At 15, he’s far ahead of where I was at his age. He’s leading the way toward a better kind of masculinity.
I was fried as I came to dinner Tuesday, November 6th.
For the past two hours, I’d made calls to voters in California’s Central Valley. I was trying to turn a Congressional district blue. I was a petrified Trump and the Republicans would retain control of the House — and send our democracy down a dark path.
But as I sat down to eat with my wife and two teens, I was the one heading down a dark path. I snapped at my daughter and got into an argument with my wife. Rowena broke off the battle to note that I looked exhausted.
“Yeah, I feel pretty wiped out,” I responded.
But there was something restoring me at that moment. Or someone. Amid the bickering, my son Julius had quietly left his seat at the table and come over to sit on my lap. I barely noticed it at the time, but his act of affection eased my body and my mind.
And this is what he does. Julius is one of the most empathetic people I know. At 15, he’s far ahead of where I was at his age.
He’s leading the way toward a better kind of masculinity.
Nationally and globally, we’re seeing men struggle to make sense of a more interconnected world in which traditionally male forms of power no longer make sense. The days of command-and-control cultures, hazing-friendly hierarchies and outright assault are numbered, in part because people mistreated under those systems are speaking out. #MeToo has brought down kings of industry once thought untouchable.
But it’s not just these headline-grabbing scandals that show the shift. More quietly, the world is finding that organizations and relationships based on mutuality, trust, persuasion and power-sharing get more done and can handle complexity with greater ease.
Simply put, might-makes-right versions of masculinity are losing out to emo-masculinity and the rise of the feminine.
Yes, retrograde bullies are in power in the United States and around the globe. But I believe — I certainly hope, anyways — that Trump, Putin and the like represent the death rattle of an outdated version of what it means to be a man.
The signs that better days are ahead include the distaste Millennial men have for the Republican Party — now largely the party of Trump. Other good omens are the prominence and popularity of men like basketball star Steph Curry, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Barack Obama — all of whom have relied more on finesse, positivity and soft power than brute force or angry blow-ups.
Then there’s Julius. Not only did he participate in a student protest in the wake the Trump election victory, but he has stood up to local bullies. When a classmate in 8th grade loudly demanded that one of Julius’ friends stop making a noise, Julius spoke up. “I wouldn’t listen to you if you talked like that to me,” he said.
And when one of Julius’ own friends — a much bigger kid — went beyond physical horseplay with him, shoving him into a garbage can about a year ago, Julius fought back. With words not fists. He confronted his friend, saying he didn’t feel safe in that moment and that the friend couldn’t do that again.
These actions of courageous non-violence were light-years beyond where I was as a young teen. I didn’t challenge bullies, whether they were targeting me or others. And I certainly didn’t have the guts to be honest about my feelings with male friends who slighted me. The kind of vulnerability Julius demonstrated would have been mocked mercilessly in my youth — even though we now know it is a source of profound power.
When it comes to physical power, Julius also is racing ahead of who I was at 15. He may not be stronger than me as a 10th grader, but he’s on his way. In my early high school years I watched from the sidelines as many of my guy friends began working out at a gym. I had defined myself as a middling athlete, and doubted that lifting weights would do anything to my scrawny frame. Pumping iron was only likely to produce shame as other guys bench-pressed more. I would find my sense of self-worth primarily in the academic realm.
But Julius isn’t making that trade-off. He’s diligent about his studies, but also has a routine of exercising and climbing in a local rock climbing gym. Like others in his generation, he has a growth mindset — trusting that he will make progress even if he’s starting out pretty skinny and is only now hitting puberty.
“I have a four-pack,” he said to me the other day. Proud yet humble.
Julius also has an advanced attitude about competition. He’s not terribly competitive — and he’s ok with that. In my day, kids who weren’t competitive relegated themselves to a kind of second-class citizenship. I hung out with the jocks. But failing to win any outright championships and fearing I failed in the clutch plagued me.
Julius actually won a championship with his soccer team in 5th grade. He even scored the winning, championship goal. But what he remembers most about that team was the lack of close friendships, the lack of camaraderie. And overall, he’s gravitated to activities that aren’t fundamentally competitive: rock climbing, mountain biking, percussion at his performing arts magnet high school, an environmental science internship. He’s driven by fun and adrenaline — like my pals and I when we were teens. But Julius is more into connection and exploration than competition.
I believe men — and all of us — have been hurt by too many zero-sum games. We’re beginning to recognize how the ubiquitous ways we pit ourselves against each other limit our progress, reduce our pleasure, and threaten to destroy life on our planet.
At times in recent months, I’ve thought of Julius as the epitome of an evolved approach to rivalry and relationships.
But that’s not entirely true. After all, he plays PUBG and other player-vs.-player, combat video games all the time. And just this week, he surprised me during a family game of Blokus. He played carefully, mapping out every move and coming close to winning. He also gave advice to his younger sister that worked to his advantage. It wasn’t cheating exactly, but he recommended a move to Skyla without revealing that it allowed him to play a piece he wanted to play.
I was taken aback and a little disturbed by this behavior. But he shrugged it off, sounding a little like our President.
“Sometimes you have to play rough, Dad.”
Still, he mostly shows up as the opposite of rough. As caring. Consider how he reacted the other night when he heard that his sister was upset. Skyla had been dropped off at the climbing gym only to learn it was closed. So she called me, crying and worried about being alone many blocks from home in the dark.
In a feat of not-great parenting, I chose to focus on whether Skyla was acting rudely on the phone amid her fear.
But Julius grabbed his skateboard and darted out to meet her. He was doing what was needed at the moment — moving quietly and swiftly to comfort her. Just as he had done with me when he sat in my lap election night.
I’m not exactly sure how Julius is pulling off this wise, strong, empathetic version of masculinity at such a young age. It probably has to do with affectionate grandparents. With caring uncles, aunts and cousins. With devoted god-parents and other loving adults in his life. Maybe it has something to do with strong female role models in his life, including his artistic, altruistic mom and assertive, speaks-her-mind sister. Maybe it’s the male role models, including his sensitive-guy dad. I still lose my temper far too much with him and Skyla. The election night dinner disaster was a case in point. But I always try to apologize for temper tantrums and aim to avoid parenting-by-intimidation.
Rowena and I never told Julius to “man-up” when he was bullied a few times in elementary and middle school. Instead, we worked with San Francisco school administrators — two gay men in particular, who kept an eye out for Julius and prompted him to employ peaceful, talk-it-out interventions.
A world wide web of relationships also must play a role in the kind of man Julius is becoming. He has Ethiopian-born adopted cousins, Chinese-born adopted god-sisters, Asian-American cousins, and Asian-American-Latino god-brothers. So it’s not surprising Julius isn’t drawn to the white male resentments that Donald Trump has stoked. What’s more, Julius was in a band for several years with two rocker girls, and one of his best friends is his god-sister. How could he subscribe to misogyny having made these bonds?
Julius didn’t join the gay-straight alliance in middle school, but only because he was too busy.
“Did you support it?” I asked recently.
“Of course. Everybody did,” he said.
I used anti-gay slurs until I got to college, where I first met gay men and women and realized how hurtful and backwards my language and attitude were.
But Julius has grown up in San Francisco — perhaps the friendliest city to the LGBTQ community on the planet. No wonder he doesn’t seem to have a trace of homophobia in him.
It’s yet another way Julius is well ahead of where I was at 15. And probably why he is comfortable plopping himself into my lap when he wants — or I need — some cuddle time.
I couldn’t be happier he’s lapping me, in more ways than one.