I lost part of my parental backbone when I acquiesced to downloading Minecraft to a fourth device in our household. I suspect it’s because my heart, at times yearning for the years when my now 11-year-old son was smaller, was warmed by a yet-unsurpassed display of cuddly tendencies from him as he cared for his Minecraft plushies that serve as compadres in his online Minecraft adventures.
(For those unfamiliar, imagine a fairly non-violent video game that is like movable building blocks in an endless world where you create whatever you want [with friends who are sitting next to you in real life and running around next to you on the screen], and you run into characters in the game that are now sold as stuffed animals at Target). (And for others of you who understand the word plushy to mean something that is more appropriate for an adult audience, that’s not what this post is about).
My son is a kid. Indeed, he throws the plushies around and adds crash noises when they collide. But he also gently tucks his plushies into bed. He covers them in tiny chenile blankets that used to flank his crib bumpers. He hugs them. He sets them on the desk when he plays his game online. He gives them names like Bomby and Mr. Stamps. He pushes them into my cheek and says they’re giving me a kiss. He asks me to mend them when a friend’s dog bites a hole suspiciously near the place where bodily waste would come out if plushies could poop.
He cuddles with them. Like a little kid. Like a nurturing parent.
And so is born in our household a bridge between childhood and teenagehood. And as each day goes by and he asks if he can go explore the Minecraft world behind what seems like an increasing number of closed doors, I realize that he is soon going to be the teenage explorer, followed by the adult explorer. And there’ll be less cuddliness and innocence. At least for me to see.
When my son was a baby he was not tremendously cuddly. He was born huge and energized and really just wanted to spend his time looking around, moving, and exploring, since he had spent a lot of time cooped up in utero. I think it just felt good to stretch. He looked out into the world more than he looked at me. But now that he’s got long legs and feet almost as big as mine and more strength, he sits on my lap and hugs me and leans into my neck when we sit and talk about his pixelated world. Even more than when I could hold him in my arms. He is turning into a man and I see nurturing and softness and cuddliness and kindness. And I get to see this now that he has gangly arms and legs and a voice that’s lower.
I did not know that the soft little cuddly creatures that are supposed to represent hard-edged pixelated creatures in a video game would serve as symbols of the bridge between childhood and teenagehood for my son. Or that they’d make me see a softness in him that I saw less of when he was tiny. They are making me look backward and forward at the same time, and I have decided to notice it and love it. Not as someone who looks at Freudian mother-son stuff, though that could be interesting. But as a sociologist who loves to look at how life stages can tell us more about ourselves than we often notice. Transitions are often the times in life when we see things more clearly, or notice things that we didn’t see before. When we change jobs, we see our vocational strengths and weaknesses more clearly. When we move, we see our living preferences more clearly. When we are sick and then hopefully recover, we notice our bodies more. When we lose someone, we understand ourselves better.
For boys, sometimes we fail to notice the softness, a failure that often gets more pronounced over time. Unless we don’t fail to notice. Unless we don’t fail to recognize that transitions show how someone can be both soft and strong, both pixelated and plushy. And that they have always been this way.
If we construct our “giving in” to our kids’ whims as losing our spine or missing a backbone, then I can best classify my back bones as made of part rock, part cartilege, and part pudding. In the case of Minecraft, which by some accounts is a pretty great way for him to spend his time and learn to create worlds with his friends and get inspired to maybe someday be an engineer, and by other accounts means he’s turning his brain and social skills into mush, I have decided to turn this “giving in” into a set of moments in time to consciously notice his transition into a new stage of life, and to frame it in a way that, perhaps, dispels how we think about boyhood and manhood.
These are the moments when I get to see hard-edges of a pixelated late kidhood meshed with soft edges of plushies nestled in his arms. Isn’t that what all of our lives are like? Hard edges and soft edges both. I choose to work harder at noticing the soft edges of boyhood.