Boys will be boys

Big boys will occasionally behave like little boys. That’s what they mean when they say “boys will be boys.” It’s an indictment of the behavior of all boys, big or little, who have ever stared at a beautiful woman or glugged milk straight from the carton. These behaviors do not, as the saying implies, make us savages. On the contrary, they provide us with a baseline against which we can measure our progress toward civilization.

Boys and men occasionally behave in ways that it’s not in our nature to prevent. If men were never allowed to indulge their impulse to be boys, how would we as a society be able to put a value on gentlemanliness? These are relative measures, after all. Even today’s finest gentleman, with his open collar and his casual syntax, would probably have been deemed a beast by the staff at Downton Abbey.

Society benefits from leaving some of the rougher edges on a man unsanded. For one thing, women like it. If all men were perfect gentlemen, women would have to adjust their preferences to a degree that most of them don’t fully appreciate. But for another, gentlemen typically make boring artists, and society needs its artists to be interesting.

Great art, it is often said, comes from pain. Whether painting, sculpture, drama, literature, or comedy, the best stuff is usually born in darkness. To get at it, an artist must drop his pretensions and give himself over to the possibility of looking ridiculous. A true gentleman never allows this. Such a fellow radiates control.

“Dad,” my four-year old son said to me one night while I was helping him brush his teeth. “I like the way my picture looks in the mirror.”

That he’d become aware of his appearance wasn’t what set my mind spinning, though I believed in my heart that he would one day insist on being taken to an actual barber for a professional haircut. What puzzled me was that he gave voice to what no gentleman ever says. This was vanity. No one wants to be caught preening in the mirror. If a man looks good, he wants you to think it happened by itself. The appearance of effort ruins the effect. This is but one of the things learned on the way from boyhood to manhood that prepare you to pass yourself off as a gentleman.

But if you’re four, I guess you don’t care about all that. If you look in the mirror and like what you see you just go ahead and bloody say it.

Every day, in a thousand little ways, we are forced to decide which rough edges of our kids’ personalities we are going to sand down. We are not simply charged with keeping our sons from running into traffic or choking on a dry piece of toast. We are charged with forming them into men of character, guiding their intellectual development, and shepherding their spiritual lives. We are supposed to try to make them into gentlemen.

Like all little boys, my little boy is a dynamo. He idles on high. We sometimes hear him rooting around in his room after dark. His constant locomotion compels us to offer stern admonitions. “You have to go to bed,” we say. “You can’t keep running back and forth like this.” But his engine is powered by steam from subterranean springs. He cannot control himself. He has rough edges. Boys will be boys.

Except this boy has recently discovered the joy of drawing. Where he used to undulate to the rhythm of his internal combustion engine, he lately sits for hours, quietly drawing. I say this with a mixture of pride and puzzlement because drawing has never given me anything approaching joy. Watching someone who can bring the world to life with a pencil or pen is for me one of life’s great mysteries. I have no idea how it’s done.

For source material he consults an oversized book of characters from his favorite animated films. It is, for him, more precious than a Book of Hours. It is a treasured catalog of his cinematic acquaintances, each rendered in exacting detail. He studies these images and duplicates them with washable marker on white printer paper. When he is drawing, he is at something approaching peace. He is sanding down his own rough edges.

Let it be noted: A little boy does not grow up to become just any big boy. He grows up, usually, to become a version of an even bigger boy—specifically, his own father. Although I can’t draw a lick, my own father is an ace with a sketch pencil. But he, too, has his share of rough edges. As a teenager, he thought of a career as a cartoonist. In his senior year he was selected to illustrate the high school’s annual yearbook with humorous doodles and caricatures. The privilege was revoked when he was busted for bowling in a school hallway with a real bowling ball.

Boys will be boys.

Somehow, I ended up inheriting the class clown gene from my father but not the talented visual artist one. I must carry the code in my DNA sequence, though, as the trait is clearly evident in the little guy. How to ensure that he retains his artistic facility without getting lost in it? How to nurture his talent without either filling him with delusions of grandeur or sanding away the rough, raw materials that could make his art truly great?

How to know when to just let a boy be a boy?

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