Mothers’ Magna Carta
There is one natural object a mother of boys truly learns to appreciate: the humble, ordinary stick.
It would seem this primordial toy has been beloved by boys since time immemorial (whether because of nature or nurture is of no importance to those in the trenches). A mother of boys learns that the blessings of spring, for some, are not the chirping of young birds, the sprouting of green buds and dewy blossoms; rather, they are treasures discovered in the damp earth underfoot, in the fresh scattering of twigs and branches of every shape, diameter and length. In the months of April and May, the unassuming plebian stick has the power to outshine every comparable man-made phallic toy ever devised, including the normally highly sought plastic swords, rifles, machine guns and light sabers.
Growing up in a world of Barbie dolls and ballet classes, the oldest of three daughters, I never dreamed I would be the kind of mother who would allow her kids to wield sticks at their playmates. But as the mother of two boys, I learned the elaborate rules that enable boys to do just that—a kind of ancient chaos theory. These rules are for the most part learned unconsciously by parents of boys. Before you know it, you’ve absorbed and passed them on just by virtue of regularly showing up at the playground. This unwritten charter of rights, liberties, and privileges is drawn up out of thin air by mothers on playgrounds everywhere. It goes something like this:
- A stick may be aimed like a weapon but must never graze another child, nor violate his personal space, since over-zealous, imaginary attacks can accidentally (or not so accidentally) poke, brush, jab or downright stab.
- A stick that is longer than one’s person, no matter how marvelous, magical or seemingly precious a find, is strictly off limits–not only due to its potential danger to others, and to the holder himself–but because a stick of such immense proportions shall, with the jealousy it inspires, spoil the day in its entirety for all other parties concerned. (The irresistible appeal of the Enormous stick is why all mothers of boys learn to keep any spare curtain rods, canes, or poles hidden from sight—mine were kept under beds against the wall behind boxes.) Babies and toddlers may NOT be included in games of sticks, passively or otherwise, regardless of how interested they may appear, or in fact actually be.
- On those few occasions when girls who are cool enough to be interested in joining the game happen upon the scene, by all means, admit them. (Girls for the most part consider playing with sticks inane and do not appear to suffer from stick envy). When girls are not interested, direct all choreography around them as if they are nothing more than breaths of wind or immovable trees in the forest.
- Strict and painful punishments shall be incurred by anyone who violates any of the above rules. For a first offense, the perpetrator shall forfeit his stick for a time-out, with the unhappy consequence of being odd man out among other boys still carrying. A second offense earns a longer time-out, with the following warning: the stick shall be taken away for goodwith the incursion of any further offense. A third offense is rarely made more than once. The permanent forfeiting of one’s stick for the day inevitably brings about the premature ending of the play-date for the boy concerned, with all its attendant bitter leave-taking, since remaining a player without any possibility of regaining one’s stick involves insupportable suffering bordering on torture.
- As with any and all boys’ games: parents in charge must be vigilant for any signs of escalation from whimsical to actual malice. (An experienced caretaker, sensitive to subtle changes in the breeze, can recognize, interrupt, and disperse brewing hostilities before the bearer of them is even aware of them himself). In cases where actual malice does materialize, sticks shall be banished for all concerned.
These tried and true rules allow boys to pretend to utterly destroy imaginary foes in one another and themselves with all attendant joys without putting themselves or others in harm’s way. An experienced mother, after years of tense shadowing of her offspring, can enjoy the fruits of her rigorous training in relative comfort on a park bench. From there she can enjoy the sight of her sons cavorting about, brandishing sticks in and out of their counterparts in the thick of the field, deftly weaving and thrashing with nary a child receiving so much as a scratch.
It’s why a mother of boys can appreciate the wise words of Confucius: “Never give a sword to one who can’t dance.”
Gail Hammill is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai where she teaches literature courses. A mother of two boys, Gail writes about motherhood as part of her interest in literature about the body, gender and spirituality.