The Right Kind of Tough

A dad thinks one of his jobs is to teach his kids to be tough. For a long time, I thought I was failing with Payson.  This story and these pictures are from when he was four.

Like, he’s always been everybody’s favorite kid, other than their own kids. He’s charming and so content and as chill as Spicoli, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly annoyed with him, which any parent can tell you is unheard of because one of the main jobs a kid has is to sometimes annoy his parents at every single freaking opportunity until they are ready to sell him to gypsies.

But, Payson wasn’t tough, at least not the way I wanted him to be. He wasn’t aggressive. He wasn’t even assertive. He wasn’t demanding. He’d never fight for toys in nursery. He’d let kids walk all over him. He was the kindest, most generous soccer player in human history. Even when he was madder than a hornet, he’d just kind of wilt in silence, never scream or hit or bite or punch. He’d cry and have trouble expressing why, and he never wanted to let me down. But he wasn’t tough.

So, I thought I wasn’t helping him, I thought the kids at school were gonna eat him up, I thought he was gonna be overwhelmed by the cruelty of the world and maybe go and live in a pacifist commune built in a giant redwood, or something.

Around the time, my sister had a foster kid named Armando. Cute kid. Thick skull. Mouth like a Greek sailor. I have no idea what Mondo had been through, but he had some scars.

We liked him, but I really wanted Payson to have just a little more Mondo in him. Mondo walked all over him like a new bride’s mother in law – took the best toys, the best snacks, whatever he wanted. And Payson never stood up to him. Not once. And I worried that I wasn’t teaching him to be tough, that the world was for kids like Mondo to get what they wanted, while kids like Payson became prey. Lord of the Flies, or something.

Well, one day at the zoo, it all came to a head. It was a hot day. So freaking hot. Lots of flesh out that day. Human flesh. Sunburned, glistening human flesh. Long lines at the drinking fountains. Close quarters in the reptile house <dry heave>.  It smelled like sweaty giraffe undercarriage everywhere. A perfect zoo day!

Well, Payson in his charming way had requisitioned some cotton candy, and Mondo wanted it, and for the first time Payson stood up to him and tried to keep it, so Mondo gave him the business and a big old slap and claimed the cotton candy like he was Vazco de Gama or something.

Payson came to me with tears, and I told him dad things – you don’t start fights but you can finish them, the best thing to do to a bully is bully them, somebody punches you and you have a green light, here’s an exhaustive list of submission holds – you know, tough guy stuff.

So, I told him to go back to Mondo and get his cotton candy back and take care of the problem once and for all. Punch him, push him, berate him, give him a nuclear wedgie, whatever was needed. I felt like Vito Corleone. Tough guy training out the wazoo.

I turned my head to brag to the other people there about my super tough advice, and I turned back to see that Payson had gone over to Mondo, given him his hat because Mondo was hot, and was sharing a water bottle with him and asking if the cotton candy could be both of theirs. Then they walked arm in arm the rest of the day, and Mondo never gave him another moment of the business.

It’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever been taught as a dad.

So I stopped worrying about making Payson tough. He had something else so much more real, so much more true, something I strive to have and fail miserably.

Payson will never be a Hollywood tough guy. He will never dominate at soccer. He will never take something from somebody that he wants, just because he wants it. Other kids will never cower in his presence. This is not who Payson is. But I wouldn’t trade him for the entire cast of The Expendables.

And now I watch what Payson does every day with this stupid Leukemia treatment, and he shames me with his toughness. Every single day. He’s in the middle of chemotherapy, he goes to the hospital every single week, he gets prodded and poked and analyzed, he gets the stickiest substance on earth stuck to his skin and ripped off, he’s shaky, he’s weak, he doesn’t feel great, like ever, he’s inside when kids like him shouldn’t be, he’s always tired, he sleeps like a hibernating bear, he takes pills like a Melaleuca distributor, he’s lost his hair, he’s got an instagut, and HE NEVER, EVER EVER COMPLAINS. EVER. It’s just not who he is. He does his work, he keeps moving, and he remains totally defiant of changing or wilting or shrinking in the slightest.

Payson’s not a tough guy, but he’s the toughest guy I know.