Max is a toddler now. He claims to no longer be a baby, and that he is now a ‘big boy’.
He’s right: he is, in fact, a big boy. He’s bigger than many his age, and he’s strong, and he’s forceful. And he’s a boy in the most stereotypically predictable ways—he’s rambunctious, he’s feisty, and he’s a little bit naughty.
But he’s also very wrong, because he is absolutely still a baby. He’s gentle, and sweet, and he cries when he gets a boo-boo.
Sometimes I don’t know how to deal with him being all of those things at the same time.
Recently, Max has taken a liking to the things I loved in my own boyhood. He loves the Avengers. He delights in Iron Man and Spider-Man and Captain America and the Hulk. He also seems to take a liking to professional wrestling—at least to his Brock Lesnar toy and his championship belt replica. But with all of these burgeoning fandoms comes an affinity for violence. He loves whacking objects with his foam Mjolnir. He giggles when he lines up all of his action figures and then kicks them away, one by one. And he utterly comes alive when he climbs on my shoulders, or neck, or face, and repeatedly lands Yokozuna Banzai Drops on my chest. I find all of this to be such a great delight because, well, I see myself. And it’s easier for me to share in things that make him happy.
To some, it may seem like these instances are a matter of excess energy that just needs to be spent. This could be true, on some days. But I also believe that this is a matter of his spirit.
(This is where I acknowledge that this could totally just be me projecting my wishes onto my son. Yes, yes. Bear with me.)
(And this is where I acknowledge that having a warrior spirit has nothing to do with gender. I also need to say that I think Carol Danvers can kick Son Goku’s ass. And that Becky Lynch is The Man.)
It seems like Max has a violent, warrior-y, fighter-y spirit. Like his namesake. And his other namesake. And, I think—I hope—like me. Proof of this is how he loves playing with other babies. After excitedly running around with them, he would eventually try to hug them. And then, inevitably, he’ll use his weight to drag them to the ground. He thinks it’s sweet. His friends don’t. I think it looks like a suplex.
Further proof of this is how he sometimes asks me permission to chase other toddlers walking with their families. “Maxie run baby,” he would ask.
“Why,” I would ask him. “What do you want to with them?”
“Maxie push baby? Please?”
Of course, I say no. He’ll then happily pretend to shoot repulsor rays from his palms like Iron Man. Zing zing. I put on a firm face, but inside, I’m just delighted.
These experiences aren’t so delightful when he attempts to have them with his Mama, and when he sometimes succeeds in having them with his playmates. There is a simple reason for this: violence often causes pain. And I’m not sure if you know this, but pain hurts.
This is a tricky parenting phase for me. While I believe in fostering kindness and love and empathy and gentleness, I also believe in cultivating what makes one come alive. Physically hurting others is a non-negotiable—he simply must not do that, ever. It seems simple to correct my son’s behavior by setting-up a reward/punishment framework for seemingly harmful actions, but at what point is the line crossed towards actually stifling his spirit? And how do I navigate these questions while remaining a consistent and credible parent, and maintaining this consistency and credibility with my partner?
Thankfully, my wife is amazing, and level-headed, and wise. We have discussed these issues repeatedly, and we agreed that these are what we should try:
- We try to teach that context is important. Play-wrestling with me is fine, because I love it, and I can handle it. And sometimes he’s lucky to meet friends who can take everything my son can dish out. But I consistently remind him now that roughhousing at home is with Papa only—not with Mama.
- We try to teach that sensitivity and empathy are of utmost importance. If he hurts me, or his Mama, or his friends, we try to highlight it and how we feel because of the pain. He’s lucky to have friends like his pal “M”, a hilariously honest and expressive three-year-old boy. Last night Max accidentally hurt M, so, after tearily recovering, he turned around, sat down, and said “I don’t want to play with Max anymore!” I was lucky enough to use this as a teaching opportunity to Max. Max went over, apologized, and meekly asked if they can play again. M performed the universal “I’m thinking about it” finger-on-chin gesture, and then said “OK!”
- We try to consistently value and highlight integrity, and being true to yourself. This is the backbone behind the two points stated above. Max’s Mama does not need to pretend that she enjoys roughhousing or that she doesn’t experience the pain of a Mjolnir smash. She absolutely, totally can—and should. And Max should totally be sensitive to that, and adjust accordingly. But it’s important to us that he be given the context to feel his feelings and think his thoughts and live his truth in a way that does not harm others. I’m immensely grateful that our home can provide this for him, and our friends (and friends’ children) who can do this with him. And for as long as I can, I’m the one who will take the violent warrior spirit Banzai Drops.
Growing up, I don’t think I was anywhere near the level of rambunctiousness and feistiness as Max, but I was a big, strong, boy. My Dad was incredibly loving and kind, but, bless his heart, he could never actually keep up with me physically. When I would accidentally hurt him, he kept telling me that I didn’t know my own strength, implicitly relating displays of strength with potentially harming others. My Dad never, ever intended to stifle me in any way, but it took me a long time to get over these wrong ideas. This is why celebrating Max’s spirit is very important to me.
For now, it’s turning out fine. It looks like he’s already a boy that we (and even my Dad) can be proud of. And it also looks like he’s growing up that way too. I just hope I survive all the giggle kicks and Mjolnir smashes and Banzai Drops to see him do it.