The other day I took my daughter to a performance of The Sound of Music. It was just the kind of outing that's supposed to elicit a beleaguered, sitcom-ready eye roll from the prototypical suburban dad. I should, according to custom, dread the "do-re-mi." I should prefer to be at home watching the play-offs, or out on an autumnal field tossing the pigskin back and forth with a few fellas from the office. But no—the quaint pleasures of the Von Trapp family were right up my cobblestoned alley. I like any task that keeps me from having to play golf, I'm bored to distraction by professional sports, and if there's anything I do dread, it's that moment when one of the Briefcase Bobs on the morning commuter train corners me with "So, did ya watch the game last night?"
Which means I'm screwed. Because I also have a son, and he, at 2, just might be the most jockish toddler on the block. We first noticed it during baseball season. One morning over breakfast, just as I grabbed the sports section of the newspaper—in order to toss it into the recycling pile—Toby saw a photo of A-Rod swinging a bat. He reacted to this image the way Neanderthals probably reacted as they prepared to kill a mastodon. He pointed, hollered "AHT AHT AHT!" and started swinging his cereal spoon back and forth as if hitting a homer. I have no idea where he learned that gesture. Certainly not from his father.
By now Toby unleashes the primal "AHT AHT AHT" whenever we pass a football field, or a basketball court, or a fleet of Hells Angels gunning their Hogs up the expressway. He goes nuts over any activity that involves ripping, running, hitting, tackling, and crashing. While his sister has a fondness for Caillou, a nice cartoon boy on PBS who just might be the wimpiest character in the history of television, the only show Toby likes is Bigfoot Presents: Meteor and the Mighty Monster Trucks, a half-hour of loud, gargantuan vehicles racing around crushing shit.
Despite my own poetry-reading tendencies, I can't help but feel the instinctual surge of pride of a cave dweller who has spawned the tribal alpha male. On the other hand, I'm sort of freaked out. At this point in human history, male softness is commonplace, even virtuous. Dads engage in things that would've been viewed as risibly girly just a couple of decades ago—doing yoga, watching Project Runway, trading recipes. For new 21st-century fathers, brined in years of Take Back the Night sensitivity training and political correctness, having a son can be a bit like finding yourself inside that classic scene from Animal House: You're the hippie on the staircase strumming a guitar and singing "I Gave My Love a Cherry," and your toddler is John Belushi, grabbing the guitar and smashing it to smithereens.
Clinical psychologist William Pollack, the author of Real Boys and the codirector of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School, says that fathers can actually be scared when they first come into contact with such filial unruliness. "The more sensitive the male, the more frightened they are," he explains. "They're afraid the boy's going to be a bully or a school shooter. . . . Or they have the fear that they won't be able to relate to their sons—that they won't be able to be buddies."
Would a buddy, after all, hammer the stereo with a rubber stegosaurus every time you try to introduce him to the delicate charms of Nick Drake's Pink Moon? Psychologist Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain and an expert on the behavior of boys, tells a story about a friend of his, a librettist working in musical theater, who found out that his son wanted to go to Madison Square Garden to see professional wrestling. The father, Thompson says, "was completely bewildered."
This past fall Matt Goldman, one of the three cofounders of the Blue Man Group, the experimental performance troupe, helped launch the Blue Man Creativity Center, a preschool in downtown Manhattan where kids can frolic in the sort of rampant whimsy that has made the blue dudes famous. There's a Room of Wonder, where giant animated fireflies dangle from the ceiling and kids splash the walls with glowing black-light paint, and a "texture pit," as Goldman calls it, "that has all these soft and velvety cushions that they bury each other in." In spite of Goldman's inclinations toward touchy-feeliness, his own 4-year-old son has a fondness for stomping on stuffed animals and unleashing the beast in pillow fights. "It answers a lot of the nature/nurture questions, because I definitely did not introduce this behavior to him," Goldman says. "I read a great study where they took four toddler chimpanzees and put them in a room with a bunch of toys. The boy chimps played primarily with the trucks and the guns. You know, it's baked in there."
But now, apparently, men have been so successful at suppressing their cooked-in testosterone that they need a manual in order to teach their sons some of the rites of passage that used to be passed down from one generation to the next. Consider the phenomenal, nipping-at-Harry Potter's-heels popularity of Conn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous Book for Boys, an encyclopedia of get-your-hands-dirty adventure that you can imagine Sir Ernest Shackleton passing along to his progeny so that they'd never forget how to skip a stone, shoot a bow and arrow, or stay alive on a journey to the South Pole. "In this age of video games and cell phones," the brothers announce in the introduction, "there must still be a place for knots, tree houses, and stories of incredible courage." Not coincidentally, Pollack points out, the Boy Scouts were formed in England at the turn of the 20th century because of a widespread concern that British men were becoming feminized. "They were having a renaissance in England of men who read books and became literary and were starting to go to salons," he says, "so people felt they had to go outdoors and be rugged."
In some major American cities, busy and wealthy couples have taken to hiring "mannies"—in part so that their male heirs will have someone to play catch with. "I think that's really good for kids, to have a guy around who's playing rough with them," says Holly Peterson, the author of The Manny, a saucy-socialite novel about the trend. "My son said to the manny the other day, 'I really like it when you beat me up until I'm almost about to cry.' When you're 7 years old, it's exciting to be punched and thrown and make it through and survive. That's what little boys want."
And a contemporary father is not always equipped to provide it. (Anyone who happens to see me trying to throw a spiral or dribble a basketball might think I'm having a seizure.) The stereotype is that men are in the dark about how to talk to their daughters, but for a bookish, gym-averse wuss, there might be no scarier line in the parenting phrasebook than "Hey, Dad, you wanna play catch?"
Then again, that might be just what a frail specimen like me needs. "Boys get close, initially, by doing," says family therapist Steve Biddulph, the author of Raising Boys. "This might mean a father takes on some activities that he doesn't really like. That's what parenthood is about—growing beyond your own preferences. Kids call you out of your comfort zone." With this in mind, I recently bought a miniature basketball and took Toby to a park to shoot hoops. I dribbled, I aimed, and—repeatedly, haplessly, tragically—I missed. And missed. And missed again. I'm not sure whether Toby was laughing with me or at me, but there was something in my drunken-scarecrow form that even a 2-year-old found utterly hysterical. We stayed out there for an hour or so, and when it was over I felt tired, cold, embarrassed, and, yes, strangely elated. Much to my surprise, it was the most fun I'd had in years. My father was never able to make a sports fan out of me, but my son might have better luck.
Does the thought of playing street hockey with your 5-year-old son give you heart palpitations? Talk through your anxieties in the comment section.