Thomas hangs off the side of a Land Rover, which he really wants us to buy.

Life without a brother can be hard, especially when you’re the only brother in your brood.

Thomas, alas, has determined that he would really like to have a sibling that is his gender. The discovery isn’t terribly surprising–this summer, he and Julia have suddenly grown into a place where conflict is a not uncommon circumstance–but the admission came after our prolonged absence while we were in Colorado. The three kiddos had been dispatched to Carl and Dianne’s for the duration, and it seems the closer quarters compounded the matter.

Naturally, the idea that a brother is at odds with his sister is nothing new; this is as ancient an idea as any. We’d arrived at a boiling point, though.

The other evening I came home from work to find Thomas clearly in a funk. Kelly glanced at me and nodded at him, trying to convey in the silent language of parents that the boy needed to talk. So I went in to change, and he followed me into our room, and I proceeded to open up his can of worms.

“It’s just,” he began a half dozen times, his six year-old brain searching for language that his brain hasn’t entirely developed the capacity to deploy. “It’s just…I wish I had a brother sometimes.”

I didn’t bother explaining to him that the brief surgery my urologist performed a couple years ago largely mitigated that possibility from ever occurring.

Underlying this, I’m afraid, is the fact that Thomas doesn’t get as much guy time as he needs. I have been horribly preoccupied with work and grad school. Neither of our fathers has much of a chance to spend time exclusively with Thomas. The other boys in our neighborhood seem to be older, and besides, our kids (maybe kids in general? Hard to tell these days…) aren’t inclined to wander around the neighborhood in search of pals to get into something with.

Nevertheless, Friday evening as Kel and I were trying to figure out what to do after work, a familiar rift appeared. The girls wanted to go swimming. Thomas did not. So I suggested that Kel take Julia and Annie to the club to swim, and I would take Thomas downtown for supper and a chance to play on the playground. (There was a Friday After Five concert, so we’d have plenty of people to hang around with.)

It worked. Thomas and I dug into Mexican food at the taco place, demolishing an entire basket of chips and salsa and platters of tacos and carnitas verdes, and then we walked up to the playground. The air was sweltering–hot and humid and still–and everybody in the crowd was slick with sweat.

I was happy to let Thomas play on his own–there were dozens of kids there, and he knew the playground from his days in preschool. I picked up a beer and chatted with friends, and every ten or fifteen minutes, I’d walk over to the fence and find Thomas. Occasionally he’d see me, and I asked if he needed anything. Usually, the answer was no.

At one point I saw that he’d taken to a group of older boys playing football. Each one seemed to have a foot in height over him and twice the weight. A couple of the boys seemed amused that such a young kid would have the audacity to just come up and hang out–that spunk is Thomas outright. I’m not sure if it’s simply his naivete or fortitude that’s behind his ability to simply walk up and introduce himself with such confidence.

My own childhood deficits of confidence immediately rose up in my throat, however. Ever the shrimp in my squad as an elementary aged kid, the tableau before me inspired a lizard-like response in my brain. Run away, I felt like shouting. Those boys mean you no good.

But Thomas didn’t notice. And they didn’t seem to care. He was in no way in contention as a player in this game of touch football or keep-away or whatever it was. He was simply, and gladly, hanging with the guys.

Thomas looked drenched by the end of the evening. We picked up a sno-cone from a group that had set up nearby the playground. Walking back to my car, the boy seemed content with his evening. Back at home, he showered off and curled up with Julia and me on the couch for a bedtime story, and soon he was off to bed and fast asleep.

For better or worse, my son shares a particular sensitivity with me. Neither of us seems to have any interest in explicit, forward masculinity. He could not tell you who plays for the football team or who might be traded after the All-Star break in baseball. We are defined far more by our forbearance than our casual male attitudes.

His curiosity in exploring that terrain, however, is good–and I am reminded it’s well worth encouraging healthy pathways through it. Better for him to make a mess in the mud now than to make a mess of his life later. For me, too, most likely.