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facts & arguments

What if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children’s play?

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My son loves sticks: sticks of all shapes and sizes, but especially those that can be turned into weapons.

Armed with a simple stick he becomes a pirate, a warrior, an alien – and sometimes just a maniac. He has uttered these words on several occasions: "I'm sorry, but I must annihilate you," "You are dead" and "I must kill you now." He is three years old.

And that is not all. He also growls, roars and howls. These noises are usually made while baring his teeth and fashioning his hands into fearsome claws.

He does these things to complete strangers, children and adults alike. I often wonder if I gave birth to an animal and not a human child. But the fact is, my son is wild.

How did I end up with a wild boy? When I was pregnant I dreamed about the sweet, sensitive child I would have. I imagined us sitting at the table engaged in some means of creative expression, perhaps painting or writing stories. I imagined sitting quietly in the park listening to the birds and finding shapes in the clouds. But it was not to be.

My wild boy chases the birds, leaps from the park bench. He runs and jumps and yells and climbs. More than once I've felt pangs of envy while in the company of friends and their sweet, quiet little girls.

Malcolm makes a memorable impression on others. Strangers have remarked, "Oh my, isn't he busy!" and "You've got your hands full with that one!"

I used to try explaining things to them – to defend my child and, let's face it, my own parenting. But I'm through apologizing for Malcolm. His wildness is not a product of permissive parenting or the negative influences of a violent TV culture. His wildness is his own, and as such I embrace it even if others do not.

We have arrived at a time in our culture when wildness is no longer valued. Many parents strive to raise sensitive boys, gentle and compassionate boys, boys who are more comfortable in music and creative movement classes than wielding sticks in the outdoors. Boys who are more like girls.

This was illustrated to me in a recent encounter. Malcolm and I met some friends in the park after their son's music/art/dance class (I can't remember which). Malcolm scouted out a stick as soon as we arrived and began to swing it around. I asked him to be careful and left it at that.

My friends' son wanted to join in the fun and picked up a stick of his own, but as soon as he did his parents told him to put the stick down. He did.

I felt mildly uncomfortable. Should I ask Malcolm to put down his stick? That would be like asking him to put away his spirit, so I did nothing.

The children played, hiding in the trees and bushes, chasing each other and creating that delightful chaos that children will.

Once again, my friends' son picked up a stick. Once again his parents said, "Put the stick down," and once again he did.

I could see he wanted so badly to brandish his stick, to join in the swashbuckling, the gunfire and the battle that raged in their minds. He joined in as best he could, but this experience stuck with me.

I replayed that afternoon in my mind many times. Had I done the right thing? What was those parents' problem with sticks, anyway? We all want our children to be safe and to treat others kindly, but are safety and gentleness the only things we want for our children?

I have heard many open-minded parents declare: "If my son wants to play with dolls or dress up in girls' clothes, I'm totally fine with that." But what if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children's play?

Fortunately, Malcolm is only 3 and I still have control over most of his environment. Our family spends a lot of time outdoors, where there is a lot of room for him to revel in his love of sticks. But what happens when he gets older? When he enters school?

School can be a horribly restrictive place for wild boys: I'm a teacher, so I know. It's a place that sets a high value on feminine traits and labels many of Malcolm's strongest qualities as behaviour problems.

I joke that I am already anticipating the first phone call from the principal, but really it's no joke. How will the school treat Malcolm and his wildness? Will he settle down by then? Will he be able to conform? Do I want him to?

There are times when I wish he were a little less wild. Parenting him can be exhausting. I also know he will need to learn the social norms that allow one to function in the world.

I am sure that some day he will learn to channel that unfettered energy into something productive. But I hope he doesn't lose his wildness in the process. I have nothing against quiet, gentle, sweet little boys and girls. I was one myself. But I want to live in a world that has room for wild boys, too.

Dionne Lapointe-Bakota lives in Campbell River, B.C.

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