Talking to boys

I think this is probably two posts, muddled and confused and with no hope of ever being extricated into two whole arguments. I spent a time trying to find exactly what I was trying to say in the fuzzy paragraphs and the wreckage of my train of thought, but it’s a rock on my chest now and I just want to push it off and get on with something else.

In the middle of an opening scene in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, my girlfriend turned to me with a concerned look. Four boys on screen ran happily through the streets of Berlin making “chakkachakka” noises, arms spread wide like Messerschmitt fighter pilots strafing pedestrians.

“Does every boy have to play at war?”

Probably, yes. When I was growing up I didn’t have any toy guns. My parents even went to the length of converting a tank I’d been given into a frontline ambulance by taking off the turret and painting a red cross on the side. Meanwhile I went on happily making gun shapes out of slices of white bread. Eventually they gave in to what seemed inevitable.

And yet. After the film we watched a programme from the series The Ascent of Man, a 1970s documentary written and presented by the incredible Dr Jacob Bronowski. Discussing horses as being the first engines of war, Bronowski cuts down the idea that war is innate in man.

…War, organised war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and co-operative form of theft. And that form of theft began ten thousand years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus, and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide.

Bronowski also argues against man needing, like animals, to kill in order to live or defend territory and home. But inside every single boy, and so every man, there is an innate force which confuses and conflicts with everything society says is right or good.

The comedian Richard Herring often mentions the ‘mad thoughts’ he has. Peter Baynham, who coined the phrase, had a section in the first Fist of Fun book (from Herring’s TV series) exploring these thoughts – from throwing hot tea in an old man’s face to kissing tramps – and their consequences.

We all, I think, have a fear that we’re the only ones experiencing these crazy leaps of imagination in our heads. But, obviously, it’s something that is shared by at least the majority of men, and quite likely is an overall human experience. Just as playing war is something all boys seem to want to do.

In my own head I often have these flashes of absurd atrocity, or urges to act in exact opposite to the ‘rules’ of society or culture, from punching random passersby to taking a bowel movement in the middle of a lecture. Thinking about it now, it’s not so different to the vertigo feeling I get on a high cliff edge which urge me to leap to a messy end.

Someone I knew as a student told us about a friend who’d had a head injury which he’d recovered from almost entirely, except for a awkward tendency to suddenly masturbate in public. This poor guy would appear to have been broken in exactly the place that stops us acting on our mad thoughts, and so there was no barrier to prevent his crazy urges seeping into real life.

As kids growing up we come in direct contact with the daily rules or rituals of our civilised lives. Don’t drop litter, no spitting, stay off the grass, keep your music down, don’t be rude, fork in the left hand, violence is bad. But we’re also surrounded by these rules being broken, from subversive culture to aggressive behaviour and right back to adults (authority figures) striding off to shoot rifles, drop bombs and strafe the enemy from the cockpit of a Messerschmitt.

It’s no wonder that popular heroes often stand against the status quo, or battle impossible odds – they symbolise our own struggles with something that we can’t overcome or resolve individually. Their struggles resonate with our own and can inspire action that, trapped in our own frustrations, we couldn’t hope to achieve. People can be catalysts for revolution, but it’s only the mob that makes the rally a force to be reckoned with.

Honestly, I’m not sure where this is going. My own theories about what lies beneath our consciousness or our awareness (because they may not be the same thing) are changing even as I think about what I’m writing now. But it’s clear that the boyish urge to replicate war or weaponry is a form of expression that’s unavoidable. Somehow boys innately grasp the power of the Messerschmitt, and by imitating it they inherit some of the power themselves, which is exhilarating.

As boys grow up, they stop making guns from slices of bread and running around with their arms spread making machinegun noises. These actions become mad thoughts themselves, although on a significantly different level to the insane impulse to stab the person opposite you on a train in the eye with your pencil.

Because there are different levels. A mad thought is only an extreme example of a compulsion to do something we know is wrong or inappropriate. I stole books as a teenager, and experienced a phenomenal thrill when I stole and got away with it. It gave me power. I still have moments where I’m aware I could easily get away with stealing something, but I don’t because I’d rather not go down that route.

Similarly, when someone annoys me or is difficult I sometimes just want to bellow in their face or perhaps punch them until they understand, or just shut up. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a good thing to do, so I don’t act on the impulse. I can gain a little relief from the mad thought, or the temptation, but I know what is right.

Of course this isn’t the case for everyone. And this is why I think it’s crucial that when you talk to a boy you do so with an understanding of your own mad thoughts, and in a way that might help them come to terms with their own mad thoughts. Because they are a form of relief and a source of inner power, just like the pretend Messerschmitt.

For me what’s important is for boys to know that having bad thoughts or bad urges doesn’t mean that they are bad themselves. Children always want to ask why. If you yell at a boy because they hit someone else but don’t explain why it’s a bad thing to do that, the boy will try to answer the question on his own. And if they continue to have this urge to hit someone, or to express themselves in a way which is always defined as ‘bad’, then it’s safe to assume they will begin to see themselves as bad.

The thought was theirs, so the bad must be theirs too. And so everything they do must be bad. And so, eventually, telling a boy that something is bad or that they shouldn’t do it – without helping them understand why – has zero effect because they don’t separate what they do from who they are. They hit people because they are bad, and it’s impossible to change that.

This is maybe a slightly tortured line of logic, but the heart of the problem is that answering ‘why’ something is bad is difficult. Because it generally has to do with assumed or half-understood rules or regulations, or is on the face of it totally obvious (and so difficult to explain) or relies on feeling and being aware of consequences. And if the person doing the telling off hasn’t reached the understanding of the consequences of their own actions, what hope does the boy have?

Talking to boys requires patience and understanding, both of the boy and of yourself. Repeatedly stressing that the consequences of an action are the reason for the action being ‘bad’ (“It hurt them”, “It made them cry”, “It upset them”, etc) ought to help separate the action from the person doing the action – and so instilling an awareness of responsiblity for the action.

Getting a boy to the stage where they understand that the actions they take are their own responsibility (they are only bad because they hit someone, not that they hit someone because they are bad) leads naturally onto the stage of understanding that we all have a choice over the action we take, and therefore of our own nature, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

So what does all this have to do with whether all boys have to play at war?

Assume we all have mad thoughts. Assume these mad thoughts come from an understanding of consequences, and of the choices we have available to us at any one time. Assume that this is why more of us don’t self-pleasure in Tescos or defecate on our office desks. These consequences are easily understood, and the choices easily made.

But we all have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thoughts. We could all steal if we chose to, or punch and assault. The majority of us don’t because we have at least some understanding of the consequences – even though they might be more along the lines of “I might get hurt/caught” than “I might hurt someone else”.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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