Sunday, August 21, 2011

Swords, Boys, & Passions

I had a sword fight today. Actually, I sword fight a lot of days with my son. He has recently taken to ambushing me as well. He aims for surprise. I think he is getting better at it. He "got me" when we were up in Ohio at his grandparent's house. I had been outside thinking of some errand or not much at all when I came into the house and out of no where I was ambushed by a screeching moose. It was a good one. He asks me to read a lot of history and battle details. He likes most of the stories we read whether they are fiction or non fiction, but when it is fully his choice, it is about history or warriors or a mixture.

The Moose sets up an Ancient Army
I saw an article about boys not reading in The New York Times. Not so long ago I had listened to a podcast from TED Talks about re-engaging boys in learning. failing out of schools, and not being captivated by learning at school which shied away from topics that interest boys. I am familiar with some of these topics- guns, wars, duels, death, battle formations, weaponry choices, tactics, commands. My daughter is not at all interested in any of these themes. My son's first walk was also the beginning of his stick collection. He continues to collect sticks and uses them as swords, pikes, maces, arrows, bows, and other weaponry. His fascination with fighting mystifies me. My husband attempts to reassure me from time to time that he spent a fair portion of his childhood playing with GI Joes and creating battle formations. The reassurance is that my husband turned out to be a pacifist despite all the battle engagement play. I suspect that in allowing the fascination with war and weaponry to follow its natural course that it is then allowed to play itself out.

Surprisingly, my son is squeamish when watching movies with battles. Once by accident on youtube, he came across the opening battle scene from Gladiator whereby the head of the opponent is delivered to the Roman general. That beheading can still work him up a bit so its not the violence that interests him. It seems to be about dueling and costumes for now.

Still, I can see why teachers might steer boys away from gore and war and want them to write or read on more mundane topics in school, but I also sense that this misses the heart and soul of what drives boys to spend their time building battle scenes and wearing costumes of warriors and to read about them.

In yochien preschool in Japan, the teachers help students roll ever tighter paper swords and show them how to strengthen their swords with extra paper and tape. No comments are made either positively or negatively about sword fighting. My sense is that it is to let nature take its course- let the boys love the swords as they like. Kendo Japanese sword fighting is a sport available to young boys in Japan more than in the States, but it comes after soccer and baseball in popularity. Violence does not appear to be connected to the love of swords. I don't think we help by avoiding it or by steering around it.

This week while on vacation at a swimming pool, I watched my son and another boy practically drowning themselves as they wrestled. The other parents did not flinch or seem to notice what the boys were doing mostly because the parents were busy guzziling drinks from the poolside cabana. I noted the boys though were not put off by each other. The Moose was hard pressed to leave. He begged to stay. He wanted to wrestle and tangle with the other boy who so willingly engaged him in a way no one else has in a long time. I relented and stayed back with him while my parents took the Mule to visit another pool. The Moose and the other boy continued to wrestle non-stop. At the end, when we did leave the Moose told me, "I don't get to play like that very often. Can we come back tomorrow?" He liked being able to wrestle and tussle. It kind of surprised me, but still it was contained to some degree as they were not punching or hurting each other but more like testing the strength in each other and themselves.

When I see discussions about boys falling behind in reading or engagement in schools, it increases my awareness of the need to validate what my children themselves enjoy and love to do whether I do or not. Having a boy and a girl means that I aim for activities we can all enjoy and then for time for each of them to enjoy. So sometimes I have sword fights and sometimes I play with dolls, but I also aim for fair play.

I hope that someday my son will befriend another boy who loves swords and history as much as he does, but I also hope that if he wants to write a story about a battle or a fighting style that he will be allowed to do so even if it is graphic or violent. I'd hate to see anyone kibosh his passion. Passion is such an undervalued gift.