Sure, the kid is tough and “can take it.” But should he have to?

“He’s tough, he’s a boy. He can take it,” says a father about his six-year-old son, who just got knocked flat on his face by an older brother testing out his brand-new bike. Sure he can take it. What choice does he have?

But “can” is a different experience from “should.” Just because he can take it, does it mean he should have to? The argument in favor of this is that the boy grows a thicker skin and learns that he is seen as a kid who can handle himself. Whether this is something the boy likes, or finds comforting, may depend on the reaction he gets from others and quite likely his father in particular. Feeling that you’re tough and can take it isn’t an unhandy feeling either; it’s a good one to have in your back pocket when you want to stand your ground in the face of some challenge or threat. On the downside, the boy learns that his dad can be insensitive at times to what hurts him and what doesn’t; worse perhaps is learning that his dad makes those determinations for him.

One argument against the “he’s tough and can take it” school of hard knocks is that, well, the kid is only six years old. Has he really already outgrown his need to know that his parents have his back? Or is someone outgrowing this for him? Our sons will tell us loudly and clearly when we’re not needed in the clubhouse anymore; we don’t have to worry about missing our cue. One day, their appreciative acceptance of our ministrations is supplanted with the words I’m fine, Mom, and we’re to understand from this that our days running over with blue freeze ice packs or SpongeBob first-aid kits are over.

But what about this: Why not use these twilight years of early childhood to train the next crew of attendants—that being the boys themselves? Meaning that a father, after observing his eight-year-old boy play in the park, makes a point of saying to him, Hey dude, when you jumped off the slide, you kind of knocked into that kid over there, the one who’s looking like he’s trying not to cry. Why don’t you go over and see if he’s all right? Make sure he knows it was an accident. Or that a mother, seeing her daughter get knocked around pretty hard in field-hockey practice, suggests to the girl’s older brother that he discreetly check in on her. So that, ultimately, when a neighborhood game of Capture the Flag gets a little too physical, there will be children with the sensitivity and confidence and interpersonal skill sets to go over to the kid lying on the ground and ask him if he’s okay, needs any ice, wants a hand up.

Our kids need roles in their lives other than student, friend, athlete, or member of the marching band, and some of them should be caregiving ones. Our society seems to have such fixed ideas about who gives to whom: Adults give and kids get. Children need to learn that they, too—of their own accord and quite effectively—can address the needs of another, and that this need not be experienced as burdensome. A lot of kids do this already through small but noble acts of gallantry that sometimes challenge the social status quo. These are kids with the confidence, or the conviction if nothing else, to assume the risk that these types of challenges can incur, e.g., alienating a peer group, offending or embarrassing an adult.

A certain percentage of the population will always argue against teaching boys to be more empathic, believing that it puts them at risk for being too vulnerable, too “soft.” To me, it looks a lot like the same argument people raise against “loving children too much”—which I see more accurately as “setting limits too little.” Talking about empathy (or compassion or love) in this way turns the whole thing into a zero-sum equation: To the degree that a boy develops a greater capacity for empathy, he loses a corresponding amount of stoicism /masculinity/competitiveness. Really? Why can’t boys have a lot of both? Jeez, if we can’t envision males who are empathic and masculine or strong, then how the heck are we ever going to raise them?

— Janet Sasson Edgette

Excerpted from The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Like Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood