boy a baby doll, and—if no adult is looking—he will point its head at somebody and say, “Pow.”
The default mode of many parents is to be as alarmed by this proclivity in their sons as my friend was by the deer hunters. To be sure, it is wearying, sometimes, to live with a person whose way of greeting you is to line you up in imaginary sights. I can see that, after a while, if you didn’t just become oblivious to it, an obvious fascination with shooting things might come to seem like one of those warning signals we all read about: If Johnny does X, call Dr. Y. It used to be that parents waited for Johnny to start torturing the cat before they worried. My generation of parents seems to worry that owning a rubber-band shooter will make Johnny want to torture the cat.
As a toddler, one of my sons—he didn’t own any war toys then, as far as I know—liked to stand behind his baby sister’s chair and pull her head back as far as it would go, to watch it spring up again like a punching bag on its stem. Her round brown eyes opened wide in astonishment, her mouth formed an O, the whole world went still for an instant, and then she screamed.
From my son’s point of view, it was altogether a gratifying exercise. My intervention was always swift and decisive, not to say hysterical—although I am struck, now, by the strangeness of what I said to him. We don’t tell someone struggling with lust simply not to want sex; we don’t tell a glutton that his problem will be solved if he stops being hungry. Yet, reflexively, over and over, I implored my son, “Don’t be rough. Be gentle.”
I might as well have said, “Stop being a boy.” Anne Roche Muggeridge, who reared four boys in the 1970s and 1980s, observes that
prevailing society now thoroughly regards young men as social invalids. . . . The fashion in education for the past three decades has been to try to make boys more like girls: to forbid them their toy guns and rough play, to engage them in exercises of cooperation and sharing, to involve them in dolls and courses in the domestic arts, to denounce any boyish roughness as “aggressive” and “sexist.”
Muggeridge writes of a visit to a doctor who urged on her a prescription for Ritalin, saying that a child as constantly active as her two-year-old son must be disturbed. “He’s not disturbed,” she responded. “He’s disturbing.”
Meanwhile, psychologist Leonard Sax, author of the 2007 book, Boys Adrift, cites the example of a typical junior-high literature assignment on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that a preteen boy has crumpled and left, with other unfinished homework, in the bottom of his backpack. “Write a short essay in Piggy’s voice, describing how you feel about the other boys picking on you,” reads the assignment. This is stupid, the boy says, and he isn’t doing it. Why not? “I’m not Piggy,” the boy says. “I’m not some fat loser. If I’d been on that island, I’d have smashed his face myself!”
I can’t think of a mother, myself included, who could hear her child voice that sentiment and not cringe. To consider that your baby not only could want to smash another person’s face but could assert with perfect certainty that he would if the chance arose, is to recoil in horror. It is to realize, as Anne Roche Muggeridge did while watching her sons take turns throwing each other into a brick wall, that what you have in your house is not a human like you but a human unlike you. In short, as Muggeridge puts it, you are bringing up an alien.
And, if that alien has things his way, he will be armed. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the half-savage Balin laments:
Too high this mount of Camelot for me:
These high-set courtesies are not for me.
Shall I not rather prove the worse for these?
Chivalry, Balin intuits, is at best an imperfect cure for his nature. At court, the company of Lancelot, in thrall to the queen, at first inspires then disgusts him. As long as he bears a sword for Arthur, Balin has salvation in his grasp. Absent the sword, he chafes miserably, unmanned and marooned among the courtly lovers. Absent the king, he is powerless against his own bloodlust.
What I think I have come to understand about boys is that a desire to commit violence is not the same thing as a desire to commit evil. It’s a mistake for parents to presume that a fascination with the idea of blowing something away is, in itself, a disgusting habit, like nose-picking, that can and should be eradicated. The problem is not that the boy’s hand itches for a sword. The problem lies in not telling him what they are for, that they are for something—the sword and the itch alike. If I had told my aggressive little son not, “Be gentle,” but, rather, “Protect your sister,” I might, I think, have had the right end of the stick.
Several years ago, two boys in our parish, faced with a school assignment to form a “good-citizenship club,” surprised their mother by deciding to start a Eucharistic-adoration society. Each month this club, which now numbers more than twenty boys, offers hours of adoration for various prayer intentions. This year, in honor of the Year of the Priest, the boys are praying for all the priests in our diocese by name, in monthly rotation.
If it seems a little unlikely, this vision of twenty teen and preteen boys choosing to spend hours of their time kneeling silently in church, let me divulge two secrets. The first is the name of the club: the Holy Crusaders. They chose, deliberately, a title that evokes knighthood, even war. No pastel, goody-two-shoes club, this.
The second is the initiation rite, devised and performed by our parish’s young priest twice a year in the church. This rite involves a series of solemn vows to be “a man of the Church,” “a man of prayer,” and so forth. It includes induction into the Order of the Brown Scapular, the bestowing of a decidedly manly red-and-black knot rosary, and the awarding of a red sash. What the boys look forward to, though, with much teasing of soon-to-be inductees about sharpened blades and close shaves and collars pulled protectively high on the neck, is the moment when a new boy kneels before Father and is whacked smartly on each shoulder with a large, impressive, and thoroughly real sword.
These Holy Crusaders are, after all, ordinary boys—sweaty and goofy and physical. For them to take the Cross—to take it seriously—requires something like a sword. For them to take the sword, knowing what it’s for, requires the Cross. Heaven forbid, we always say, that our boys should have to go to war. Still, what even a symbolic knighthood accomplishes is the recognition that a boy’s natural drive to stab and shoot and smash can be shaped, in his imagination, to the image of sacrifice, of laying down his life for his friends. In the meantime, this is the key to what brings these boys to church. It’s not their mothers’ church or their sisters’ church; it is theirs, to serve and defend.
On a recent Sunday evening, at a friend’s house in the country, I stood on the porch watching a group of boys lighting firecrackers in a shadowy corner of the yard, where the lawn gave way to scrub woods. A few hours earlier, these boys had been serving at the altar, stately and grave in cassock and cotta. Now, in the half-dark, they were bent over a sputtering little flame, piling plastic army men onto a firecracker pyre.
Among the watchers on the porch, there was a moment of tense silence. The boys broke apart and scattered, legs flashing, across the grass. A series of small explosions cracked the quiet. Laughter erupted from the shadows, a detonation of energy and the happiness of boys, falling like a rain of sparks on the darkening air.
Sally Thomas, a contributing writer for First Things, is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.