Boys with sticks

Boys with sticks September 5, 2015

boy with sword 2

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

In this short piece in The Globe and Mail, this mom’s friends need someone to tell them what our friends realized: Hey, it’s okay if your boy wants to swing sticks around. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, or that he’ll inevitably grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath or a steroid-fueled abuser. There is a place for fighting boys in the world, if we let there be a place.

She says:

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.

Before you lambast for not valuing her son, read on. It’s clear that she loves and enjoys her boy, and gives him reasonable rules: he wants to swing a stick? She tells him, “Be careful,” and leaves it at that. She says,

 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.

But what is she supposed to do when her boy comes into contact with other boys, who are repeatedly told, “Put the stick down”?  She notes:

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?

Yes, we are, and it’s making a mess of the world. It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

Boys playing with sticks is not a meaningless game. It’s something that little boys absolutely must be allowed to do, if that’s how they want to play. A boy who wants to pick up a stick needs to know that he can, and he may, and that his affinity for sticks is not a bad thing. He needs to know that a stick is a powerful thing, and that the world needs men who know how to use their sticks.

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness. Boys who are not allowed to whack and be whacked with sticks never learn what fighting is like. What’s so bad about that? Well, they may end up hitting someone weak, with no idea how much it hurts to be hit. Or they may end up standing by while the strong go after the weak — and have no idea that it’s their job to put a stop to it.

Either way, the weak suffer. The whole world suffers.

Boys aren’t a problem to be fixed. Parent should correct the little details when the way they play really hurts someone else, but we should let the main energy of our children go the way it wants to go. If that means finding shapes in clouds or writing stories, that’s fine. Don’t push our sons to be fighters if they doesn’t naturally run that way.

But if they naturally want to turn everything they touch into a weapon, then that’s fine, too — as long as they know there are rules.  If your boys wants weapons, then keep weapons in your house. Make a place for them. Give your boys permission to be who they are, and encourage whatever good impulses you see in them.

And give other parents permission to let their kids be kids, too. Some parents aren’t hearing it from anyone else. If your house is the place where their son first lays hand on a sword, don’t apologize! But let him know that swords come with rules. Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules. But it’s become impossible to talk about that kind of boyhood, without being accused of trying to turn boys into one extreme or the other. When I say that my son carefully carried around caterpillars when he was a toddler, I hear that I have a secret desire to castrate men. When I say that my husband protects our family, I hear that I’m perpetuating rape culture and the myth of female victimhood. When I say that there is a difference between men and women, I hear that I am the problem – I’m the reason there’s violence and unhappiness in the world – I’m the reason we can’t all just get along. I hear that if only we would all agree to put the stick down, we’d be fine.

Yes, well. When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away. They’ll know because we let them have sticks, we let them find out what sticks can do, and we told them what sticks are for.

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.


photo credit: Warrior via photopin (license)

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  • Jenny Cook

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This just is so sensible…and so encouraging. I, too, have two wild things in my house (AKA sons). My daughter is a pleasing balance of “girly-girl” and “tomboy,” thanks in no small part to playing with her little brothers in their pirate/bad guy/fierce animal games. And my wildest one, my 3 year old son, can play for long stretches of time with complete and mystifying docility as his sister includes him in imagination games. Of course, he prefers to play the wicked stepmother or the fairy godmother with a wand used not for magic but to take names and kick wicked stepsister a**. It works for me! But as has been pointed out, it brings out a lot of hairy eyeballs…you know, the kind that might get poked out if sticks are present.

  • Catherine Lorio

    This hits right at home as the mother of 3 grown boys who loved their swords, guns, pirates, cowboys, etc. And then a little sister came along, and watching them tenderly play with her then and now protectively watch over her as she prepares for the dating world and soon enough college, is a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I lived this daily and treasure it now and hope other mothers of boys will do the same. In the end, if they grow up respecting and protecting women, children, the underdogs and all men, then we will have successfully done our jobs.

    • Larry J

      You’re doing it right. Remember, the mission of parents isn’t to raise children. The mission is to help children grow into good adults. Your sons are growing into men and I’m optimistic that your daughter will grow up to be a good woman who understands and appreciates men. Well done.

  • jrb16915

    One of the best articles I have read on Patheos. Thank you.

  • kiwords

    An interesting (at least to me) mirror point is that girls are not expected to be gentle. Everyone describes their daughters as wild and fierce. After years of having only sons, and feeling defensive of their right to be wild, I find myself the mother of a gentle girl, and people want her to embrace some noisy “grrl power” shtick that’s just not her. Yes, she likes to run and climb, but if you yell at her she will cry.

    • Ygritte Snow

      strength comes in many different ways.

      • Simba

        In this case, no. We are talking about the Masculine measure for strenght, not the girly one.

  • Amen! As a former Green Beret, I wholeheartedly agree. I played with sticks as a child, and I still do. My passion for fighting and warfare has shaped who I am and continues to do so. I find myself trapped in the dilemma, that false either-or dichotomy that you talk about. I will go one step further and say that, for the most part, the world has no place for men who like sticks, except in the military, which is why I gravitated to Special Forces. But Special Forces has very little room for men who love babies and poetry and philosophy, so I became a civilian again. I end up feeling that to pursue a real, broad, full-spectrum masculinity is to be perpetually out of place, jarringly incongruous with your surroundings. Sorting out that balance of extremes that is real manhood, and integrating it into society without quenching smoldering wicks or snapping bruised reeds is one of my obsessions.

    Great post, and great parenting. Keep letting your boys play with sticks. When I am too old and dead to fight bad guys anymore, I want to know I leave someone standing in the breach behind me.

    • Cordelia

      Amen to you, too!

    • Uncle Ali

      “I end up feeling that to pursue a real, broad, full-spectrum masculinity is to be perpetually out of place”

      This is profound. Thank you for sharing.

    • It was a great article, but this post is even better!

    • Bob

      It’s certainly not going to work with everyone you meet in these guy environments but I just stick with what I enjoy whether its jazz or that I liked to read fantasy. Most of the time after enduring abuse these same guys would want to know about it. And yeah I helped my sister with her boys playing with guns or sticks. Simcha has it right, I told her they will end up finding a way to let this out of themselves. This is boy play, as a kid we would use crab apples and walnuts as grenades and tree limbs off of the ground as guns. They will find a way. It’s just normal play.

    • Sue Healy Jensen

      You should know, there have always been men like you, and there should be a place to express it in our culture. My grandfather was in Merell’s Mauraders (I probably just murdered the spelling of that) in WW2, and he had a copy of Rudyard Kipling poetry with him the entire time.

  • Sarah McCabe

    What I really hate is the idea that children are either kind and gentle, or they are violent and wild. I only have 5 kids and the oldest is only 12, but every single one of them has times when then are sweet and gentle and times when they are running wild. My 8 year-old son is our most wild kid and loves nothing so much as fighting games, and yet he is often also our most sweet and sensitive child. And when all the kids are playing with our myriad weapons, he is the one who is least likely to hurt the other kids because he practices. He practices how to stand and how to swing and so he has the best control over them. Sure, he has temper tantrums, what kid doesn’t? But the times when he has lashed out violently in anger I could count on one hand.

  • Cordelia

    Thanks for this, Simcha. And don’t really know how to say this without it sounding kinda sappy, but…thanks for the sons and daughters you and your husband are giving the world.

  • KarenJo12

    It isn’t that boys play with toy swords that’s the problem. It’s that the people encouraging boys to play with toy swords forbid the boys from playing with dolls, and forbid their daughters from playing with those same swords. When you say your husband is your family’s protector, you imply that you can’t protect them. That your daughters need to find A Big Strong Male or they’ll die.

    My sons played with toy swords, and in fact still do sometimes, and they’re teenagers. They also played with Playmobile historical characters, LEGO’s, and every Star Wars toy produced between 1999 and 2011. At the same time, they have learned to cook quite well, garden, sew, and a little woodworking. They read books with both male and female protagonists. They are, quite specifically and deliberately feminists.

    Whatever differences in thought processes that there are between men and women can be exaggerated or diminished. The doctrines of the Catholic church exaggerate those differences and do so to the detriment of women, who are required to be subordinate to males, regardless of the woman’s abilities or capacities. It is that exaggeration and near-worship of those differences that I object to so strongly.

    • Rob B.

      Please read and digest the Catechism of the Catholic Church before you comment on what Catholics like myself believe.

    • I’m not Catholic (but am very strongly conservative Christian), but you seem to have inferred a lot more than the author was writing, and imparted your own anti-Catholic bent to it.

      I am my family’s protector. That in no way should be read to say that my wife is incapable of protecting herself or our children (quite the contrary, she is well-skilled in hand-to-hand combat and shoots as well as I do), but rather to acknowledge the fact that she faces a marked disadvantage against larger, stronger assailants; the fact that as good as she is, I am better trained and more practiced at it; and the fact that as the natural nurturer she should not be the “front line” of the defense of our family.

      We face the facts in our family.

      If you want to see doctrines of faith that truly emphasize gender differences to the detriment of women, check out Islam. Don’t waste your time or energy railing against what you perceive as time-worn and archaic traditions when there is real evil in the world to fight.

  • pete


    “It’s that the people encouraging boys to play with toy swords forbid the boys from playing with dolls, and forbid their daughters from playing with those same swords.

    Wow. So much bias and stereoptyping in those few lines. My eldest boy was quite into dolls, dialogue based playacting, and whatnot. The youngest runs around with a stick making lightsaber noises. My daughter does both (and knew how to do a rear-naked choke (martial arts move) by the time she was 6. We (like most of the folks we know) were cool with all those things. We just didn’t try to force them into a mold that didn’t fit their predispositions.

    “When you say your husband is your family’s protector, you imply that you can’t protect them. That your daughters need to find A Big Strong Male or they’ll die.When you say your husband is your family’s protector, you imply that you can’t protect them.”

    When reading, it’s usually good to read things while trying to understand what’s called “authorial intent” rather than reading your own biases into it.

    I’m not seeing where she implied that her saying her husband is the protector me implies that she is incapable of protecting herself. It sounds more like you INFERRED it. My wife can change a tire. I end up doing pretty much all the tire changing in our house because I’m better at it. I’m a pretty good cook, but she’s a GREAT one, and enjoys it much more than I do. So saying I’m the tire changer and she’s the cook in no way implies that the other is incapable of doing the job.It could simply mean that the other party has a comparative advantage, and it makes sense to specialize. Reading it your way might say more about your unique experiences than about what the author meant.

    • Sarah McCabe

      I agree. My oldest is a girl and the very first toy swords in the house were for her. To this day she has no really girly interests. Right now my 4 year old boy is going through a phase of interest in babies because my brother has been expecting a new baby girl. So grandma gave him a baby doll and a bottle and he’s been taking care of her very attentively for a few weeks. He named her Baby Bonnie.

      But my second daughter is ALL girl. She likes to dress up and be the princess. She likes pink and sparkles. She’s got 3 brothers and is surrounded by all sorts of non-girly stuff, but this is just who she is and what she likes. It makes NO SENSE to deny her the things she shows a natural inclination toward or t try to force on her the things that she doesn’t like.

      My goal has always been to help my children explore the things that they are naturally interested in. Sometimes that means helping one son feed and put his baby doll to sleep and then acting like a monster for my other son to valiantly slay so he can “save the city”.

    • KarenJo12

      I’m glad your family is like that. Your kids are lucky and you and your wife are doing things correctly. For what it’s worth, I cook because I like and my husband takes care of the cars because I think cars are products of vindictive and evil wizards.

      That said, you have to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people who talk about the importance of gender roles want to enforce traditional ones.

      • Robin Munn

        … the overwhelming majority of people who talk about the importance of gender roles want to enforce traditional ones.

        If you had said “want traditional ones”, I would have entirely agreed with you. But as far as wanting to enforce traditional ones… no. You’re going to have to cite evidence for that, and you’re going to have trouble finding it, because it’s just not there on any large scale. A few people arguing for traditional gender roles do want to enforce them on others against those others’ will, but the “overwhelming majority” are people like me, who just want people to stop attacking the traditional gender roles. When a woman who wants to be a stay-at-home mom and homemaker doesn’t hear from any of her friends about how she’s “letting down the feminist movement” or any such nonsense, we’ll be happy.

        Edit: Except for in the Muslim world. There, yes, I’ll agree with you that the overwhelming majority want to enforce traditional gender roles, and are willing to use violence to that end. (Honor killings, FGM, and so on.) But in the Christian world, no, the desire to enforce traditional gender roles isn’t even widespread, let alone an “overwhelming majority”.

        • KarenJo12

          Can you show a specific instance of a public figure recetnly attacking women for being SAHM’s? To clarify, I define “attack” as condeming any woman who does this. Noting that society makes it very difficult for women to perform in the workplace and that the effects of most women having to choose between jobs and kids are entirely harmful is not attacking.

      • haggis95

        Sometimes roles are traditional because they are natural, not because they are enforced by society.

        • KarenJo12

          If those roles were perfectly natural then there would be no need to enforce them. However, I see thousands of examples of enforcement of gender roles — see the recent right-wing freak out over Target removing gender labels from its toy aisle. See also the right wing reaction to absolutely anything a female Dwmocrat ever does, and see how much right-wing language shames men for failing to be macho.

          • haggis95

            People freak out all the time. Something which is natural is still natural. We gave gender neutral toys to my daughter, but she was not happy until someone gave her a girly birthday present against our wishes, and then I realized she naturally wants to play with girly stuff.

  • Susannah Warner Kipke

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. When I was a kid, there was a boy in my homeschool group who was an unmitigated bully. He picked on everybody, but seemed to specially target me. He would throw things at me (usually rocks, but once an arrow that grazed my leg and drew some blood). Once, he intentionally knocked me out during a game of capture the flag. He would also call me names – fat, ugly, stupid. His mother never made a move to stop him, nor did any of the other moms. My mom usually wasn’t around when he was pulling his stunts, and for some reason I never really told her how bad it was. When I was about 14, we were at a homeschool conference and this boy was picking on some of the little kids. He knocked one little girl over and she hit her face on the gym floor. I snapped I went and found a board in a supply closet and hit him with it. Not very hard, and I don’t think it hurt him very much, but it made my point. That moment of fighting back changed my life. I didn’t feel scared of him anymore, and I have never since been scared of any bully or really most things. I do think his mom should have controlled him better, but count me among those who believe kids should be left to figure out violence on their own. (I did not get in trouble for hitting him, by the way. All the other kids were too shocked to tell on me, he was too embarassed, and when I told my mom, she just said “well, good for you.”)

    • Anna

      See, now your conclusion, that “kids should be left to figure out violence on their own,” I disagree with, though I agree that your solution to the bully was a good one. But in this case, the moms were the powerful ones and should have stepped in to protect the weaker ones instead of standing back to, who knows, let the kids fight it out, not offend the mom of the bully, not bother sorting things out during their social time. I thought that was Simcha’s point: that power should be used to defend the defenseless, not just to swing aimlessly. What the adults were teaching in your example was that if you don’t want to get involved, don’t, even if that means a powerless person will get hurt by a bully. And that’s the opposite of what we want our boys (or girls) with sticks to learn.

      • Susannah Warner Kipke

        Well, that’s true. I really did feel kind of betrayed by the moms who wouldn’t stick up for me.

    • datch

      ….and all the children who were hurt by him that, for whatever reason (there are many reasons) did not have either the courage or the opportunity to fight back?

  • I am reminded of the classic Saki story, “The Toys of Peace.”

  • Megan Barney

    Infants of either gender strike out of frustration and anger, no one taught them to do it. It’s an innate reaction. For older infants and toddlers, getting a reaction out of hitting someone/something becomes a source of feeling in control of a situation, also inherent and not taught. What we need to do is teach that hitting will hurt, and should not be done for selfish reasons. Then we need to teach *when* and *how* it is okay or appropriate to hit (self defense, within the pre-agreed-upon rules of a sport, game or hobby) so they can be informed and mindful of what they are doing.

  • Michael Eric Berube

    This is really well written. I think that there is a great need for boys who are so inclined to be nurtured by well adjusted men (preferably) in the responsible ways to handle violence and aggression as a part of their coming of age, but I’d extend everything in this article to grrrls who may feel the call to random bursts of energy with sticks as well. Women in society need to be prepared to do deal with cruel undue violence when they experience it as well as any man does as a condition of being a self responsible adult. Expecting girls to just rely on boys to fend off the brutes (last sentence in the article) is doing both the girls and the boys a great disservice.

    • Well…in the Bible, Jethro had seven daughters. When all seven of these girls went to the well together, a gang of boys harassed them. (How old the girls were, how many boys there were, or whether the harassment was sexual or based on gender prejudice or a family feud, is not recorded.) Moses took the girls’ side; the boys left them alone, and later Moses married one of those girls.

    • Alan

      All a matter of time, opportunity, and risk. If there is no time to get help, or there is no opportunity to get help, the weakest and least trained person should still be prepared to defend him/herself.
      If there is excessive risk of being severely harmed in self-defense but there is an opportunity to get help and the time for it can be made (e.g. by running, barricading, etc.), by all means don’t insist on trying to do it all by yourself!
      It’s NOT a matter of “Girl Power” vs. “Seek a protector”, it’s a matter of good judgement in the circumstances, and doing what you can.

    • KarenJo12

      You phrased it better than I did. Ms. Fischer teaches in this article, probably unintentionally, that women are objects that men act upon, either by threatening or protecting. Catholic doctrine supports her position, that men act and women should passively twiddle our thumbs until men act. The effects in the real world of teaching half the human race to passively sit and wait to react to the other half are entirely terrible.

      • simchafisher

        Nope. You may be hearing that, but I’m not saying it. I’m talking about boys with sticks because it’s currently fashionable to tell boys to put sticks down, and it’s currently fashionable to cheer on girls with sticks — so I didn’t feel any particular need *in this post* (which is one of hundreds that I’ve written about boys, girls, gender roles, etc.) to make a big deal about girls being strong and independent.

        I used the example of the girl passed out at the frat house, and no boy coming forward to defend her, because *that is a thing that happened.* If anyone had told those boys that they ought to defend weak people (and that would include a boy in trouble, mind you), then there would have been no story. instead, we had a news story about a girl who was a victim, boys who were beasts, and other boys who passively stood by and refused to defend the victim.

        Can you quote some document or authoritative teaching from the Church that says that women are objects that men act upon? I’ve been a Catholic for many decades and have never seen such a thing.

      • simchafisher

        And my boys play with dolls, and my girls play with swords, as I’ve said many times in the past, and also in this actual post.

        As for the claim that I’m secretly promoting the idea that women are weak and stupid and passive: you remind me a bit of my kids. I tell one of them, “You did a great job sweeping the dining room,” and another one says, “HEY! I do a good job, too!” Yes, you did, but we’re not talking about you right now. Just because I say “X is true” doesn’t mean that I believe Y is false.

        You’re thinking in stereotypes, and it’s tiresome.

  • fireoasis

    I think the main point and most important of this post is that we should allow children to be -anything- they wish to be. Let boys play with those sticks, but also let the girls. Let girls play with baby dolls or let your boy. Raising your children is about teaching them about -everything-. They don’t know that picking up that stick is a weapon until we tell them. To them it is just a fun stick that they wack stuff with because it is fun. It is our job to teach them that you shouldn’t hit people, or animals. It is our job to teach them when it IS okay to hit. It is also our job to teach them when it is okay to hug and cry and everything in between. It is okay to play that video game, but acknowledge the difference between real life and a ‘game’. As parents we have become so worried about what others will think of what we are doing that we are doing either nothing, or FAR to much. Moderation is the key in almost all things. Be brave, but don’t be a bully, be strong, but not so strong that you can’t have feelings, be sensitive without breaking into tears at every little thing. Moderation and education.

  • Robbins Mitchell

    Well,when I was 5….early 50’s…I played WW2 with one of my mother’s round bottom aluminum kitchen mixing bowls for an Army helmet and a glazing putty gun for my “Tommy gun”…of course my budding career as a war hero was helped along by generous doses of war themed comic books of the “Sgt Rock and the combat happy Joes of Easy Company”…”Combat Casey” and “Sgt Nick Fury”…good times,good times

  • jtsharpe

    I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said that the purpose of telling children about dragons is not to tell them dragons are real, but that they can be fought. And the dragons of children are often fought with sticks.

    • Rob B.

      Yup, that was Chesterton alright… 🙂

  • Henry Chapman

    “These are Sparta’s walls.” — Pointing at his men, King Agesilaus gave this in answer to the question why Sparta had no fortifications.

    There are three kinds of people in this world — wolves, sheep and sheepdogs.

    You’re allowing your son the possibility of being a sheepdog for himself, his family, his community, and his nation. Well done.

  • John F. MacMichael

    This is an excellent essay. For those who are interested in further exploring this topic, I would recommend the book “Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Beiieve Violence” by Gerard Jones, Basic Books, 2002.

  • docmcbride

    When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    • One of my favorite poems of all time!

      For other readers: The Gods of the Copybook Headings, by Rudyard Kipling.

      I for one wish copybooks were still in use to teach penmanship and spelling (and impart wisdom in the form of short proverbs, since no one seems to study the Book of Proverbs anymore)….

  • Cannoneer No. 4

    Pugil sticks. Foam Rubber. Rolls and rolls of 100 mph tape. A yard for gladitorial combat. First aid if somebody bleeds. Better for them than video games.

    • Alan

      Good. Even better: at some point find them a martial-arts group that trains kids. I’m thinking of local SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) groups, which typically revolve around both adult medieval-style combat with safe weapons and armor and arts-&-sciences study and recreation.

      Some of them have fair to excellent Youth Armored Combat training, with age-appropriate levels – excellent way for kids to learn how to use weapons with skill & coordination, within rules, with concern for what’s actually happening with your opponent, and best of all, to learn to have confidence in what you know how to do.

      I suspect there are other groups that do the same, or similar.

      • John F. MacMichael

        Both are very good ideas. Another option, if you can find a good fencing school in your area, have him take a beginning saber class. And fencing is a combat sport that is very open to girls and young women as well.

        • Cannoneer No. 4

          Kendo, self-taught from a book, with home-crafted bokken fashioned from dead fall tree limbs and home-made or re-purposed helmets and pads. Point them toward accounts of Musashi vs. Kojiro. Give them ideas and access to tools and let them see for themselves what they can come up with. The less cash money out of Daddy’s pocket, the greater their accomplishment.


    Wait. Do you mean to say that boys and girls are different?

    Quelle surprise!

    • Alan

      On average, yes. Individually – “there are exceptions to every rule, including this one”.


    One more: our middle child was literally a blanket-over-the-arm, thumb-in-mouth, OTHER-arm-around-Mom’s-leg toddler, a funny, smart, sensitive teenager, and then joined the Marines. So you never know.

  • InklingBooks

    An excellent article and one that reminds me of something that haunts me.

    When that lone killer on the Norwegian island was systematically killing, why didn’t some of the 100+ young men there take him on. If five or six rushed him at once, he could shoot every one of them.

    Do the Norwegians en masse teach their young sons that sticks, stones, and other weapons are icky poo and never to be used? Apparently.

    • KP

      Reminds me of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal.

      In the classroom where Gharbi (I will not use his assumed French Canadian name) began his atrocity, he separated out the 9 female students from the 50 men. FIFTY!!! He then ordered the men to leave the room, and they all did.

  • O Manning

    As a combat arms soldier, and war veteran, I convinced my wife on the birth of my first son that I didn’t want my boys playing with toys I related to my trade. I fully intended to teach them about all aspects of guns…I just didn’t want them playing with them.

    When my second son was about three years old, we bought the four-year old a huge assortment of Lego. What was the (literally) the first thing made with them? Two “machineguns”, with which the boys were immediately running around the house, taking cover behind furniture, and making “pew-pew” noises at each other.

    All my sons are adults now. All are college educated. None elected to enter the military. They’re great kids…and fantastic young men. I’m grateful they taught me that lesson while they were young.

    • KarenJo12

      We made a rule of “no realistic-looking toy guns” because we have real guns and wanted to make sure there was never any confusion. We did, however, have an entire movie set of laser blasters, lightsabers, and several Old West cowboy six-shooters. The best one was the Playmobil Roman ballista.

      And our sons made guns out of LEGO.

      • BHG

        Mine chewed his bread into a gun shape….I capitulated.

        • Greg Wolkins

          My parents would not allow toy guns in our house and (I am told) I did the same thing to a piece of toast. They relented, and I have yet to shoot any actual living creature.

          • Rob B.

            There’s a park near my home with a de-commissioned artillery piece. One day, my eldest son climbed on it and yelled “Fire in the hole!” at the top of his little lungs. It was then that I realized that we had been watching MythBusters just a bit too much… 🙂

          • Greg Wolkins

            for science!

          • Vicki Wolkins

            It’s true. I remember it well.

    • datch

      Allowing children to “make guns” out of other things (legos can make a lot of things) and giving children toy guns that can serve no function other than one are entirely different things.

  • Joy Schoenberger

    We instituted the “Sword Rule” in our house, which goes like this: “If you are holding a sword in your hand, you can be wacked by someone else holding a sword, and you are not allowed to complain to mom or dad.”

    And that’s it. I never had to specify where you could hit or how hard. That one simple rule forced them to negotiate all their own rules with each other, like “I’ll only play swords with you if you don’t hit me in the head.”

    If our son got too aggressive with his sister, she’d just drop her sword, and he’d be left without a fellow sword-fighting playmate. He quickly learned just how much she would tolerate.
    And if he really wanted to go to town, there were plenty of trees in the backyard that he could bash as hard as he liked.

    • That’s too great. Love it.

    • Em

      I am literally copy-pasting this into an e-mail to myself so we can institute this rule.

    • JoAnn

      Oh my goodness, that is such an awesome rule!

  • LizardLizard

    Ah, sanity, so refreshing. Bad things happen when a culture tries to fight against the hard unchanging rock of human nature.

  • Tyrone Slothrop

    Thank you.

  • Alan

    And so your boys will have the skills to go with their instincts, so their desire to use sticks to protect the weak doesn’t immediately lead to a beat-down by experienced thugs, give your stick-wielding boys a chance at some form(s) of martial art training. Again – not to become swaggering brutes, but to know control and proportionality, when stay out of someone else’s fight and when to wade in, and how to win if they do.

  • kzintius

    “Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.”
    Perfect and powerful ending.

  • afp

    I was a girl with a stick. Still am.

  • Elmar17

    The people who yell at you and assign the world’s problems with you allowing your son to explore his nurturing side with the caterpillar and his violent side with the sticks are idiots and they should be ignored. So long as he is fighting the ‘bad guys’ he is in the role of defender and protector and that is the proper place for violence.

  • Cosmo

    I spent years trying to get my young son to put down sticks. He always hitting things with them. I lost that battle. By the time he was 16, he was the drummer for two bands that would play in the local bars.

  • Michael Spagnuolo

    Many Years ago a couple can over w/their 2 kids (boy & girl). Their kids disappeared w/our 2 kids (boy & girl) & a few minutes later can running back w/some of our kids’ toy weapons & their oldiest, their girl, said “We want to play war” while holding up a toy sword. My Ex & I offered to put the “war weapons” away but the Mom said to the kids “OK, just this once”. The dad seemed to along w/this but later I heard he had a big problem w/it. Their girl & our son were friends & would still have play time but the whole family never back…
    I currently take self defense class with my daughter & next week we’ll return to a
    Krav Maga martial arts class. I’ve also taken my daughter to classes given by the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study & Self Defense (e.g., self-defense for women; Self-defense, Knife fighting) and I’ve arranged for private self-defense lesson for her. All but two of her instructors have been women, & most of my instructors & many of my fellow students and sparring partners in my Sword group are female.

  • AnonymouseIsAWoman

    Amen. And as a little girl I loved my toy weapons. We need to let people be whole individuals instead of raising people who know only how to be victims. I once asked a young man who was a self-declared pacifist as to how he would deal with a Hitler – and he said he would protest. And when I mentioned that those who did such things died in concentration camps or Gestapo prisons, he said his death would shame his killers. When I pointed out that they had NO shame, he said to die was better than to “sink to their level” and engage in violence.

    I tremble for the future.

    • Rob B.

      And this is why the Church has a “just war doctrine.” Even Christ pulled out a whip and beat the moneychangers out of the Temple…

      • I always liked the thought that, when asking “What Would Jesus Do?”, throwing over tables and beating evil people with a whip wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

        • Rob B.

          Exactly! People need to realize that Christ was not a time-travelling hippy from the Summer of Love.

    • datch

      There are many Jews who tried to fight Hitler as well. They died in concentration camps or Gestapo prisons as well. To use the holocaust as an example of the value of fighting back is a very poor analogy. And ironically, the Jews who are now doing precisely what you advocate…fighting back…are demonized around the world for that choice.

      The practice of non-violence (try Gandhi and MLK, rather than Hitler, for examples) is an effective change agent. It may not be what you choose, but that doesn’t make it invalid.

      • AnonymouseIsAWoman

        Datch: you’re missing the point. Non-violent resistance does not work against a government that has no conscience. Gandhis non-violent resistance did not work in South Africa, and he knew it would not work against Hitler – witness his response to those who wrote him asking for advice.

        MLK is an interesting choice. He began to adopt Gandhi style non-violence due to advice from the nice White folks at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and he sent away his armed bodyguards, the Deacons for Defense at the request of Brother B, a communist party activist. The communists seemed to think that if King were assassinated that this would boost Gus Hall an the rest of his Communist Cronies – possibly even lead to a revolution.

        King died, and the communist revolution didn’t happen,

        • MLK also applied for a pistol carry permit, and was denied (due to racist-origin Jim Crow laws) a week before he was assassinated.

          It’s one thing to preach non-violent protest (as in “non-aggression”). It’s quite another to teach total pacifism and turn yourself into a willing victim. Even Gandhi’s “passive resistance” maintains a definite “resistance”.

  • Yes! I agree with this wholeheartedly. We need to allow our boys to become men and not see maleness as a disorder!

  • Nanci

    As a fencing instructor and mother of two young adult men- both of whom fenced as well as playing with sticks when young, our fencing club’s motto of “honor, chivalry & respect” is something I am grateful to be able to impart on all of our fencers. There is a distinct difference between male and female fencers- just watch any Olympic or World Cup level bout.
    I hope to be able to continue to teach and coach young people helping them to be well rounded adults- while helping them know it’s okay to swing sticks, even if they are fencing swords!

    • Rob B.

      May I ask what differences you see between male and female fencers? I’ve practiced renaissance style fencing and I’ve found that, on average, the female fencers are much more subtle and therefore much more dangerous. 🙂

  • Sharon L. Smatusek Harris

    Someone should keep an eye on what they are doing, however and what they do use those sticks for. I remember seeing a crowd of boys chasing a one-eyed cat and hurling sharpened sticks at it like spears — several hitting their mark. I yelled my head off at them. I draw the line at that.

    • Rob B.

      As well you should. As Ms. Fischer wrote, “Don’t banish fighting, banish cruelty.”

      • Sharon L. Smatusek Harris

        I would add to that, however that the American male’s nearly overwhelming preoccupation with violence, weaponry, and violent sports to the neglect of all other interests including their families gets them what they cannot understand — the dissolution of their families and the neglect of their spouses. If you’re a dad, you’re going to have to sit through a ballet recital without having your phone plugged into your ear listening to the latest game. If you’re a husband, don’t expect that your wife is going to feel any too friendly towards you if you’ve spent the entire weekend playing violent video games and you suddenly feel ike some physical attention. Everything in moderation. What you get, back is directly dependent on what you give. The sense of male entitlement is something that I would rather see disappear than violent play. And more and more women wish the same.

        • Rob B.

          On the other hand, women should not expect men to get all gushy about craft stores, clothes shopping, and rom-coms. Lucky for me, I have a wife who loves action flicks more than I do… 🙂

          • Sharon L. Smatusek Harris

            Agreed. I do my own thing and, being single, that’s OK. But I can’t tell you the amount of men over 50 who expect you to be there 24-7, serve snacks (at your expense), do nothing (not even crocheting for charity) but watch them watch YOUR TV, at YOUR house, on YOUR couch, eating YOUR food and do NOT want ANY compromise at ALL — even to the point of being jealous of your female friends for taking a couple of hours of your time to go watch a rom-com with those girlfriends. What’s the point? These guys are WAY too needy and consider themselves the center of the universe (as they were raised), and the idea of some of these sluggish tons of fun criticizing women for their looks and weight is just the limit of delusion (not mention their universal ability to coach professional sports) — add to that their physical complaints (being glued to the couch and no exercise) and 20+ hours (that’s right — almost a solid day) of sports TV and/or video games and I’m flat out disinterested.

            The problem is — these same men whine about women not wanting to date any more…

  • Rob B.

    I swear, if my younger kids (three sons and one daughter) were dropped in the Sahara Desert, they would each find a stick to play with within about five minutes. 🙂
    Thanks for posting this, Ms. Fischer!

  • Helga Vierich

    I call bullshit.

    Children are great natural imitators, and the stories of our culture are full of men fighting each other with weapons. This does not make combat between men with weapons instinctive or “natural” – it just means that humans have used various kinds of tools for various thing for millions of years. Humans have hands made for tools, including hunting tools that can be lethal to other people. But war came along much later than technology, and it is a cultural invention, not an instinctive inevitability.

    • I respectfully disagree. As a mom of two boys, it has absolutely stunned me the things they seem to be born knowing. I was very VERY anti-gun toys, extremely protective of all media they were exposed to, I promise you they had never seen a gun OR a sword, and one day my 18-month old turned his fingers into a gun and my 1 year old picked up a stick and started “killing the grass”. I learned to accept that as a generalization, boys are often born with those battle instincts, whether we like it or not.

    • I respectfully disagree as well.

      Boys and girls raised in an atmosphere of fairness and justice – due to their gifts of observation and imitation – have a natural aversion to injustice. When they see it, they naturally want to do something about it.

      As you say, humans are tool-users. If a job is difficult, it is our natural instinct to seek some kind of tool to make performing the job easier or more efficient.

      Now combine those two concepts, and you get weapons: tools used to make combating injustice easier, more efficient, and ultimately safer for the proverbial “knight”. It is a perfectly natural progression of two points you yourself made.

      Can weapons be used to kill indiscriminately, as often happens in war? Absolutely. But the best counter to someone who would misuse weapons is someone else who uses them justly, and ideally the latter would be more practiced and better at it than the former.

      As long as there is unjust violence in this world, there is a place for just violence and people who use it. It’s my job as a parent to teach my kids the difference.

  • Liza

    Simcha, your example about the frat-house scenario– so true! (Unfortunately)
    When I met my future husband in freshman year of college, I’ll admit at first I felt a bit uneasy when I heard that target-shooting was one of his big hobbies, and he’d been doing it since his early teens. Having grown up in NYC myself, I kind of thought that the only people who possessed and used guns were criminals. Then my future MIL would tell me stories about his childhood, the way he often got into fistfights (I later found out, though, he only ever hit bullies, who hurt and picked on a few disabled kids at school– he was just defending the kids who weren’t in a position to ward off a bully themselves). But, for awhile at least, I had a hard time reconciling my knowledge of his tendency toward aggression with the fact that this was the same guy who liked to leave saccharine love poems he wrote in my campus mailbox.
    In any case, we were walking on campus one night, and we heard a woman’s voice screaming, “Get off me! Get off me! Help!” Turns out some drunk frat guy had some small girl pinned against the back wall of a campus residential building, trying to force himself on her– but, fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time, because my husband jumped in and beat the sh*t out of the guy until he was totally subdued.
    Needless to say, from that day on I learned to value the fact that my guy was and is a “fighter.” And I even let him teach me how to shoot, for self-defense purposes, so I’m not totally defenseless while I’m home alone all day with the kids. I’ll also admit that our kids and I all sleep well at night, feeling safe and confident that my husband can protect us– something which I never felt as a child, when I lived down the block from drug-dealers, and I and two of my siblings were each mugged once before the age of 18.

  • Phil Ossiferz Stone

    >“If my son wants to (snip) dress up in girls’ clothes, I’m totally fine with that.”

    The hell is wrong with this generation of parents?

    • datch


  • Fourteen

    Girls, by intelligent design, grow into mature women, who give birth to the world, therefore, we are nurturers, by intelligent design. By intelligent design, our reproductive organ, the womb, tells us everything that we “are”, the rest is manufactured by the world and nothing more than a mutation. If a girl studies everything about the womb, it will provide all the instruction needed for her life. Boys, have “the penis”, and by intelligent design, it informs his life and similarly, anything else is but a mutation. Boys should study the function of their penis and it too, like the womb for women, will provide a foundation for him to take direction. The womb and the penis, is a compliment to each other. It’s a gift from our creator. It’s the only union that has the potential to produce life. We find any manner, without good reason, to invade the lives of boys with dolls and to teach him how to cry, not be strong as he is intended and not how to pray, and for this, we are paying the price.



    • Shadowbelle

      By intelligent design, one animal destroys another animal. The second animal dies in pain and terror, and not usually at once.

      The pain and terror are unnecessary because the first group of animals is unnecessary. The designer was either incompetent or cruel.

      This, by the way, has nothing to do with the original post (which I found quite interesting).

      • Fourteen

        Humans are not animals, in the sense you reference. We are not meant to hunt, terrorize and kill our fellow man. God created free humans (not slaves), Adam and Eve, who were never meant to die but have eternal life except that original sin was introduced into the Garden. We are no longer in the Garden and so every animal like, inhumane behavior we display towards each other, for every life that we take, justified are not, we are subject to as a result of original sin. BTW, if you are comparing humans to animals, like a dog or cat, no such likeness exist, accept in your mind. Please let me know when your dog can set up my computer. Forgive me if my assumption is wrong. Also, my post is quite relevant as it speaks to the development of boys, to men.

        If I am to relate to you in purely secular terms, Vitruvian Man is a good start.

        Just in case, I am no fisherman.



        • Shadowbelle

          Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I meant that *my* comment was not related to the original post. My comment was in response to your repetition of “intelligent design”. From the repetition of that phrase, I assumed that you are a believer in intelligent design. If that’s incorrect, then my post is not only unrelated to the original post, it’s also unrelated to your post.

          However, if intelligent design is the basis of your argument, I will bring my post around to be more meaningful as a response, and also back on topic.

          I’m not talking about humans at all. I’m talking about all the other animals. Hence, not related to the original post. I was bringing up a problem with the concept of intelligent design.

          My point is that the focus of intelligent design, when argued, is always on biological structures. It’s never on animal behavior. If the world is designed by an intelligence, then the design isn’t just morphology, it’s behavior. The entire predator-prey relationship is part of the design. This tells me that the designer was either incompetent (couldn’t create a design that did not involve terrible suffering) or cruel (deliberately created a design that involves terrible suffering). Prey animals suffer. The predator-prey relationship is based on suffering. Therefore, I cannot agree with the concept of a designer who is both intelligent and beneficent, because all the evidence in the natural world runs counter to that concept.

          To my mind, that means that any intelligent design in connection with humans must be viewed with suspicion, because the designer cannot be trusted. The male/female designs you describe must be recognized as the creation of an intelligence that is either incompetent or cruel. If incompetent, it would be foolish to try to adhere to the design, and if cruel, it would be immoral.

    • datch

      This is SO disturbing.

  • Bob Miplace

    Sounds like you want men to be meat shields and easy transportation for women.

  • Dave Soleil

    “When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away.” I was interested in your perspectives right up until this quote. It seems that you see power and justice in a romanticized male-dominated view of violence. There is a major difference between the innocent play of children with sticks and the adult-imposed, adult-reinforced paradigms that violence is powerful, heroic, and admirable. You clearly stepped across that line and it negates much of your argument. The danger is not in children playing with sticks. The danger is the parents who buy them guns, who reinforce and support violence, who make excuses that “boys will be boys” and “no blood, no foul” and other quips that are supposed to make our kids “tough.” Our children are surrounded by violence. Here is an article I wrote to demonstrate how our kids learn violence and how we can show them a different path.

    • datch

      Exactly, Dave. If my daughter is the one lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, I hope some REAL man (or woman) will come along and focus on helping her, sitting with her, getting her out of there, getting her medical attention if she needs it, not one whose first thought is to come in ready to “beat off the brutes.”

      • I’d hope that “REAL man (or woman)” would realize he/she has to stop the current threat before risking him- or herself helping the girl on the ground, lest he/she become a second victim who needs helping.

        There’s a reason paramedics won’t enter a crime scene to assist any victims until it’s been cleared by the police (i.e. men/women with guns).

        • datch

          A frat party isn’t a “crime scene”. It’s a bunch of drunken college kids. And there likely wouldn’t be any “threat” to a man on the scene.

    • Dave, your article compares superhero violence with ISIS violence as if they’re the same. They’re not. You’ve missed a key point.

      ISIS violence is brutal and seeks to eradicate populations for what amounts to a difference of opinion. Superhero violence is highly stylized and seeks to stop fictional evil men from doing actual evil things. (Also note that Batman and the Avengers, among others, are also detectives, scientists, inventors, and other assorted geniuses who use their minds just as much as their muscles to fight evil.)

      Or do you believe that because they both use violence, the soldiers fighting against ISIS are just as evil as ISIS?

      We should be teaching our kids that violence isn’t the answer to all (or even most) problems. However, we should teach them other truths, too, like:
      – Violence is not evil in itself, it is a tool that can be used for good or evil; and,
      – Violence is hardly ever the answer, but in the rare case when violence is the answer, it tends to be the only answer; and,
      – Sometimes all your options (including “do nothing”) are bad ones, but you still have to choose and live with the consequences.

      So yes, teach them to seek peace whenever possible. But also teach them to recognize when it’s not possible, and how to respond accordingly.

  • datch

    What a disturbing and intensely sexist article.

    Before you jump all over me, I completely agree that children–boys AND girls…there is NOTHING about boys that make them more inclined toward this sort of play, other than what we teach them “a boy should be”—should be allowed to play with sticks and
    “make guns” out of toys (realistic play machine guns have no place,
    IMO…there are children dying because of those toys.) So yes on that account.

    But sometimes
    an article betrays its positive intentions. I was struggling with the sexism, but doing
    okay, and then I read “When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely
    conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the
    ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the
    brutes away.” If my daughter is ever the one who’s lying barely
    conscious on the front yard of some frat house, I hope for a male (or
    female) student who will check on her, sit with her, call 911 if needed,
    ride with her to the hospital, make sure no one takes advantage of
    her…not someone whose first impulse is to “fight off the brutes”. I
    think we’re missing what a “real man” (or boy) is here.

    Sticks and allowing play fighting–in children of both sexes–is a
    good thing. This particular article clearly has an agenda regarding sex
    roles that goes far beyond that.

  • Karen Doyle Harris

    I have 6 sons and 3 daughters and my husband and I want all of our children to be wild and tough. But they all read classic literature and poetry and the older ones dance, sing, write, etc. We spend a lot of time in the ER because they play sports, climb trees, flip, and do dumb dangerous stunts. My men are fiercely protective of us girls , but the girls are no wimps! I let my crew play with sticks, swords and don’t let people correct them for it. We do support traditional gender roles which is funny to say because I forget that people think it is wrong. Thanks for this post, I appreciate it!

  • Josh Nesbitt

    Extremely well written! Thank you for taking the time to put these thoughts into words!

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Yup. Boys need sticks and toy guns and bows and arrows and spears.

    Most boys you will never turn into a pacifist. It isn’t in our nature. But you can help a boy become a Knight.

  • Jamie Wilson

    And then there’s my fierce little girl, who will play sticks with the best of the boys. Just like her mama used to.

  • NC Alpheratz


  • Jason Shiroi Usagi Stillwagner

    I agree, but I would add that we should have the same rules around weapons for both our boy and girl children. I taught my step daughter archery and stick fighting because she was interested. She even “sword fought” with her step brothers besting them as much as they bested her. Children should be taught to use their tools properly.

  • a s

    I think this author is desperately trying to justify her own position and managed to insult those with wild playful girls who like to jump off things, leap, yell and yes play with sticks. My girl throws rocks and swings sticks in the air but NEVER EVER AT PEOPLE. That is an act of violence. Period. It is not play. We have a rule in our family and in our forest play group no guns or swords. Teaching children the nuances of what is ok violence and not okay violence is not a way to bring peace to their future world.