Tuesday, February 23, 2016

All Boy

Dear L,

Today you turn ten. Double digits! It's a pretty big deal, even though your dad and I have experienced it once before with your sister. But it's just as important an event in your life as it was in hers. We don't know much about parenting, but we know that parenting you is completely different from parenting her. You are your own person, Mr. Man, and we are so happy about that. We wouldn't want it any other way.

You've always been more happy-go-lucky and chill than C, even as a baby--in true second-born style. However, back then I didn't know that my chubby, laid back baby boy would turn into the kind of boy that people describe as all boy: in motion any time you're not staring at a screen, vibrating with energy and enthusiasm, most of the time at home dribbling or catching or passing some kind of sports ball (that term was a joke; I know the difference between all the different types of sports balls, because you've played most of them.)

Apparently you are quite the athlete, and nobody is more surprised about that than I am. I'm most definitely not a good athlete, but it turns out I'm excellent at cheering for one, even when I don't totally understand the more obscure rules. Also surprisingly, I have come to see all the good a kid can learn from team sports and how it really can translate into real life applications if the adults involved keep their priorities straight and don't act like their entire existence is validated by whether a group of little kids dominates another group of little kids. Your dad and I have tried to do that: to keep sports in its proper place. We don't love the idea of participation trophies, but it turns out that trophies weren't necessary for your enjoyment of the game. You've instinctively played your hardest, supported your teammates, never threw fits when you lost, listened to your volunteer coaches, and just generally been a great kid whether you won or lost.

I want you to know I am really proud of you for that.

You have a quality that will carry you beyond the playing field or court: you are what they call coachable. You have the skills to be a star, but not the temperament. You are a team player. This year, when you played for the first time in the "select" basketball league, in which the coaches can recruit players and teams can stay together for years, your team lost. A lot. (I'm sure I don't have to remind you.) The driven, type A, first-born part of me cringed as it became clear each time a loss was imminent. I hated that you had to lose, when in the church-based, low-key league you used to play for, you were one of the best.

But you surprised me. Sure, you don't like losing; you have plenty of competitive fire. But apparently when we told you that as long as you try your best, that's all that matters, you believed us. Week after week, I watched you lay it all on the line, whether the free-throw line, baseline, or now even occasionally the three-point line. I saw you carry your team on your back when nobody but you could get a shot to drop, and I saw you pass the ball when a teammate was open. Even though everyone in the stands knew that the kid you passed to was going to take a shot that he couldn't hit. You didn't stop trusting your teammates. You had the right attitude, the one most of us adults who value winning too much needed to learn from.

I'm so, so proud of you for that.

It's no shock, then, that you have plenty of friends. Kids say hi to you everywhere we go. You respond--not with the lordly condescension of a jock, a "popular" kid--but a little shyly, dipping your head, while a small smile plays across your lips. Your school matches up older kids with younger ones, creating a "buddy" system. You were assigned two buddies because the younger class is larger. Did you get two for alphabetical reasons, or because your teacher knew you're a good guy to be friends with and a good example for younger boys?

I think I know the answer to that.

When I taught high school, I encountered some excellent teenagers--enough to give me hope that the next generation isn't completely worthless. Certain young men inspired me to say, "I hope my son grows up to be like him." Fortunately, I'd chosen to marry your dad--the best decision I ever made, after my salvation. Son, if you ever wonder what to do in a given situation, ask yourself, "WWJD?" Yes, "What Would Jesus Do?" but also "What Would Justin Do?" Take your dad's advice and follow his example as much as you possibly can. I love to see the two of you together doing Guy Stuff. I've read that men tend to interact by doing things together, with a few words thrown in here and there when absolutely necessary. (Whereas, as you should know from living with me and your sister, women tend to interact by talking. A lot. About everything.) I love that when you ask your dad to throw the football, shoot hoops, or practice chipping, he is glad to do it. Y'all are building a strong relationship that will last for years to come. I hope you grow up to be like him. I see that you are...in your own way.

People say you look like me. Right now you don't seem to mind hearing that, although if you someday say, "Ugh, I don't look like a girl!" I'll understand. You don't look like a girl. I'm amazed at how genetics interacts with culture. You resemble my childhood photos, yet your features are more boyish than delicate, to my mind. Is it just cultural conditioning that makes me see you as all boy? I don't know. You are, according to everyone, handsome, gorgeous, good-looking, beautiful and altogether too pretty to be a boy. I worry about this. The girls haven't starting chasing you (or else they are chasing you and you're oblivious to it, which is also possible) but they will. Oh, they will. I have visions of picking up your phone and texting back, "This is L's mother. Do not ever send him a picture like that again. I am raising him to be a gentleman who respects women."

That exact thing may not happen. However, I know you are going to face temptations that didn't present the same way in my generation. I can't shelter you from them, so your dad and I are trying to teach you how to handle them. Son, I pray that you will respect women, even if they aren't behaving in a respectable way. I hope that when an opportunity presents itself to take advantage of a girl, even if she is seemingly willing, that you choose to be the guy who takes her home safely and leaves shortly thereafter. I don't ever want you to cause someone to wonder, "What happened last night?" unless you were a protector and a friend. You would do that for your sister, and I believe you can and will treat all women the same way. Men do not have to be monsters--your father and both grandfathers prove that--so choose to rise above your animal instincts and be a real man, who values and respects women.

L, you are all the good things about a mama's boy; for example, you love to hug me and let me kiss your cheek. In fact, in fourth grade, you still aren't afraid to hug me in public (I know better than to try the kissing, though.) You still need your mama when you're sick. You don't enjoy reading much, but you are happier to do it when the two of us are ensconced in the king-sized bed with our books. I read out loud to you sometimes just so we can snuggle. (No, I won't do that with all the books just to make it easier for you.) When I walk by the couch where you are watching your my iPad, you stretch your arms out from under the blanket and say, "Hug?" I am always, always happy to comply. I will never be too busy to hug you.

When I started feeling the pangs of realization that someday my children will have lives of their own and I may not see them or even hear from them every day, I sneakily started adding to your bedtime routine, after the prayer. "And you'll always love your mama, right?" I'd ask. "You'll at least text me every day?"

"Yes!" You'd laugh, incredulous at the ideas that you would even need to text me (since you don't have a phone yet), that you would ever leave me, that you would ever grow up. But you will. You are all boy now, but you are on the inevitable path toward becoming a man.

I'm just thankful that I get to watch and cheer you on. I'll always be your biggest fan.


P.S. I got to the end of this post without even mentioning how funny you are, how much you make us laugh on a daily basis. But this post is long enough already; I'll save those stories for another day.