When Impossible Boys Grow Up to be Unbreakable Men


This is a tale of my three sons. The youngest is only four months old and his personality is emerging, the way those old Polaroid photos leeched up through the blackness. My oldest son is eleven and exactly like I was as a child: a rule-follower, not a risk-taker. He’s kind to his siblings and isn’t particularly rough. He loves to read.

My middle son Sam, well, sometimes I wonder where he came from. He’s a climber, adventurous, and never gives up. He will ask for something over and over and over again, even if I say no. His primary way of relating with people is by being physically rough with them: he has a game he plays with his grandpa whenever he sees him that involves punching him in the stomach as hard as he can. He finds this hilarious. If I am ever on my knees changing the baby’s diaper or picking something up off the floor, no matter where Sam is in the house, he will sense that I’m on my knees, find me, and jump on to my back. He spent all Thanksgiving weekend wrestling with his cousin.

He is five. Words that describe him perfectly at this point in his life? I’ll take Defiant, Strong-Willed, and Passionate.

* * * * *

Maile was recently reading an interview with Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Unbroken. It’s been on the NYT best-seller list for 180 weeks, and it’s the story of a man who served in WWII, survived a plane crash, being lost at sea, and then imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp.

There was a quote from the interview that stood out to me as she reflected on the subject of her book, a man named Louie.

“Defiance defines Louie,” Laura Hillenbrand said. “As a boy he was a hellraiser. He refused to be corralled. When someone pushed him he pushed back. That made him an impossible kid but an unbreakable man.”

An impossible kid.

An unbreakable man.

Sometimes I think I am way too short-sighted when it comes to raising Sammy. Too many times I want to change his personality NOW because it will make my life easier. But I think that, with him, with all of my children, I need to think about how these current struggles will someday become incredible strengths of character. I don’t want to break him now just so that bedtime routines or dinner times are quieter. I don’t want to quench his spirit just so that I can walk through the house without getting jumped on.

I want to guide him into becoming an unbreakable man.

* * * * *

Sam catches up to me as I start down the stairs.

“Dad, can you sing me a bedtime song?”

“Sammy, everyone else is asleep. If we go back in there and I sing, we’ll wake them up.”

He looks up at me.

“C’mon, Dad,” he says.

“It’s not going to happen, buddy.”

“C’mon, Dad,” he says again.

Did I mention he does not give up?

“Come here,” I say, and I sit down on the floor in the hallway, my back against the wall. He comes over and sits on my lap, facing me. He wraps his arms around my neck, puts his head on my chest, and sucks his thumb while I sing his favorite song.

After getting through it twice, I whisper into his ear.

“Time for bed, little man.”

He looks at me and smiles, then walks back into the bedroom. Sometimes he seems like an impossible kid, but from now on I will choose to remember that this will someday make him into an unbreakable man.

12 Replies to “When Impossible Boys Grow Up to be Unbreakable Men”

  1. Scientists tell us that parents have very little effect on kids after they reach the age of four.

    My late first wife told me that I was interpreting that wrong, that parents don’t have all that much influence the first four years, either. She pointed out that our babies acted differently while in the womb, with the oldest, a boy, getting boisterous and kicking when I’d read to him before birth, as if saying, I’m here, Dad!; the last, a girl, would cease moving, as if wanting to capture every word I said.

    And if you think about it, you didn’t change anything in your parenting to make Sam the way he is.

    I I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re raising kids. Carrots and tomatoes, we can raise; kids, we sponsor.

    I’m not so sure I’d wish “unbreakable” on anyone. It’s like wishing them an “interesting life”, which us a Chinese curse. Sam will make his parents proud.

  2. Shawn,
    Thanks for this!! This is exactly what I needed to read today. This so describes Finley too. What a good reminder for me. Can’t wait for Evan to read this.

      1. That’s so cool Jason! And that’s the spelling I wanted but my husband’s choice for the “E” won out. My son, who is also 5 like Sammy, would love to meet another person with his name!

        1. My son is also 5. His cousin’s name is Finnley as well! We had the name first but my brother and his wife didn’t know and chose this name late in the game (they had a good friend whose last name was Findlay). It was kind of hard for us and we almost didn’t go forward with it when we had a boy (theirs is older) but we are now glad there are two of them in our family. They spelled theirs differently so it wouldn’t be exact. They are both eccentric personalities!

          You can tell your son their are two more Finlays in the world and they are even in the same extended family!

  3. Some of what you’re touching on here is children having different needs as well. And sometimes we get kids that aren’t the best match, where they need something from us we don’t either have or struggle to give. It’s what then challenges parents to grow, reflect, work through their own histories and personality structures.

    And yes, there is an acorn that started us all and won’t stop following through on its mission. The area between us and our children that rubs should rub a bit. We have to handle the tension without pushing back too hard where will is broken. The beauty of an individual soul is found in its differences. Sam is honing his strengths but needs your guidance.

    But don’t listen to me cause this cobbler’s kids aint got no shoes.

    I loved the title to this post.

      1. Thanks Shawn. I have lots of thoughts on this stuff as you well know. I can diagnose a lot of systemic issues in other families but man it’s hard to understand my own. Parenting is a complicated and impossible game these days. I mean, it always has been, but there’s more desire from parents to do it “right” than ever before. There is a greater culture of parenting of which we are all a part whether we realize it or not and it has great influence in subtle and not so subtle ways.

        But the reflection on how to create enough space for Sam to express his Samness is good stuff.


  4. This is so, so true. My middler child was much more volatile than the other two, but she is the one who speaks truth in our system and speaks it eloquently. I wouldn’t trade her or change her. LOVE that line about Zamparini.

  5. I know I have 2 of these little boys running around a 3 and a 5. I always think, in this world, I want them to be that wild spirit. The risk taker, the impulsively fun spontaneous boys they are. As a mom of 2 young boys, I’m often tired, I’m often on the go and more often than not, I feel looked upon and often commented about as that mom….the one who won’t reign those boys in…I hope they will grow up to be unbreakable b/c this world can be a breaking place

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