Invading Male Turf

How can mothers engage with our sons on their male-culture territory, without abandoning our own perspective? It takes determination and creativity, but it can be done.

It's been an on-going challenge figuring out how to relate to boys' play that centers on violent struggles of good versus evil among monstrous-looking action figures. I understand that boys are trying to figure out in their play the messages that they breathe in through the culture about what it means to be a man (just as girls do with appearance/romance play). I know that they can play these games and not turn out to be violent super-macho grown-ups. I know that telling them how disgusting I find the whole scene is not particularly useful to them--and refusing to interact with their play communicates that disgust pretty clearly. So, I work at hanging on to my perspective and keeping my mouth shut. But, what do I do?

The latest form this play has taken with my now nine and twelve year olds is a card game where you collect and trade playing cards depicting an incredible collection of monstrous beings with which to play a strategy game. With the object of destroying the opposing player's army and strategically sacrificing your own guys in the process to avoid getting destroyed yourself, it's not a game that I'm excited about playing. In an attempt to stay in touch with a part of their life that absorbs much of their interest these days, however, I've tried to be involved. I've looked through their cards, read about the qualities of their guys, commented on their looks, even tried playing a couple of times. (I'm not very good, partly because I just don't like killing people.) They keep showing me their new cards--an indication that they haven't totally written me out of this part of their lives.

One Sunday afternoon me oldest, searching for an interesting activity, announced that he wanted to do something with his cards. I could tell by the way he phrased it that he didn't want to play a regular game. Maybe there was a place for me here. "I have an idea," I said, half jokingly. "How about if we arrange them from cutest to ugliest?" I was pretty surprised when he agreed. He rarely agrees to any suggestion I make (almost as a matter of principle, it seems), and this one was certainly not in the script.

So we looked at the first card. "Ugly," I said. "Definitely ugly." He put it down to the right, and picked up the next. "Not too bad," I said. "Kind of cute." It went down a little to the left. "That one's okay. It's just normal, I would say." Middle. "Now I like that one--he's really cute." Far left. "Ugly." Right. "Yuck--that one's really, truly disgusting." Far right. A few times we had differences of opinion but were flexible. Sometimes my beauty standard won out, sometimes his. And so we went through the entire pack until they were all arranged from the cutest on the left to the ugliest on the right.

He looked them over, clearly satisfied with the piece of work we'd done together. I was more than satisfied. I was thrilled. My twelve-year-old son and I had just had a warm companionable time playing with the cards that represent total fascination for him and total disgust for me. I had engaged with him on his territory, but without abandoning mine. Maybe I wasn't totally powerless in the face of what seems like monolithic male cultural conditioning. I had introduced a brand new, totally non-"male" perspective to the play, and he had not only accepted but enjoyed it.

I couldn't have hoped for more. But there was. His younger brother, who was in the same room, playing a computer game, had been keeping track of what we were up to. "Mom," he said, "I want you to help me arrange my cards from cutest to ugliest too."