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He-Men in Training : A mom asks: Can little boys be liberated? Or is guy stuff their destiny?

April 28, 1993|MARY ANN HOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Guys are born with the irrepressible urge to nose-dive off the bed. To turn the world into acrash landing. To lead the parade, to kill the ants and to get fishhooks stuck in their thumbs and impress their friends by ripping hooks through flesh without flinching.

My husband and son are going to spend Saturday together. "C'mon," father tells 3-year-old. "We'll do Guy Stuff. Eat hot dogs. Watch bowling on TV."

Eek. There goes my little boy, toddling happily off to destiny. He's on his way to becoming . . . a Guy.

Do I stop them? Throw myself in front of the TV waving "A Child's Garden of Verses"?

I hesitate. On the one hand, to interfere would be to cross an impulse that I suspect began the moment X chromosome met Y, creating a genetically coded version of A Guy's Gotta Do What a Guy's Gotta Do.

On the other hand, my husband doesn't even like bowling. This is just guy chemistry--sniffing the air, finding excitement in the crashing video pins, smelling danger in the lawlessness of messing up the living room on a sunny day.

Such is the power of Guy Stuff.

I wonder: What happened? We were the generation that was going to help bring true equality to the sexes. Our newguy sons would bake bread and love it, would be truly conscious (they'd be good listeners too), would cherish their dolls and stoves as well as their Tonka trucks.

Then our sons were born.

And with them, the irrepressible urge to nose-dive off the bed. To turn the world into a crash landing. To lead the parade, to kill the ants--and later in life to get fishhooks stuck in their thumbs and impress their friends by ripping hooks through flesh without flinching. Ugh. Guys don't flinch!

It's comforting to know I'm not alone in my awe of the forces science describes as a blend of potent hormones and centuries of social conditioning. Other mothers I know, all with earnest egalitarian intentions, corroborate my fears, my confusion. They share some version of the same story. "It's not that we fear what they are," says one, the mother of three boys. "It's that we fear what they are up against."

Says another, the mother of a girl and boy: "As soon as I had my son, I said, 'Oh, that's why guys are the way they are: They can't help it.' "

Can they? I hesitate again. To accept fully the notion that a boy is born a Guy would be to say that every man is the same, that there are no Einsteins, only Neil Armstrongs; no Michelangelos, only Don Johnsons; no XY, only Y.

But then, how do you explain the crashing? The need to be king of the hill? The 3-year-old urge to turn anything, even a piece of Play-Doh, into a weapon?

In other people, like brothers, friends or husbands, the guy impulse can be quaint, interesting, confounding. But somehow in a son--if you're the mother--it's big, it's slightly scary, it's thoroughly unfathomable. You want to channel it, change it, temper it, make it safer, make it go away.

A 3-year-old watching TV bowling? Fine. It's the 16-year-old in the Pontiac Trans Am that worries me.

Indeed, in our most hopeful maternal fantasies, the guy impulse will make our sons strong, fearless, ready to lead, to go into the woods or world Davy Crockett-like, to live in perfect harmony, even in the face of danger.

But in our most fearsome, it drives them. Wild. Down the highway. Behind the wheel of the Guy Car. Their buddies chant, "Yeah! Faster!!" as they head someplace vague but powerful, an ethos more than a destination: Ugh! ... We go out ... drink lots of beer ... go in woods ... rip fishhooks out of thumb ... do damage to rival fraternity

What am I saying?

Am I merely a raving lunatic with an inordinate fear of powerful engines? I ask some male friends about Guy Stuff. They know exactly what I'm talking about. "A given about Guy Stuff," says one father: "When it's frustrated, that's when it becomes hostile."

Just what I was afraid of.

Expert opinions from the annals of anthropology, psychiatry, endocrinology and neuroanatomy offer polysyllabic confirmation.

The mytho-anthropological theorists say it's partly a fractured legacy from eons ago, when tribal men would wrest boys from mothers, take then to the woods and teach them the secrets of hunterguy-hood. The problem: These days there is no year in the woods, there are no hunterguys, but the guys are still primed to go.

Neuroscience adds this: Males and females have different hormonal make-ups and even slightly different brain structures, and those differences tend to drive certain behavioral tendencies--like the crashing impulse--and even certain cognitive tendencies, like visuospatial ability (in males) and verbal fluency (in females).

Behaviorists say that to deny those currents or pretend they're not there is to invite the very danger that daunted you in the first place.

"We've tended to confuse equality with sameness," says Jeanne Elium, co-author, with her family counselor husband, Don, of "Raising a Son--Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man."

We need to learn to champion what makes us different, Elium says, instead of running from it, instead of insisting that it's no different. Even when it confounds or frightens. Because in truth, the greasy-fingered rim shot across the newly painted kitchen threshold is as creative as a song or a well-turned-out loaf of sourdough.

If there's an answer, that's basically it. It's learning to embrace both the Y as well as the X. Everything. Even Guy Stuff has its place.

Tomorrow, maybe my son can do TV bowling, then rip apart that bad bush in the garden. Then he can smash up firewood and tromp the poison oak at Uncle Denny's farm. Then after he cleans up his mess, we can sit down with "A Child's Garden of Verses."

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