The steamy morning reminded the congregation that Baltimore is on the shore and was once considered part of the South. The heat and the elderly substitute for the vacationing rector made the service informal and cozy, but if I had known the small church didn’t have air conditioning, I might have chosen some other Sunday to visit. The regulars knew how to deal with the heat: The women wore sleeveless tops and dresses; as for the men, I was wearing fully half the congregation’s allotment of ties. I was the only one to try one of the little spade-shaped wicker fans tucked in with the prayer book and hymnal. The regulars didn’t bother, knowing that expending the required energy would just make them more miserable.

The woman seated across the aisle from me had her toddler dressed for the weather, in a seersucker jumper with short legs. The little boy had a cheerful, angelic face surrounded by thick, dark blonde curls. His jumper, bare feet, and luxurious curls made me wonder if his mother had hoped for a girl.

During my medical training, they told me the name for what this little boy was doing, but I had forgotten it long ago. Still, the idea came back to me as he acted out an intense, heartfelt little chapter from a textbook on child development. He bumped into his mother, making sure he got some acknowledgment—a smile, a hug, a quick whispered game of peek-a-boo—then he was off. The point of the game was to see if he could find his way back to her. And what a game! The long canyons formed by the pews that towered over him, strange but smiling faces, the occasional snag in finding his way back to his mother—all added a little spice. A woman near 30, sitting with her own mother, brought him back once when he got lost, but the boy’s mother calmly let him go again as soon as he was ready. At the exchange of the peace, when the congregation gathered in the aisle to talk and shake hands, a few hugging one another, three or four of the adults reached down to touch the boy’s springy curls. Ignoring their hands, he continued weaving among the dresses and trousers.

During one of his stops for emotional refueling, his mother stepped two rows back to say hello to an older woman. He watched her, clutching the pew, his face a jumble of emotions. It was all right if he left Mom, but no one said she could go anywhere! He wasn’t sure whether to cry, run after her, or struggle to wait her out. Fortunately, she came back quickly, and his smile was brighter than the sun, which couldn’t quite push its way through the Baltimore haze.

After the peace, two men marched up to the altar for the offertory plates, one touching the little boy as they passed. The men left the altar and worked their way back, pew by pew, collecting money and checks, and then disappearing behind me. When the priest raised his hands and they swept back up the aisle to the altar, one of the men had the boy on his hip, the plate in his other hand. At the altar, the toddler’s head snapped forward to watch as the priest took the offering, lifted it to eye level, and spoke in a loud voice. Tall candles in silver holders, a golden cross, dark, decorative wood behind the priest, stained glass above their heads: The little boy was enthralled. I thought of my own son, similarly captivated at a few months’ age when a man in a gown had taken him from his mother to rub a damp cross on his forehead. What are they up to? What is this all about? If the man with the offering plate had spoken to him as they went forward, the little boy would have thought the ride mundane and restrictive. The man’s silence and refusal to look at him made all the difference.

The man who had spontaneously picked up the boy was wearing the only other tie in the room. Only a very poor Christian would have thought that there was something a little too prim about the man, a little too dapper—my thoughts precisely. Worse, I wondered if his hair were dyed, then decided he was wearing a toupee. Watching as he handled the toddler with such skill, I regretted my wandering mind. Acting like a man, this dapper congregant had brought about a moment of grace.

As for the boy, I had mixed feelings. He had been quiet, demanding no attention from the rest of us, going about his explorations—his work—with great seriousness. His face conveyed his joy in those daring forays away from his mother, and who wouldn’t share it? He was charming now, but in another year, or perhaps just another week, the scene will be quite different. Loud talking, crying, demands: In six months, he will be two, and what he wants will interfere with what the adults are doing. We will need to respond to him differently then; left unchecked, spontaneity becomes selfishness, and curiosity doesn’t grow into reverence or awe. If you want a boy to develop compassion, sometimes you have to tell him he’s not the center of the universe. If you want him to consider something sacred, he needs to hear there is something more important than he is.

The day before I visited that church, I had been at the mailbox in my building when two teenage girls came up and demanded to know if I needed anyone to baby-sit for me. “Do you have any kids?” No introduction, no greeting—they just started firing questions at me, at a volume I considered a shout. If I had needed any baby-sitting, I wouldn’t have entrusted it to these two. Manners have their flaws as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual states of mind, but I intend to keep using them in forming my judgments.

Perhaps someday, though, I’ll learn not to judge men by their toupees. The dapper gentleman had worked an exercise from another textbook, this one concerning the civilizing of the barbarians we call our children. He knew that the boy’s explorations—his need for adventure, his sense of fun—had great potential for good, if only some way could be found to sweep them up into something older and larger. There was love and a sharing of the little boy’s joy in that decision to carry him forward with the other offerings to the altar. There was also, in that sagacious ignoring of him as the men walked up the aisle, a demand that the boy begin the great struggle of living a life with some discipline.

When a boy takes appropriate steps away from his mother, he should be encouraged; boys must move away from their mothers in order to become themselves. Better the prying away be done by a church than by other boys or the wrong kind of adult. In action—the proper mode of communication with a small child—the man with a tie had given that boy a powerful message. We are doing what men do, and it takes precedence over whatever you might want. Now be quiet and pay attention, and you can be part of it, too. A proper man’s message for boys.