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Fighting Tradition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As young boys, they were raised under a simple code of manhood: Be the aggressor, don’t let anyone push you around, and if someone is coming at you, get in the first lick.

Now they are fathers, trying to teach the rules of aggression to their own sons and finding that the lessons are complex and confusing: Avoid conflict if you can. If someone demands your money, there are times you give it up. Be tough, but not too tough--it can get you killed.

Sunday will bring reflections on the changing role of fathers, and little has changed more in large cities like Los Angeles than the way boys are taught to stick up for themselves. Fathers are being forced to define manhood in a way that is sharply at odds with what they experienced growing up.

Look at the way the ritual has changed through Nathaniel Howard’s eyes.

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“It seemed like almost every day someone was chasing me home from school,” recalls Howard, who grew up in Oklahoma and South-Central Los Angeles. “I didn’t have time to open the screen door, so I just dived in through a hole in the screen and cut up my clothes. One day my mother forced me out of the house. She dragged me by the chest and put me back outside. She said, ‘You can fight him or fight me.’ ”

Now 43 and living in the West Adams district west of downtown, Howard says he can’t imagine giving his 14-year-old son, Timothy, the same advice. One of Timothy’s friends was shot to death after winning a fistfight with another boy.

“Children today don’t have the same set of values,” Howard says wearily. “They don’t play by the rule ‘May the best man win.’ ”

In Howard’s boyhood, tears were looked upon with scorn by men like his dad, who taught him how to box. Fathers might have preached the art of turning the other cheek, but they would quietly praise and reward sons who refused to back down. Toughness was a valued trait to be passed on, a tool of survival.

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That ethic has faded dramatically as the streets become more dangerous and hair-trigger tempers turn innocent skirmishes into gun deaths.

There is also far more social awareness of the consequences of male aggression, human behavior experts say, and a backlash against the macho mentality of previous generations.

Men like Howard, who were allowed to roam their neighborhoods all day in their youth, now find themselves chauffeuring their children to keep them out of danger. Fathers who recall the days when any parent on the block could make a child toe the line now live in communities that have grown fearful of teenage boys.

Howard says Timothy is vulnerable to the age-old tradition of responding to stress with aggression. Since his mother died about two years ago, he has gotten into several fights and has been suspended from school.

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“Any time someone says something about his mother, he is ready to fight,” Howard says. “His mother is his weak spot, and other children can be cruel when it comes to picking on weak spots.”

And so Howard did something his father, a Korean War veteran, never would have done. He enrolled his son in counseling, and he himself joined a weekly gathering of about a dozen fathers at Children’s Institute International in Los Angeles.

Recently, the fathers in the group spent an evening on the question of how to teach their sons to protect themselves in today’s world. It was a double-edged discussion that swung from laughter over the scrapes they had experienced growing up to fear about what their sons would face.

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David Zubia, a 38-year-old print shop manager, had more than his share of street scuffles growing up in Los Angeles. He is determined that his son Devon, 12, will not grow up the same way.

Zubia said he began teaching his son how to defend himself when some of his classmates began taunting him, sneaking up behind him and pulling down his gym shorts in class. But “defending” in this era meant getting the boy more involved in sports, building his confidence.

“He needs to be more diplomatic, more verbal in resolving conflicts,” Zubia said. “That’s how you survive today.”

Survival also means keeping a close eye on your child.

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“I try to know where he’s at at all times, day or night,” Zubia said. “I pick him up and drop him off. He doesn’t have the freedom to run the streets the way that I did. There is too much danger out there.”

“You can’t tell your son today to go fist-to-fist with someone,” echoed Melvin Johnson, 59. “You don’t know what the other kid has in his pocket.”

The clinical psychologist who runs the sessions, Hershel K. Swinger, 59, said he was raised the same way as most of the men in the room while growing up in rural Kansas.

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“I remember my mother telling me to go out and fight. I did, and the fighting got good to me, and I started chasing the boy down the street,” he said. “I could hear my mother running after me saying, ‘Come back here.’ ”

Swinger, who is black, said he faced a different reality about 10 years ago when police stepped up a crackdown on street gangs, and virtually all young black males seemed to be the target of suspicion.

“I didn’t know which was worse, the gang members or the police,” he said. “So I bought my way out. I sent my son to an expensive school in Northern California.”

Ronald Levant, a Harvard professor who has written about the changing rules of manhood and grew up in Southern California, said the need for toughness was more immediate in the lives of men who survived the Depression of the ‘30s and World War II.

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That ethic has come into conflict with recent social changes that are conditioning men to be more communicative, he said. There are more families in which women work, putting pressure on men to be more involved with their children. There are more families headed by women, breaking down the dominance of male values. And there is more pressure on fathers to practice what they preach.

“We need to rethink the roles of men in our society and help our children to develop skills that we weren’t given as a matter of course,” Levant said. “Children need to learn how to anticipate dangerous situations and resolve them or avoid them.”

Levant said his father, a printer with an eighth-grade education, was ill-equipped to give such advice when he was raising his family in South Gate.

“My dad was as tough as they come,,” Levant recalled. “He would show disgust” if Levant came home having lost a fight.

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Many of the fights grew out of the prejudice that some felt against the Levants, one of the few Jewish families in South Gate.

“I was called a kike,” Levant recalled. “At some point I realized this was a fighting word, and I couldn’t back down. My father told me to fight.”

“Would I raise a son like that?” Levant asked. “Hell, no.”


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