Boys. They were some of my favorite friends when I was a little girl. Then, as I got older, I thought they were mean and smelly. Later, I changed my mind, had crushes on them and, ultimately, married the grown man version. Now, I’m a mother of a boy.
Having never actually been a boy myself, I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding the care and feeding of a little boy. I’ve relied on books, friends, observation, guesswork, and my son to teach me that being elbowed in the nose is actually a sign of affection, or that my romantic idea of baking gingerbread cookies together is really just a freeway to frustration, and maybe even some hollering. (If you didn’t know, flour is a very fun substance in its many forms and has endless enticing applications beyond baking).
I’ve been a daughter, girlfriend, competitor, co-worker, boss, friend and wife, but it took mothering a son to really see the differences between males and females.
As a tomboy with an even more tomboyish mom, I used to think boys and girls had different personality traits only because parents and society raised them in line with traditional gender roles. I promised myself not to fall into that trap when I became a mother. But now, with testosterone peeling paint off the walls of my house, I have to reconsider. Although I used to frown upon gross generalizations regarding gender roles, I now realize they can actually be helpful in understanding our children, especially when we are of the opposite gender.
Here are a few things my son (and other people’s sons) taught me about boys.
1. I yam what I yam. Whether your son is into princesses or dragons, you really have no say in the matter. I was determined to raise our son in a gender-neutral way. Although he was drawn to vehicles and predators, I pushed cute bunnies, pink and purple flowers, hand-made androgynous dolls and anything else that might counterbalance his testosterone-fueled energy. I now realize that this was an uphill battle going nowhere. The real pursuit isn’t creating a sweet little boy, but seeing through the chaos, noise, boogers and motion of the boy to find and cherish the sweet spots.
2. Meet the toy line up. After countless hours of observation in playgrounds and play dates, I’ve decided that there must be an official handbook of obsessions to which most boys subscribe. It starts innocently enough with a ball: feel it, bite it, roll it, throw it, dunk it, but by no means let go of it. Then, boyish obsessions move on to other items in a very specific order according to developmental age: trucks, heavy machinery, airplanes, cars, dinosaurs, dragons, and then the fill-in-the-blank-item of said boy’s favorite sport. The doll I gave my son never made the cut.
3. Stay. Go. Stay. Go. Somewhere around 6 years old, boys figure out that they are different from the females in their life. Suddenly, mom is so yesterday, and daddy is a hero. Thus begins the push/pull of mommy, which can be very emotional and confusing for everyone. Push mom away because I want to be just like daddy and she’s nothing like him. Pull mom back because, she’s mom and I need her. Push mom away because I have needed her too much and I want to be independent. Pull mom back because independence is scary. And on and on it goes. My guess is that it never ends. (And then, somewhere in the teen years, both mom and dad become equally so yesterday, and friends are all that matters. At least we all get a turn.)
4. Active learning. Boys don’t learn by sitting still in a chair. Learning is best done while running between rooms, dancing, farting and singing. I’m amazed at the correct math answers that come hurling at me from around a corner, just when I thought our son had skipped out on homework to build a pillow fort. No wonder boys are the ones getting in trouble at school. Who can think with all that stillness?
5. Girls create. Boys destroy. While boy energy can seem destructive on the surface, deep down it’s just active learning. Boys tend to display their curiosity physically. When exploring a new object, the go-to methods are eating it, throwing it, pinching it, pouring it, smashing it or flinging one’s body off it. Quiet observation and compliance is generally not a top choice for most boys. For example, my son recently learned about gravity and housekeeping all from one simple experiment. I asked him to take a drinking glass to the kitchen. He chose to deliver the glass to the kitchen by rolling it down 20 carpeted stairs to the hard tile floor below. At least now he knows how far glass can travel with a little bit of force behind it.
6. Movement and space. Understanding where one’s body is in space by means of dare devil moves is often a favorite male pastime. Don’t get me wrong, I like to fling myself through space too, but it seems that boys skip a few beats of hesitation because fear and potential injury rank a little lower on their list of worries. One could also say that what constitutes a good idea is different for boys and girls. For example, I would never have thought to climb high up onto a narrow windowsill just so I could free fall face first onto the couch, narrowly avoiding sharp tables, lamps and hardwood floors, but this happens hundreds of times a week at our house. My motto is don’t ask too many questions. Just move aside and protect your eyes.
7. Girls talk. Boys make noise. Girls have a lot to say and are generous with details. Boys have a lot of noise to make, but might not actually say anything at all, other than that they are here in your presence. How could you possibly forget with all that racket? Listen. They are saying something. You just need to translate from the physical to the verbal. (When you figure it out, give me a call because I am still trying to understand why my son thinks that if he is quiet he might be dead.)
8. Praise alone won’t work. I once read that girls tend to do better in school than boys because they are more eager to please others (teachers, parents, etc.), and boys do well in school when they have something internal motivating them. No amount of praise, coercion or peer pressure can motivate my son to do anything. Motivation has to come from his own internal desire and interest, or forget it. Yes, this is irritating, but it’s also admirably genuine.
9. What happens if I don’t? Boys want to know who’s in charge, what are the rules, and what are the consequences for breaking said rules. To them, life is a giant experiment. Every lever needs to be flipped, every button pushed and every flap opened. Of course all kids want to test boundaries, but girls seem to work in relationship with others and enjoy praise, while boys are more drawn to the experiment of finding hard and fast boundaries. When I was trying to get my son to lift the toilet seat before peeing, I tried everything before stooping to bribery with jelly beans. Put the seat up, pee, get a jelly bean. Simple, right? Nope. Purposely leave really big puddles of pee on the seat and then sweetly say you lifted the seat and ask for your reward. When you get busted and receive no jelly bean, try again tomorrow. This time, leave bigger puddles of pee on the seat (heck, the floor too, while you’re at it) before trying to claim your reward. Note failure and lack of jelly beans and start lifting the lid every time without fail and without jelly beans. Months later, note stale jelly beans in the cupboard but don’t ask for one.
10. Boys do cry. The whole idea that boys don’t cry is hogwash. Boys are just as emotional as girls, even if their style of emotional expression is different. Boys often express themselves physically, which can be misunderstood as tough or unemotional. Don’t believe it. Instead, use your super mother powers of translating the physical to the emotional. And then give them a big hug that lasts a really long time.