The 5 Ways to Raise Boys Well

One father's hilarious test of which virtues matter most in young men, and which parenting tricks are overrated.

by A.J. Jacobs / Photo by Russ and Reyn

Underrated: Tribalism

The last time I'd paid attention to professional sports was around 1977 - the year my dad took me to Game Six of the World Series, then made us leave in the seventh inning to beat the traffic. "But what if Reggie Jackson hits a third home run, Dad?" "Don't worry. He won't."

On the upside, we did have the subway all to ourselves.

But this year, at the request of my eldest son, I watched the Jets in the playoffs. And when they scored, he laughed like Ray Liotta in GoodFellas, and I laughed with him, and we stomped triumphantly around the living room, doing coyote howls. So this is what all the fuss is about, I remember thinking. I'd forgotten the joys of tribalism. I'd forgotten the deep irrational pleasure of belonging to an arbitrary group.

The next week, the Jets lost, which sent my son into a funk for two days. He recovered in time to root for the Colts during the Super Bowl, because a horseshoe looks cooler than a fleur-de-lis. It was all "Go Colts!" - until the Saints started winning, at which point he switched his allegiance to New Orleans. Not very tribal at all. But there's also something manly about rooting for the winners.

Overrated: Decisiveness

Six-year-old boys are cable-TV pundits without the audience or salary. They are all about sweeping judgments, and very, very strong opinions based on absolutely no evidence at all.

"I hate edamame." (He has never tried edamame.) "Don't take me to the Chelsea Piers bowling alley. It's the worst." (He has never been to the Chelsea Piers bowling alley.) One of Jasper's new classmates asked him for a playdate on the first day of school. Jasper said sorry, he was busy. What about tomorrow? the kid asked. My son replied: "No. I'm busy for the rest of the year."

Decisiveness can be a virtue, of course, but I've come to believe the best leaders regard their gut with caution. I do see potential in my sons, though. Jasper once spent five minutes at the counter of our local café debating between a muffin and a madeleine. He looked at me, his eyes welling up, and said, "I don't know which to pick." I told him I was so proud that he put so much thought into it.

Which only confused him more.

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Underrated: Repression

Maybe it sounds more acceptable if I call it stoicism. Either way. We're told nowadays to express ourselves, let our emotions flow out of us like milk from an udder. But lately, I've become a fan of the Victorians and the Mad Men and their immovable upper lips.

This is because watching young boys get angry is a scary thing. The force of their rage is Krakatoan. If one of my sons' desires is somehow thwarted - another brother won't share the yellow Hungry Hungry Hippo - his eyes bulge and his fists clench like a silent-movie star. The sounds that come out of his mouth don't resemble anything human or even animal. They're more akin to heavy machinery, maybe a malfunctioning steam turbine.

We romanticize boyhood as a glorious time, which it can be. But every day has dozens of lows as well. The emotional whiplash must be exhausting, like living inside Alec Baldwin's brain.

Every night, my eldest son and I talk about what he did right and wrong that day. If he cried - unless it was because he was hurt or had a life-changing crisis - it's a nickel off his allowance. Yelling at inanimate objects - which I believe to be a uniquely male trait - another nickel off. I try to explain to him that anger begets anger. There's wisdom in imitating Prince Charles: Bottle up your anger and push it way down in your stomach.

The irony is, of course, that I can't control my own wrath. At least not when my kids' happiness is at stake. Like when I went to the street fair recently and the juggler stopped juggling to take a cell-phone call. And then talked for like fifteen minutes while Jasper looked on all eager and hopeful. "Excuse me," I said, after three minutes. He turned his back to me. My face flushed, and my pulse quickened, and my wife had to pull me away as I began shouting in rage.

Overrated: Big Balls

Boys are born with huge ones. Literally and figuratively. Literally because they're filled with fluid and look disturbingly like ripe plum tomatoes. Figuratively because they have yet to learn fear.

I remember walking with my sons down a country road in the Poconos. Lucas was a hundred feet in front of me, with my friend David. I watched Lucas stop, bend down, and pick up a thick, black, coiled rope from the dirt. He held it aloft, twirled it around, admiringly. Then I saw my friend David start making wild gestures. "Nooooo!!! Nooo!!!" That must be one dirty rope, I thought. David pulled Lucas toward him and screamed at him to drop the rope. Then the rope slithered away. I almost vomited. I spent the next two hours on Google trying to figure out if the snake was poisonous, just to torture myself with what-ifs.

Part of my job as a father, I believe, is to shrink their balls. One of the few agreed-upon conclusions of those who study male-female birth differences is that boys' brains are wired for more risk taking. Which is fine when it's a noble risk. But boys are prone to such stupid risks, it gives me a stomachache.

I'm trying to train their brains early to do cost-benefit analysis. I don't forbid them to jump off the wall. I say, yes, it would feel good to jump off that wall. But how will it feel when you land on your knee and cut it open?

They still jump, but I sometimes get them to pause.

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Underrated: Delusional Optimism

A few months back, out for a walk in Connecticut, Jasper had to pee. I took him to the base of a maple. As he unzipped, he announced, "I'm going to make my pee go to the top of this tree." The beauty part is, he believed it.

I hope he keeps this delusional optimism. It's a tricky mind-set, I know. Used wrongly, it can cause unwarranted military invasions and catastrophic financial bubbles. But we need it. Without it, we'd still be grunting at each other over a fire. We need it to write trilogies and build airports and make $280 million 3-D movies. It's what separates us from the animals and the boring.

My son may never pee like a geyser, but someday, one of his delusions will come true. Though I may be deluded.

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