Pulling Punches

I took a long look at my ten-year-old son yesterday. By most measures, he’s turning out just fine. Lean and muscular, he eats well, plays hard, reads beyond his grade level, and is a whiz at math. He has as much compassion for others as any boy his age. He’s funny and thoughtful, and has great friends. He knows he is loved.

And yet as I contemplated the young man he is becoming, I worried about one thing he does not do or know, because I have not taught him. I have not taught my son how to fight. And I wonder whether I should.

I grew up in Detroit during the 1960s and ’70s. While I did not come up “hard,” as they used to say, I did come up tough. Boys in my world were expected to be able to handle themselves if trouble came along. In truth, once people understood you were willing to fight and weren’t afraid of being hit, most confrontations ended short of violence. So while I had a few good fights, what I remember mostly is a boyhood of perpetual competition, sporadic verbal assaults, and a strange sort of détente with other boys.

At an early age, my two brothers and I learned to box, in a makeshift ring our father set up in the basement. He loved the sport, and when we were little, he boxed with us on his knees. Later, we three boxed against each other. Little mercy was shown in those matches. Each encounter was treated like a heavyweight title fight. Blood was drawn, tears were shed. Outside our ring, we watched matches on television and went to pay-per-view events at local theaters to see Ali, Frazer, Foreman, and later our main man, Thomas “The Hit-Man” Hearns.

My father was tough, but not hard. He told us frequently that he loved us, and showered us with affection and care. He, too, had grown up in Detroit, in a house with three boys; like us, he had learned to fight from his father, a 130-pound Scotsman with a reputation for toughness. One story about my grandfather still captures my imagination. When my father was about seven, an aggressive driver cut off his father in traffic. Words were exchanged through open windows, and eventually both drivers pulled over and got out of their cars. My father and his brother watched as the other, much bigger man reared back and took a vicious swing with his right hand. The story goes that my grandfather ducked the punch effortlessly and unleashed an uppercut that sprawled the big man out on the pavement. Back in the car, my grandfather turned to his bewildered sons and said in his thick brogue, “Never lead with your right, laddies, never lead with your right!” And off they drove.

I think about what such stories teach. Like our father before us, my brothers and I learned that real men didn’t seek out violence—but didn’t walk away from it, either. When trouble presented itself, you’d better be ready to do what men sometimes had to do. We learned that strength and bravado tended to preempt victimization, while weakness and passivity encouraged it. Over time, physical combat begot intellectual combat, and our competitiveness and discipline allowed us to be fairly successful in the world. We grew up confident, assertive, and comfortable in just about any room we entered. Would we have turned out the same without the fighting? My fear is that we might not have.

Which brings me back to my dilemma regarding my own son. In refraining from teaching him to fight, I am breaking a pattern that worked pretty well. I understand that there’s less tolerance of fighting in society today, and especially in suburban, upper-middle-class precincts like the one my family lives in. On a more principled note, I am a Catholic who takes the call to be a peacemaker much more seriously than my own parents did. Though I am not a pacifist—for me there are still too many wolves in the world—I have great admiration and respect for the kind of courage pacifism entails. And so I am living a paradox. I believe peacemakers are blessed, yet the fighter in me is part of what makes me whole and enables me to move forward in this world. This conflict creates a kind of parental dissonance, a discomfort that I feel slightly embarrassed to talk about in polite company.

My father would tell me that my son should learn to fight. My church tells me he should learn to love. Am I a bad father for teaching him one, and not the other? I hope not; but like any parent, I worry about failing my children.

Meanwhile, my speed-bag hangs semideflated in the garage, and my heavy-bag rotted out a few years ago. Artifacts of a bygone era? Perhaps. But I remain conflicted. At ten, my son is well on his way to being a loving and compassionate adult. But shouldn’t he also know never to lead with his right?

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 

Christopher M. Duncan is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Saint Louis University.

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