In my series on Fathers, I shared about watching a young preteen boy stare into his father’s eyes as they talked for hours on a flight from Houston to Boston. This occurred several years ago yet I still see this image in my mind from time to time. It was not what they were talking about that captured my attention – it was that this boy’s face was literally inches away from his father’s face and his eyes never left his father’s eyes. On that flight, tears streamed down my cheek as I watched this beautiful encounter unfold. When I look back, I now realize that this boy was hungry.
In my Relational Orientation Counseling with fathers and sons (it can be done with mothers and daughters as well), I regularly come across the hungry boys. The symptoms range from an insatiable excitability to severe depression and even suicidal tendencies. Clearly, such boys are hungry – desperately hungry for something: a father’s glance, a father’s words of encouragement, a father’s touch or a father’s conveyance of some kind of affirmation that feeds the soul.
I suppose you could say these boys are hungry for God. While I often say that children are resilient, they are also vulnerable. Children are vulnerable because they don’t know what they are hungry for: and sometimes, they don’t even realize they are hungry. Thus, it is critical that we as fathers and mothers feed them the ‘food’ that will point them toward Christ: the only One who can truly nourish them with ‘food’ that wholly satisfies.
Some people think that this is purely a spiritual exercise – just teach our children the Word of God and everything will be OK. Yet time and again, I meet teenagers and young adults who have received Christ – and have innumerable Scriptures memorized – yet they are still so hungry. The shepherding of our children toward adulthood is not just a Biblical or spiritual exercise: we must be present – safely, physically, and emotionally present – in their lives if we are to give them the ‘food’ that hungry boys and girls need.
As children grow up, they get this ‘food’ not only from Mom and Dad but also from siblings, peers, mentors, teachers and coaches. Whether the ‘food’ gets transferred or not is another thing – it takes a teacher or coach or instructor with a ‘shepherd’s’ heart to give children the kind of ‘food’ that can grow them into healthy adulthood. If all they do is pass a standardized test or score a touchdown, I don’t know that this will lead to healthy adulthood.
All kinds of circumstances in life set us up to not receive the ‘food’ we need. I remember being an extremely sensitive boy. I remember the day my Dad told me that I would soon be starting Kindergarten. As I recall it, we were hand-washing our car in the driveway and this fear gripped me as he told me about going to school. Many kids get excited about this, but inside I was filled with the fear of being separated from my Mom and Dad and brothers. Many first born children look ‘out’ and ‘forward’ as they grow – I seemed to look ‘back’ and turn ‘inward’ where it would be safe.
The day came: my Mom drove me to Mrs. Edmonston’s home for my first day of Kindergarten. My heart was throbbing. My body was slightly shaking. Like a prisoner who sees a small window of opportunity to escape, I desperately wrapped my arms around my Mother’s waist and decided that I would not let go. I started crying. Soon, Mrs. Edmonston came outside the one-room schoolhouse in her home and started encouraging me to come inside and join the other students. I held on to Mom with all my strength.
The scene deteriorated from here! (smile) Soon, Mrs. Edmonston is lifting me by the waist and pulling me away from my Mom. I kept holding on, screaming louder and louder. After what seemed like an hour, Mrs. Edmonston outlasted my strength and pulled me away from my Mom. I surrendered. With tears in my eyes, I walked inside as Mrs. Edmonston announced, “Class, will you welcome Billy Henson.” I looked up to a room full of blank stares – they were thinking, “Who is this screamer?”
If the ‘food’ we need has to start transferring from Mom and Dad to a child’s teachers, mentors and peers, then I guess you could say I got off to a rough start. If this were a relay race, I suppose I dropped the baton. The point is this: socialization is important and circumstances that interrupt a smooth socialization process can cause us to not get the ‘food’ we need.
The next year, I started First Grade. Thankfully, I overcame my fear of separation from Mom and Dad. I was proud to be going to school on my own. I was on the verge of getting that sense of looking ‘out’ and ‘forward’ as school started. What I did not know was that there was a bully waiting just for me (it seemed) the very first day of elementary school. He chased me down and kicked me in the privates and then tackled me for no good reason.
I remember thinking, “Ah teacher, I kind of need some help over here.” The teacher never seemed to see what was going on. I went home that night thinking it was just a one-time thing. I was wrong. No matter where I was on that playground, this bully knew how to find me and he knew how to instill fear. Every recess, I felt cautious about when to go out and where to hang out. Everyday, I tried to hide from this kid but many days he found me.
It is ironic that most kids don’t know how to put into language the fear they feel. I went home night after night and I don’t think I once shared this with my parents. I also never went and told a teacher. Part of it was this fear of being labeled a tattle-tale. Part of it was just this sense that I was supposed to wait on the teacher to come help me instead of ask for help.
Why did this happen? I don’t know. I suppose for no good reason. But in the end, it did happen and it interrupted the transition by which I moved from getting my ‘food’ from my father to getting ‘food’ from my peers.
I was born with my left foot turned completely inside. Instead of breaking and resetting my leg, the treatment was to later wear metal plates in my shoes that would slowly straighten out my foot as I grew. I started wearing these plates – to my memory – in Second Grade. By this time, I had made some friends that I really liked to play with. While my circle of close friends was small, we played football during recess with a wider group of boys.
Invariably, I would be running and my shoes would come off and the plates would go flying. The other boys would stop everything and just stare: “What are those?” The embarrassment of having these boys laugh at me often kept me playing marbles instead of playing football. I really wanted to be out there with them, but I feared humiliation if my shoes came off.
I have to stop here: this is no pity party. I do not feel pain today over these kinds of memories. If you infer a pitiful tone on my part, I invite you to listen in another tone. (smile) As I always note when I share my life story publicly, I was raised by the most loving mother and father that a boy could have. I had an incredibly adventurous childhood that gives me so many wonderful memories today. My parents gift of unconditional love – then and now – continues to bless me.
So why do I share all these negative experiences? Simply because many people think that developmental progress (socialization, gender identity) is only interrupted by devastating issues like abuse or severe neglect. In truth, very minor wounds can interrupt the developmental process in ways that are often undetected – this can produce larger consequences later.
One of the consequences of these minor episodes in my life is that I lived with a low-grade fear of being bullied or made fun of in school. In Fifth Grade, I remember that I was this tall, thin kid. I was a ‘toothpick’ according to some of the kids. There was this girl named Tiny. The problem with Tiny is that she was anything but ‘tiny’ – she was gargantuan! She stood about 6-8 inches taller than me and she was rather well-developed up top.
Tiny, a tom-girl, would chase me around the playground, tackle me, sit on me and smash her big boobs in my face. It’s one thing to get tackled by a tough boy who bullies to feel better about himself; it’s another thing to get tackled by a girl. The other boys just laughed as Tiny rubbed her premature boobs in my face.
That same year, I ran across a relative’s pornography stash. The cover page featured two women growling sexually as they touched one another. I remember thinking that these women looked like angry lions. My first images of sex were photographs that had nothing to do with love and everything to do with lust and power. I despised these images.
The next year, in Sixth Grade, a babysitter – about 17 years old – held me down on the living room floor holding my hands behind my head and pinning my legs with her knees. She bent down and started french-kissing me against my will. I suppose that at 14, I might have been in heaven (so to speak). But at 10 years of age, I felt over-powered by her force. I did not feel arousal – I felt humiliation. By this point, I kind of settled in my heart that ‘girls’ are not safe. I was not afraid of them – but I sure could not trust them. Or so I thought at that time.
Later that year, our family moved from small town Oklahoma to Louisiana where we stayed for just about 6 months before transferring to Houston, TX. In Louisiana, I liked it but I felt displaced. My Dad was offshore a lot and so my ‘hunger’ for him was increasingly focused upon my peers.
It is interesting that these boys just seemed to assimilate: they seemed to like to hang out but they did not seem to hunger for one another or need another boy to complete them. I, on the other hand, was hungry – for affection, touch and emotional connection. I saw the confidence that other boys naturally carried: I hungered for it. But at some point, I simply started hungering for the boys who had this confidence. I just wanted to be around them – to be near them – to touch them. Simple stuff. If one friend in particular that I deeply admired even accidentally brushed against my arm accidentally, I felt like I was important to him.
When boys are hungry, the energy will come out of them. If they cannot produce the ‘food’ they need within themselves – if it cannot be drawn out of them naturally – then they will invariably start to feed off the ‘food’ inside other boys. At some point, there is a detachment. I could not be as strong as other boys, so I detached from my own development and held tightly to other boys. I suppose not unlike the way I held tightly to my Mom that first day of Kindergarten.
The next year, in Seventh Grade, I ‘accidentally’ discovered masturbation. I know, I know – it’s hard to believe it was an accident. I always say, “It was an accident the FIRST time.” (smile) There were no sexual thoughts attached to the experience – it was just an accidental physical explosion. I felt a deep shame not really understanding what had happened.
Once again, circumstances at just the right time can kill the soul of a kid. That summer after Seventh Grade, I went out of town to spend a week with a relative. Before I go further, I just need to say that this relative is no longer alive – and I know that this person died with Jesus on their heart. Yes, I know this person is in Heaven. I forgave them long ago.
But at that time in my life, the experience I am about to share with you was pure hell. I watched as a seductive and greasy woman opened the front door. My relative greeted her by name. The two went into the back room and there were soon all kinds of noises. Several minutes later, they came out. The woman was given a check and the two agreed to get together the following week.
This relative of mine then put their dirty hands on my shoulder and asked me to take a walk. This person, during the walk, stopped me, hugged me with sex-dirtied hands, and started crying and asking me – as a 13 year-old – to provide emotional comfort. I was sickened.
My heart was racing with fear. My mind was shamed by the sexual images of this act of prostitution. If I was a boy who was hungry for ‘food’ to be passed down to me from my family, then on this day I was forced to drink poison. I made a vow that day that I would never be like this relative.
Folks, this is just my story. You have your own. Many of you have stories much more graphically horrendous and soul-killing than the relatively minor disruptions in my own development. I don’t want to call that last story ‘minor’ but it is compared to being the victim of sexual abuse.
When hungry boys don’t get the ‘food’ they need, they tend to comfort themselves and cope with inner desires in unhealthy ways. We need to keep in mind that ALL boys (and girls) are hungry. We also need to keep in mind that we – as parents – might not always know all the circumstances going on in our children’s lives. Even if we know some of these details, we cannot ‘fix’ all their circumstances. At times, intervening to protect our children can humiliate them as much or more than not protecting them. There are no easy answers.
This I know: hungry boys need their Dad to be present. Hungry girls need their Dad to be present. Hungry boys and girls need their Mom to be present. They need safe teachers, coaches, instructors and mentors to be present. They need relatives to be present. To be physically present. To be emotionally present. To be spiritually present.
One young guy that I am counseling put it this way: “I wish my Dad was content in my presence and I wish that he was open to my grasping emotional connection.” When I heard this, I was shell-shocked. For a young teen to be able to express his need for his father in such terms, it floored me. I suppose it floored me because it got me in touch with what it was like when I was a boy. I was so hungry. I was ‘grasping’ for food.
The confidence that many fathers feel about who they are and what they are called to be in life can either be a bridge…or a roadblock. It can be a bridge by which a son draws confidence out from within himself. Or else it can be a roadblock – the confidence can be so strong that a child simply cannot fathom having that kind of confidence within himself.
This I know: it does not take a ‘bad dad’ to be a roadblock to his son’s development. In fact, in many cases, maybe the father is not a roadblock at all. In many cases – in mine particularly – is it possible that I was just too needy? Is it possible that I was just overly hungry? Quite possibly so. Possibly, my Dad’s confidence was so strong that I detached from him instead of digesting this ‘food’ that could have had the power to nourish the same confidence deep within me.
In light of this, without in any regard wishing to shame or blame fathers, we – as strong, confident fathers – are reminded that we need to SLOW it down and really pay attention to the heart cry of our sons and daughters. We need to be perceptive to read our childrens’ hearts and minds to gauge just how ‘hungry’ each one is.
If we slow down and read the heart of each one of our children, we can shepherd them toward the strength and confidence that we possess in our own identity. We can show them that they’ve got what it takes.
Further, we can gently teach them that it’s OK not to have ‘all’ it takes. After all, there is a space in our hearts that cannot be filled with any other person or pleasure or ‘food’ on this earth. There is a space where God is meant to dwell. And we need HIM. We need HIM for many reasons but one reason we need HIM is simply because this world will hurt us. We need our children to intimately know the God who comforts them when they get hurt or humiliated. We cannot always be there for our children every moment of the day. But God IS there every moment…
We can shepherd our children toward the care of God. We can grow them into healthy personal identity. We can instill in them our unconditional love for them. We can give them the ‘food’ they need.
Yes, even HUNGRY boys! (and HUNGRY girls too)