“Careful!” I called out as our two sons locked up in a tangle of arms and legs while wrestling in the family room.
“Don’t fall and hit your heads,” I pleaded, suddenly mindful of the sharp edges on the brick fireplace hearth that used to haunt me when the boys were toddlers.
Young men — especially if they are brothers — clinging hard to the kind of goofy horseplay I witnessed over the holidays.
It’s a remnant of boyhood — the faux take-down. There’s typically a brief episode of trash talk followed by earnest grappling, and then more trash talk muffled by choking.
Our two sons, ages 16 and 21, have about 30 years of team soccer between them, which has left them oak-strong in the lower body and only average strength in the arms and shoulders. This often leads to a standing stalemate, with a parent left to negotiate the terms of surrender for our younger offspring, who is loathe to tap out to Big Bro even though his face is turning blue from being on the wrong end of a hammerlock.
“OK, OK,” I say. “That’s enough guys. Let’s stop.”
Moments later I notice the household’s two puppies, a black lab mix and a spaniel, faux fighting under the coffee table. Suddenly an old quote runs through my head: “Boys are like dogs. They need to be run every day.”
It reminded me that what looks like goofing off among young men probably has some evolutionary value. If dogs do it, too, how could it not have meaning to our boys’ mammalian brains.
While the boys’ wrestling seems 100% playful on the surface, I suspect there is at least 10% sibling rivalry at play. The fact that “sibling rivalry” is even a phrase is telling. I read once that siblings have natural impulses to compete for family resources through displays of dominance.
Thankfully, there’s a flip side to this. Our sons also show signs of a budding adult friendship. Early last week, they were both occupied in the family woodshop with the same goal in mind. Our younger son had decided he was tired of his little-boy bedroom with all the soccer posters and juvenile colors.
“I want to redecorate my room and build myself a bed,” he announced one day.
Back in the old days, I would have said no, thinking there was too much danger he would tear things up and then abandon the project. But I have learned to say yes more often, especially to his DIY instincts.
Over the last few weeks he has been assembling the bed, the centerpiece of his new furniture, from weathered pallet wood and acquired lumber. (A subplot to this is that he has a new driver’s license, and his project requires daily visits to the neighborhood Ace Hardware and/or the nearest Home Depot.)
He made slow progress on the bed for several weeks. Meanwhile, he successfully repainted his room, cleaned the carpet and hauled his old furniture off to a dump in his truck. He had momentum.
Then, one day, the work hit a snag. He decided he needed to order parts online to strengthen the emerging bed frame.
“See if you can get him him unstuck about this,” I asked our older son.
A couple of hours later while I was running errands, our younger son called to ask if he could go to Home Depot. Big Bro had offered a locally sourced solution to the bed problem and our younger son was back on track.
By late that night the boys were hauling the completed bed frame upstairs and bolting it together. I went up to inspect and found the new bed handsome and strong.
Meanwhile, our older son decided to refurbish a chest of drawers he bought at a yard sale for his little brother’s room. He had carefully sanded and stained the piece and rebuilt some of the drawers.
When a few raindrops marred the new paint while it was drying outside, he said, “I’m going to repaint it,” allowing that he wanted it to look perfect for his kid brother.
Sibling rivalry has its place, it turns out. So does brotherly love.
The Family Life column publishes in Life on Sundays. Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645.