Boys: Crossing the Bridge and Entering the Forest

Boys change over time. The fundamentals don’t shift, but their perspectives and awareness opens up as they attempt to adapt their natural tendencies and abilities to a larger sense of being in the world. The cornerstone of the change is the fading of imaginative play as their core experience: when they begin realizing that there are things going on around them.

In boyhood, life events are incorporated into his play: he literally plays his way through them in his imagination. Crossing out of this experience, a boy finds himself “trying to figure out” what is going on and respond to it. It’s quite a shock and disorienting. He finds himself actually unsure of how to operate. His play “toolkit” doesn’t work or get the job done.

A simple example is a boy who imaginatively plays a lot of war/battle games with toy weapons. One day, perhaps in the midst of playing, he realizes that his toy gun represents a real weapon that kills people: really, kills them, dead. His body/feeling of playful pleasure vanishes. What used to be simple fun is now empty, meaningless, maybe even awful. He is puzzled, confused, unsure of himself, lost in a new world he doesn’t understand and he doesn’t know what to do. It is very scary.

This boy has crossed the bridge and entered the forest. Like in the fairy tales, he’s left the world as he’s known it and stepped into another world. It is sort-of familiar but feels totally different. It beckons him to bring his playful, strong, sensitive, focused spirit to the challenges and events he encounters. But, it is not clear what he’s “suppose” to do.

Crossing the bridge can kind of whack him upside the head. Since he generally doesn’t have the best verbal and relating skills to begin with, he usually has a hard time articulating what is going on. Afraid and confused are his dominant emotions. Something like, “great, now what am I going to do?” is a thought pattern that permeates his body awareness. Since fear is a boy’s least favorite feeling, next step is trying to make it go away. Doing his best to return to imaginative play is common. It’s natural and normal. Of course, it doesn’t work. He may become withdrawn and sullen. He may misbehave and act out. They are two sides of the same coin: he’s struggling to both adapt and to communicate that he’s out of kilter.

Grown-ups tend to recognize when a boy has crossed the bridge. They notice a change in his play and often in his overall behavior. Typically, they think of it as the “loss of childhood.” They may be sympathetic, even nostalgic. Perhaps they act brusque and insensitive. Usually, the underlying attitude is “it’s time to stop playing and grow up.” Grown-ups say things like, “life isn’t fun and games” or “you can’t always play; there is work to be done.” The boy usually gets some kind of message that translates into, “that’s it! It’s over. No more imaginative play.” It feels like death and is deeply disturbing.

Crossing the bridge and entering the forest is a calling. It is a new twist and meant to be an awesome adventure on the path of becoming a man. He is at the beginning of a critically important road. The boy is called to bring with him the best of himself: his imaginative, playful, curious, sensitive, strong, focused, feeling spirit into his being in the world. It is an extraordinary opportunity to “try out his skills” in an entirely different context. It is his chance to apply imaginative play, intense curiosity, an aware sensitivity, strong determination, focused attention, and emotional empathy to the real world experiences he encounters.

Boyhood is meant to prepare boys to cross the bridge. Once they enter the forest, they cannot fend for themselves. With inadequate attention, he can wither and become lost in the forest, even trying to find his way back over the bridge. Or, he can be “well-advised” and find his way to master the terrain, exit the forest and move on to the next challenges in becoming a positive, purposeful, powerful man.

©2011 Ted Braude

Related: Issues, Books

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Youth is wholly experimental. - Robert Louis Stevenson


Ted Braude is a health psychologist, speaker, writer, musician and a second degree black belt in the Japanese martial art Aikido. A former school teacher at Friends School in Detroit, he's been practicing psychology since 1982, blending his diverse interests and understandings into his meeting with people of all ages in individual, couple and family therapy. Ted is well known for his work with boys and their families, especially his Dragonwork with teenage boys. Ted is a columnist in the The Detroit Free Press "Body and Mind" section and apprentices in Aikido and in Ki healing with martial arts and Ki master Katsumi Niikura Sensei. His offices are in Royal Oak and Milford, Michigan. Contact Ted at E-Mail or visit

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