Sunday, May 29, 2011

See the Boy, Know the Man

More than a decade ago I saw a television show on PBS, a documentary about a group of kids from England who were studied over several decades at seven-year intervals. It was called something like, "From 7 to 21 Up."

For a woman who has trouble recalling her natural hair color, it seems strange that a TV show would stick with me for so long.
But this show hit me like a shot of permanent dye with a peroxide chaser.
The premise of the show was that the boy (or girl) at age 7 reflects the man (or woman) he (or she) will one day grow to be.
Sure enough, in most if not all cases highlighted, that’s what happened to the little Brits.

If a boy was unstable, unmotivated, lazy, aimless or indifferent at 7, he was still struggling with life at 14, 21, 28 and 35.
If he was focused, efficient, confident, inquisitive and hopeful at 7, he was on track at 14, 21, 28 and 35.
Sure, it was just another theory of early childhood development, like the critical “wonder years” theory, or birth-to-5 pre-conscious memory type stuff.
But in hearing the boys’ world view at 7, then again at 14, and so on, it became clear to me that there might actually be something to this hypothesis.
Of course, I know there are many things that can happen to a boy from 7 to manhood that will affect his outcome, one way or another. But the show satisfied some questions about nature and nurture. Both matter, but without nurture, nature has no safety net.
What prompted me to think about all this was my younger son’s 8th birthday, which was Sept. 30.
From birth, Billy has been a catalyst in many ways. He brought me back to primal motherhood after nearly 11 years of evolving with my former baby, Neil, and the baby before him, Aimee.
Billy has always challenged me to look at the world from his point of view.
But that’s not all.
He then insists on answers, explanations, conclusions, balance and morals to every story.
Not unusual demands from a little kid, perhaps.
But what other boys might only think about or barely ponder, Billy would explore in full spelunking gear.
Sadly, it’s a trait that’s suddenly waning. Perhaps that’s why 7 is a pivotal age. Maybe it’s the beginning and ending of something irreplaceable in our development.
Anyway, in all his inquisitive glory days, Billy often reminded me of the boy Neil used to be.
Of course, Neil has nearly tripled in age since 7 and certainly qualifies for manhood by most standards.
Still, he’s a work in progress.
Over time I’ve witnessed his emotions ebb and flow, sometimes lost in tidal waves of frustration.
Other times, his childlike enthusiasm takes me over like the chicken pox.
But at 19, I sense Neil’s returning to the boy I knew at 7, the one who shared his dreams with me, always, in fine detail; the boy who sensed he was destined for something big.
The boy who held my hand in public long after it was a matter of his safety, and vowed he’d never grow too big or too cool to be my baby.
If the boy-to-manhood experiment meant anything at all, perhaps it’s that the future is not so random as we might think and that, for everything we’re fortunate to gain in life, there are other things ingrained from birth.
Which means to me that we should be conscious of how our sons are growing up, paying attention to how we respond, or don’t, along the way.
And if at 7, the boy we see before us is the least bit unstable or indifferent or unsettled, then we should know which way to push.
See the boy at 7 and know the man – that was the message of the documentary, as I recall. In some cases, it was encouraging to see how each little boy grew. In others, it was disturbing, even painful, to see the boy at 7 and know – before the camera started rolling – the direction his life was going to go by the next installment of his life.
I’ll never know, for sure, if that documentary affected the way I’ve raised my sons. But at this point, I’m encouraged.
I see the boy Bill is at 8 and somehow know the man who will be honest, compromising, meticulous, confident and loving.
And the boy in Neil I knew at 7 as wise beyond his years is the man I see now at 19 – hopeful, adventurous, determined, sincere and still growing.

Originally Published: 
Oct. 3, 1999 
Bucks County Courier Times
Levittown, PA

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