by John Ellis
Upon finding out that my wife was expecting our second child, I began praying for another daughter. With a highly intelligent little girl filled with curiosity and creativity lording over our household, I couldn’t imagine how a boy could best the advantages of having another girl. To be sure, my daughter had spurned all of my attempts to coax her into being interested in sports. But no matter, my second daughter would play in the WNBA, I believed. Besides, and leaning heavily, if not entirely, on my past, boys are nothing but trouble. Little ungrateful miscreants who like to set things on fire, torture their teachers, pee on the toilet seat, and who come prepackaged with a far more offensive odor than girls. Masculinity, as I had always been taught (and lived), comes with boisterous rough edges – little boys are made of snaps, snails, and puppy dog tails, while girls are made of sugar and spice and all that is nice, after all. And so, the day we found out we were having a son was a day that employed all of my acting skills. My daughter, on the other hand, lacked my acting skills, and her displeasure at the ominous news of a coming brother was on full display for the world to see. In fact, not long after he was born, she used all of her intellectual prowess and debate skills to try and convince us to place him up for adoption and replace him with a puppy. It probably goes without saying, but we resisted her arguments and kept him. Ten years in, and I think it’s safe to say that we all agree we made the right decision.
Today is Hayden’s tenth birthday. This morning, before leaving for school, he excitedly announced that he is now a preteen. To which, after receiving a negative reply to my question if he’d brushed his teeth yet, I joked, “Preteens don’t have to be reminded to brush their teeth.”
Forgetfulness, I am told, is a product of having a little boy brain. Or just a boy brain, in general. When he was younger, after tasking him with cleaning his room, I would wait around ten minutes to yell, “Hayden, keep cleaning your room!” Most of the time, justifying my “scheduled” reminder, a scurry of activity could be heard as he rushed back to cleaning. There were the odd times, though, when, dripping with indignation, he would answer back, “But I am cleaning my room, daddy!”
His talent of becoming distracted has never been malicious. Cleaning requires interaction with toys; a distraction too great to be overcome on a regular basis, no matter how well intended he may have begun the task at hand. Besides, his desire to make his authority figures proud of him is too much of a dominant character trait for maliciousness to have taken root, but his boy brain’s ability to become distracted at a moment’s notice is his worst enemy. Don’t misunderstand, he is a sinner. He does disobey and act selfishly. However, and inverting the popular saying, he is most definitely not a chip off the old block. And for that, I frequently thank God.
I am aware that being his father comes with built in bias, but I am proud of my sweet son’s disposition, his heart for obedience, and his desire to bring joy to others. Over the years, it’s not unusual for his teachers to tell us that two of the reasons they’re thankful that Hayden is in their class is that he loves helping his classmates understand lessons they struggle with and that he often takes the lead in making sure the class is obeying. Lately, and a small thing but still a thing, he’s taken to spending hours making perler bead toys for his classmates, being sure to make enough so that no one will feel left out (I haven’t asked him if he makes them for the girls, too. At this point, girls are a mysterious species that he loves from a distance – including his “girlfriend” that he never talks to). Less small of a thing, but on the same track, feeling deeply the pain of others, bullies have always been the object of his ire. I’ve had multiple conversations with him about being careful to not become a bully to those who are doing the bullying; he understands. Injustice is his mortal enemy, but for him, victory over bullies is everyone being friends and no one being left out. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand that doing battle with injustice is the right thing to do. For my part, when I was a boy, imaginary battles were mostly, if not completely, about the battle, my love for fighting, and my desire to show off my “skills” and to win, at any cost. For Hayden, his imaginary battles carry a heavy plot of righting wrongs, seeing justice served, and protecting others. One year, after Halloween, I found him standing in the street in front of our house wearing his cop costume and attempting to flag down cars that he believed were driving too fast. Not realizing the dangerous irony, he knew that speeding cars were a threat to his friends who rode their bicycles or played hockey in the street. Actions that threaten others should be stopped was all his little boy brain processed. He just wanted to explain to the speedsters that they were threatening his friends. In conjunction with that, I love the fact that while living in Arlington, VA, our next door neighbors labeled him the “Neighborhood’s Super Hero” because he gloried in fighting dragons, evil ninjas, bad robots, and a host of other enemies threatening the neighborhood and his friends and loved ones. Those battles not only took place in our yard, but whatever yard his chase of imaginary enemies took him. After he broke his arm, those same neighbors plied him with gifts, including a get-well-card letting him know that they would keep watch over the neighborhood until their superhero had mended.
His love for life, imagination, friendliness, selflessness, care for others, and a burning dislike of injustice are things my wife and I try to protect and foster in Hayden’s heart. Most importantly, we pray that the Holy Spirit will give him the gift of repentance and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the One from whom true justice and mercy flows. And on this, his birthday, I want to record some thoughts and things I’ve learned as the father of a son these past ten years. I’ve been told that masculinity is under attack in our society and that it’s imperative for Christian fathers to double-down on our efforts to teach our sons how to be men. Maybe. I’m not so sure.
For starters, if God continues to grant him life, Hayden is going to be a man one day. There’s nothing I can do to alter that. I know, I know. I’m supposed to teach him how to be masculine, but that doesn’t make any sense to me. Allow me ease into my thoughts with this illustration: I’ve taught both my daughter and son how to shoot a basketball correctly. While working with them on their shot, not once have I ever prefaced my instruction with, “Now, Infinity, make sure you shoot like a girl; your femininity is at stake. And, Hayden, you better make sure you shoot like a boy; I want you to grow up to be a manly man.” Likewise, before either one of them gets their drivers license (an eventuality just around the corner for Infinity), they both have to learn how to change a flat tire, among other car related things. In doing so, I’m not going to tailor my instruction so that Infinity retains her femininity and Hayden his masculinity – an obviously absurd notion, because, as I pointed out here, our contemporary definitions and categories of masculine and feminine character traits are socially constructed and go a long way to causing gender confusion. My daughter is a female. My son is a male. My daughter changes tires (will change tires if she wants a driver’s license) as a female. My son changes tires (will change tires if he wants a driver’s license) as a male.
Instead, by the grace of God, here is the main thing I am trying to teach my son (and my daughter): how to be like Jesus.
I don’t care if my son knows how to hunt, kill, and clean a deer. If he wants to learn, I’ll do my best to make that happen. I do care that he learns to exhibit care for God’s creation for God’s glory and in the service of others.
I don’t care if my son is interested in guns or not. I do care that he seeks to honor God by preferring others, even if that means laying aside his “rights”. Likewise, I want my son to learn that being Christlike will often look like “being walked over and taken advantage of” to a self-serving world.
I’m not interested in my son becoming fascinated with MMA, boxing, or other “sports” that traffic in the physical marring of image bearers. I am interested in him continuing to develop a sense of justice and being willing to take a stand for justice, even if that means putting his own physical safety on the line.
I am most definitely not interested in my son developing a warped view of women that denigrates, objectifies, and treats them as inferiors. By God’s grace, I’m prayerfully trying to teach him that women are as equally made in God’s image as he is and are as worthy of respect and honor as men. Furthermore, and importantly, respect and honor cannot be separated from acknowledging the giftings and talents of women and being willing to listen and learn from the women God brings in his life, be they his future wife, future boss, co-workers, next door neighbors, female members of his church, etc.. A man desiring to be conformed into the image of the Son understands that his posture towards women is that of humility and service.
My prayer for my son is that his personality is characterized by the fruits of the spirit. You know, gentleness, self-control, and kindness, to name just three. And at no time will I ever need to teach my son how to be gentle like a man. As nonsensically a notion as has every existed.
The above is only a partial list of the ways in which I want my son to grow and mature. My dreams and aspirations are many, as are the traits that I pray will characterize him as an adult. Unfortunately, my son’s father was steeped in the culture/idolatry of masculinity as a youth and well into adulthood. My personality and inclinations often run counter to the fruits of the Spirit because of that. Thankfully, socially constructed and self-serving definitions are no match for the work of the Holy Spirit. While I have a long way to go, I am growing in Christlikeness. In fact, being a father to a son has been used by the Spirit to open my eyes and cause me to act with more awareness of what my actions and tone communicate about true “masculinity.” Modeling God the Father is the most important role I play in my son’s life, and little eyes and ears take note, whether I realize it or not. By God’s grace, I want my children to one day be able to say that their dad parented in a way that demonstrated Christlikeness in such a way that the Holy Spirit used it to help break their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.
Over the few years I’ve been a father, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to model Christlikeness is availability. While admitting that I still frequently fail at this, I try, by God’s grace, to stop what I’m doing and listen when my son wants to explain to me the powers of some Pokémon card. The platitude “children should be seen and not heard” has no place in our house. I also do my best to make time for my children, playing games they want at the expense of my time and preferences. My Heavenly Father is always available to me. What kind of father would I be if I guarded my free time and prioritized my hobbies? Not one that is modeling Christlikeness, that’s for sure.
My son is ten years old today. This evening, Lord willing, we will eat dinner, including fried pickles, at his favorite restaurant (outside dining, of course), come home to birthday cake and presents, and celebrate the gift of our son that God has given us. Later in the evening, I will play him in poker or chess, or maybe even MLB 19 on Xbox even though it’s a school night (did I mention today is his birthday?), his choice. During family devotions, my wife and I will continue to teach both him and his sister who God is and what it means/looks like to submit to Him through faith in Jesus. While tucking Hayden in, I will tell him that I love him and am proud of him. No doubt, as he almost always does, he will look at me quizzically and ask, “But why are you proud of me?” Often, I list off his achievements, to encourage him – the A he made on a school project that day, beating me in poker, his basketball shooting form, an act of kindness – the list varies. Tonight, though, I’m going to be sure to tell him that I’m proud of him because he’s a gentle, kind, selfless son who desires to please and honor his mother and father. I am proud of him that he is made of sugar and spice and all that is nice. That’s true masculinity.
Soli Deo Gloria