Honor Culture

12.17.09 | 19 Comments


A few weeks ago we transported some stamp pads back from a school function.  When we arrived home Seth carried the pads into the house and asked if he could use them.  I innocently said, “of course, I will be out here watering for a few minutes.”  I watered for 7 minutes, as I was coming in, this war painted dude emerged.  I thought Braveheart  was cute and went to fetch the camera.  Braveheart was not in a cute mood, he was ready for battle.  I only got in a few shots before I realized the gravity of the situation.  Seth whipped inside  and returned with a 3 foot yellow shoe horn,  demanding that I find a sword and fight him!

You would think by now I’d have learned that little boys flip on a dime.  One minute they are calm citizens of the world, next minute they are soldiers at the ready.   I am perpetually unprepared to help Seth properly channel his fiercer side.  I for one can’t understand a vigilante agenda, it simply does not fit in my world view, yet he is always on one mission or another to “get the bad guys” or “kill Darth Vader”.  To me all this pretend battling seems like a waste of time, but I guess millions of years of biology can not be unraveled in an instant ~ what’s a mother to do ~ sigh…


I just finished Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.  In his book he has a funny chapter about the “honor culture” that pervades the American South.  Gladwell describes family feuds in which lots of people are slayed just because someone in the clan holds a grudge.   The theory is that the Blue Ridge mountains and other remote areas of the Southern US were populated by Scotch Irish immigrants who had led isolated sheep herding lifestyles back in the old country (as opposed to cooperative farming lifestyles).   When you watch sheep all day it’s a lonely job, and you have to defend your flock, sometimes to the death because that is all you’ve got.  So, theoretically people simply passed this learned black and white, confrontational behavior from one generation to the next.  Like I said, I thought this chapter was funny till the cultural behavior Gladwell described started to sound a little too familiar.  Then It dawned on me,  Seth’s great grand father Seth Thompson was of Scotch Irish ancestry and hailed from the Ozark Mountains.  His job as a child was to heard the cows to and from the distant pasture every day.  Seth Thompson became a photographer, writer and foreign diplomat, but he never lost his stubborn streak, he was hot headed and always ready for a fight.   If Malcom and his esteemed colleagues were right about “cultural legacies” then I am in for it!

Presumably Seth is being shaped by other sociological influences because 70% of the time he is busy collaborating, being helpful and performing the tasks of daily life.  It is the other 30% of the time I worry about.  It’s always pleasant to come upon your own child deep in imaginary war play, holding one of his favorite playmates in a head lock and stuffing hay in his mouth.  It was after this incident that I decided etiquette around our house had to change.  I no longer care if Seth feels he needs to “man-up” and take physical action.  We play by new rules these days.  If Seth is going to touch someone else he now has to ask first.  This way his words block his instinct.  Not only does this give the other person the chance for a fair fight, this gives them the chance to say no.  More importantly, Seth’s words diffuse his intent, give him a split second of reasoning time,  “Is this sucker punch to the gut really the right way to communicate how I am feeling?”  Surprisingly enough, Seth embraced this rule.  In the past month I’ve heard him gleefully chiding adults who do not ask before hugging him.

As a parent it is my job to actively help Seth understand his own inherent “honor culture”.  I want him to learn when it’s appropriate to wield a sword, without dismissing his deep desire to “fight”.   I acknowledge Seth’s fearlessness and heroism, fighting and fighting well is clearly important to him.   As far as I can tell, the best way for him to work out these primal feelings is to play.   Spending time with his peers, and learning to distinguish between real and perceived threats seems invaluable.  Allowing for battle play, interjecting the occasional rule and reflecting on what feelings were explored is a sure way to help boys flesh out what is and is not honorable.  Ideally, Seth will build his own personal honor culture, one that is adapted for the flexible world he is living in today.

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