In her latest installment of “A Cowboy’s Guide to Raising Boys,” writer Alisa Valdes realizes it’s time to toughen up a little.
It will come as little surprise to those who know me that I have long been just a tiny bit, well, over-reactive—especially to anything I perceive to be even remotely dangerous, scary, or upsetting. As a toddler, I’d scream bloody murder if my mom opened the bath drain before I’d gotten out, because I was convinced I’d get sucked into the plumbing in a tiny tornado of water. Until grade school, I was known to cling to trees when the wind blew, certain I’d be swept away like a kite. At 11, I was the only child to actually take off running down the street, wailing in terror, from a Halloween party where all the other kids seemed to understand that the moaning “ghoul” with chains on the other side of the cemetery wall was actually…my dad.
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This ‘Panic Now!’ impulse has apparently now continued on, into my life as a single mother, and could be stifling my son. I was blissfully unaware of this unpleasant fact until my real-life stoic cowboy boyfriend began to observe in my kiddo a similar Henny-Penny tendency to think the sky was falling. The first example came when The Cowboy and I were taking a walk with my son and a pickup truck drove down the street. Alexander, half a block ahead, came running breathlessly up to us after the pickup had pulled a K-turn near him.
“Did you see that?” cried my boy, 10. “I almost got hit by a truck!” The Cowboy looked at me in surprise, and said to Alexander, “That truck was nowhere near you, son.” “It almost hit me!” Alexander insisted. “It was terrifying!” Later, after the chiquito had gone to sleep, The Cowboy asked me, “Is he always that jumpy, dear?” I recounted, with some pride, that my son was extremely cautious and that in his 10 years of life he had required little more than a Band-Aid, and then only on two occasions. I talked about how, when all the other five-year-olds were joyfully leaping into the pool in swim lessons, my little boy was sitting on the top step in the shallow end, his upper half bone-dry, shrieking, “I’m going to drown!” with such enthusiasm the lifeguards asked us to leave. I told him about the way my son would stand around the playground at school watching other boys commit acts of daredevilry, advising them with a thoughtful, “Be careful, you don’t want to hurt yourselves!”
I credited my son’s overly-careful nature to his being gifted. “And you think this is good why?” The Cowboy asked for clarification. “Because it means Alex isn’t comfortable doing something until he’s sure he won’t hurt himself.” The Cowboy grew thoughtful, and quiet for a time. Then he said, “I don’t think it has anything to do with being gifted. I’m not saying your boy’s not smart. That’s obvious. But I think he’s getting his cues about how scary and horrible the world is from you.”
Naturally, I was annoyed by this reaction. You might even say I was tempted to, you know, overreact to it. But I took a deep breath and explained that, like most single moms, I felt an enormous responsibility to keep this small, dependent person safe and healthy and alive. It was my number one job, in fact. If I was protective, sue me. The Cowboy responded with the idea that in order for a boy to truly live, he’s got to get hurt now and then—not intentionally, of course, but as part of a life lived with gusto and bravery. “Your boy talks about wanting to be a man, but your reactions aren’t letting him try,” he chided me. “Next time he gets a little hurt, shrug it off and tell him it’s a long way from his heart.”
I decided to take The Cowboy’s advice about no longer reacting to every little cut and scrape as though it were the end of the world. “Unless it’s life-threatening, act like it’s no big deal,” he told me. And I did it, mostly to prove The Cowboy wrong, to show him that I knew my son, and that my son’s caution was innate. But a funny thing happened on the way to proving The Cowboy wrong. My son ended up proving him right. In sparring at karate, now sure I wouldn’t fall apart if he got hit, Alexander became more aggressive—so much so that his instructor commented on the shift.
In football, after realizing I wasn’t gasping and covering my eyes every time the boys shoved each other, Alex started diving for the ball and going after the opponents with what I can only call aggression. Soon enough, he even began showing me the days assorted scars with something like…pride. This was new. “I got this blister doing the monkey bars today when David dared me to do it backwards,” he recently boasted. I shared the news of my son’s Neanderthal awakening with The Cowboy, and he reacted as he so often does when he wins—with a smile. “I know it goes against your nature,” he told me, “but for your son’s sake, you need to stop being such a wuss. We’ll make a grubby little hooligan out of him yet.” Great, I thought. Just what I need. Then I remembered, it’s not about what I need—it’s about what Alexander needs. And little boys need to get hurt, if for no other reason than to realize that they’ll survive.