Real manhood is not all solemnity, hard work and standing against the world. Real men play, and sometimes they play hard. Real men are, at least they should be, rough and tumble. If you want proof, look at little boys before they have been corrupted by our hyper-feminized public school system. They are the raw material, the stuff from which the final product will be made. They wrestle, hit each other, insult each other, run for no good reason and throw stuff for no good reason. They play with mud, rocks, sticks, fire, knives, and anything dangerous that they can get their hands on. Boys like to build and break things; the bigger the building, the better the breaking. They get dirty, muddy, bloody and bruised, step on each other, get offended, fight, make up, and have a good time doing it. They might have short fuses, but they also have short memories.
Boys love to compete. There will always be a goal, a quest for a hero to achieve. There will be good guys and bad guys, cops and robbers, Cowboys and Indians, Steelers vs. Cowboys, Rangers vs. Yankees, Americans vs. commies – opposing sides about which each will say the other is in the wrong. They will use plastic replicas, sticks, and even fingers as pretend weapons and the more boys involved in the play, the more imaginary blood will be spilled and the higher the imaginary body-count.
Contrary to the politically correct establishment, these are all healthy traits that should be encouraged and indulged as often as practicable. It is critical that boys be allowed to play like boys. Play is not solemn, but it is serious. To paraphrase Lewis, boyhood play is the serious work of manhood.
There are many reasons why the play of boys is important, but I will focus on the most vital. First, it is through play that boys begin to discover what they are good at. They identify and begin to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological gifts. Play helps boys to learn who they are and where they fit in the world around them. The idea that children possess unique gifts is increasingly misunderstood. Children are often told that they can be anything they want to be. This is simply not true. Ability is not democratic. Not everyone is equally gifted in every area. This sounds cruel, unfair, and limiting to a politically correct world, but it is none of these. In fact, the opposite is true.
When a boy is told that he can be anything he wants, he is being set up for failure. There are very real limitations on what a particular person is capable of doing. I am of medium height and build, and when I was a boy I was smaller than my peers. If I believed that I could be anything I wanted, and I wanted to be a linebacker for the Packers, my physical build would have been a hindrance, a limitation. I would have been imprisoned in my body and forever be frustrated if I had tried to make that position my life’s goal. But by being allowed to discover my real gifts through the agency of play, by working in the scope of my real strengths, a near infinite field opens up to me that aligns with those strengths. Ability is not infinitely broad, but it can be infinitely deep. Being allowed to work within the scope of a child’s gifts frees him from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations created by the “you can be anything you want” school of thought.
Second, competition in play teaches boys how to win, lose, and take their lumps, both deserved and undeserved. They must learn this, for life is filled with victories and defeats, great and small, fair and unfair. The playing fields in which men work are rarely level, and sometimes the cards will be stacked unfairly against them. The unsheltered world outside the halls of academia cannot be the first place they learn these lessons. If it is, they will enter life severely handicapped. They will be stymied by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that they inevitably encounter. Without the armor forged over time through play it will be difficult for them to persevere in the face of a prolonged losing streak. Yes, there are unfair situations that they will experience in school, but those pale in comparison to what life in the real world can inflict on them.
Third, play helps boys to develop their moral imaginations, their sense of right and wrong, good and evil. When they play cops and robbers, they are exploring the moral lessons they have learned from parents and church. Through play, they work out the implications and consequences of right and wrong actions in a safe environment. Their innate, God-given understanding of the eventual triumph of good over evil is allowed to germinate and blossom. Properly developed, the moral imagination of a boy becomes the moral compass of a man who will recognize good and evil even in their most subtle garb, and respond appropriately when he is called upon to do so.
Finally, the imaginary wars they fight, the blood they spill, and the piles of corpses they leave behind them serve very real functions. The imaginary heroes who fight their battles for and through them help protect them from the monsters of their own imagination. In the dark, late at night, imaginary creatures can frighten a young boy far more than any real terror. Chesterton said it best when he wrote “At the four corners of a child’s bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone.” With Perseus and Roland at his side, a boy learns courage and is better prepared to act in spite of his fears as a man.
Further, those heroes prepare boys for the real wars they may encounter as men. The idea that aggression and war can be trained out of the mind of a boy is as wrong as the idea that the Earth is flat. There will always be evil in the world, and that evil will threaten nations as well as individuals. Therefore, the world will always need armies of men ready to fight in the name of the right, to kill or be killed in order to protect the good, the beautiful, and the true. Boys must not be taught that war is wrong, or that to rejoice in the victory of good over evil is wicked. As they grow, they can learn the subtleties of just war theory, but as boys, they must be able to act out the war between good and evil in a way that makes sense to boys.
Of course, none of this is present in a boy’s mind when he plays. He is merely enjoying the play for its own sake, happily unaware of any benefit he receives when he goes to play “kill the guy with the ball” with the guys in the neighborhood. If he understood all that was going on, it would cease to be play. It is because the lessons learned at play are unconscious that they form part of the foundation of what the boy will be as a man. Our role as adults is to stay as far out of the way as possible. Yes, we must enforce rules, and supervise play to ensure that there no serious harm is done. The one thing we must never do is forbid them to play like boys.
Allowed to play like boys, they will not lose these traits when they become men. The man will still play, though his play matures along with the boy. He will give up that which is childish, but can still be childlike. This is a difficult balance to strike, but if he can do it, a man will be able to guide the boys around him through their own play. He can enter their world and fight the bad guys with them, or give them a bad guy to defeat. He can also play with other men for the sheer enjoyment of being a man.
Which brings us back to where we started. When they are at rest from the fight, men should play hard and enjoy being men. Fathers, play with the boys in your lives, and forbid them not. Reassure your wives that all really will be well. That scar on your boy’s left knee will give him something to brag about with his friends and show off to girls while he is young, and laugh about when he is older. The gap in his teeth will fill in, the broken arm will heal, and the fistfight with his best friend will be forgotten tomorrow. Boys must play like boys if they are to be worth anything as men.