Cowboy Up? No Thanks, Partner

Imagine you’re on your typical Tuesday morning stroll through the graveyard.

Yep, the graveyard.

The paved walkway winds through the historic monuments to people past, and mature oaks, that have stood as witnesses of the passing on of decades, create a canopy through which the sun glistens and offer the crunch of fall leaves underfoot. And as you descend a hill, rounding toward the ancient gates that lead to the life of today, your feet stop while your head keeps moving. In an instant, you find yourself on the ground with a bloody lip and a scratched nose soaked in tears.

You fell.

Now, imagine that the person who was with you said one of two things.

Either “You’re okay.”

Or “are you okay?”

Which would you rather?

If the scene above seems too abnormal for a typical Tuesday morning, it’s because it probably is. I have quite the imagination, but more often than not the oddest situations come from everyday life. For whatever reason, my wife, my mom, myself, and my son found ourselves walking through a local graveyard, picking out baby names from the etched stone. It was a wonderfully crisp morning with a sunlight that illuminated the fall colors so brightly we forgot about the darkness of death. And my son, my fourteen-month-old son, with fresh feet, and a big baby head fell cement to teeth in a blinking moment. A mess of snot, tears, and blood swirled on his face, and anyone else waltzing through the graveyard at that time probably high-tailed it out of there in the echoes of screams beyond the grave.

It was not a pretty sight, but still, let’s be honest, worse things could have happened, and have happened. So the temptation, maybe especially because he is a boy, to say, “you’re okay,” or “cowboy up,” or “suck it up, buttercup” simmered on my tongue. But, I didn’t say any of that.

I swallowed those words for two reasons.

Reason #1 I Didn’t Tell My Son To Cowboy Up

First of all, I’m a sensitive guy, and I always have been. Hearing such exhortations to man-up never did much for me other than make me feel brushed aside, inadequate, and uncared for. The audible remnants of such statements still haunt many men today, and fuel their suppressing of masculine issues.

That’s because when we use these statements with our sons, we send the message that we don’t care about their pain, struggles, or hurts, and we reinforce culture’s push to silence weakness, especially in men. “Suck it up” we say, which pretty much means, “we don’t want to hear about it–keep it to yourself. Your pain is not worth our concern.”

No wonder so many men implode with too many struggles to handle on their own. And as my son grows older, I don’t want to teach to him to suppress his hurt; I want to teach him responsibility over it. 

Reason #2 I Didn’t Tell My Son To Cowboy Up

The second reason I held my tongue in that moment is because of the wisdom of my sister whispering in my ear. She and my brother-in-law are bunny-lovers with four (or is it sixteen now? I lost track) cute baby bunny-children. I think fetuses are lined up in her uterus, just waiting for their moment to shine in the florescent bulbs of a delivery room.

So, because she has blessed grandparents four times over, and I’m still on my first, she has lived and learned through many more years of parenthood, and therefore taught me a thing a two.

A couple of months ago, she told me she started to ask her kids when they fall, “are you okay?” She claimed they responded better to that approach than when she’d exhort “you’re okay.” She thought maybe it gave them a sense of ownership over their personal pain, and I immediately latched onto the idea.

I agree that posing the question in the aftermath of turmoil gives children the opportunity to respond in their own way, thus giving them ownership which in turn teaches them responsibility over their emotions, an aspect of maturity that is often overlooked. 

Asking the question also reinforces the notion that it’s okay, and even good (and responsible), to communicate our struggles appropriately. Humans are not meant to be individualistic. We’re not lone-wolves; we are people of the pack. “Sucking it up,” is a learned behavior that infects the mentality of many boys, isolates them, and kicks them in the ass when they get older, as they flounder in so-called independence.

As fathers, we should encourage healthy communication, empathize with pain, and teach responsibility over our children’s emotions. Let’s not take the easy way out with a silly scapegoat statement like “cowboy up.” And it may seem small to simply rearrange the statement “you’re okay” to “are you okay?” but I think it’d greatly benefit our children, especially our sons.

So, as I scooped up my son into my arms while he wailed, looking like a blue marshmallow in a tiny Patagonia, I asked him in his preciously soft though reddened ear, “are you okay?”

And…he just cried louder, but we’ll get there.

(Below is a picture of him, just moments before he fell.)


Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash


5 thoughts on “Cowboy Up? No Thanks, Partner

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