I didn’t grow up with a brother or a close male friend, so when it came to boys, I was pretty clueless. This isn’t to say that I’m a girly-girl – I’m not – but when it comes to how males think and why, I am often confused. This confusion was increased by the belief that I held: gender may exist, but differences between them did not. When the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus came out, I still didn’t buy the idea that men are fundamentally different from women in how they think about things and how they behave. I thought those differences were mostly an act of socialization, not of biology. Boy, was I wrong.
When I had my baby boy, one of the first things I noticed is that unlike the little baby girls in playgroup who mewed their dissatisfaction, mine howled like a warrior. He didn’t as much cry as yell. This was my first clue that boys are actually in fact different. From that point on I have been on a journey of discovering that boys are actually different, and that those differences are not only okay, they’re lovely. To support my learning, I’ve been reading about boys. There are three things that I’ve learned that have helped me parent my son and stepson through tumultuous times and even just the normal transitions of growing up.
1. Boys need a “tribe”
Just like parents need lots of support, so do boys. In The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian, the author talks about the three families that can and should help raise a boy: the family at home; the extended family of relatives, teachers and friends; and, the culture and community that the boy lives within. “Together,” Gurian writes, “these three families comprise a boy’s tribe.” All three influence a boy, and these influences need to be taken into account by the parents. Providing access to a wide group of people, especially in the first and second “families,” shares the parenting work and allows boys to feel part of a loving, educating tribe.
In my son’s life his second family – the extended family and friends – play a larger role. He spends a lot of time with his grandfather doing science experiments, and enjoys the symphony with his grandmother. My son also spends a significant amount of time with his father’s parents and sister when he visits Japan each summer. My son, now seven, sees a number of circles of “family:” one is Luke and me; another is Luke and me plus his stepfather and step-siblings; a third is his Japanese family; yet another is my parents and sister. I like to think that his families are like the rings in the Olympic flag: overlapping and connected, but different and equal.
2. Boys need to be taught self-management skills
I was surprised at how early my boys have needed to be taught, explicitly, the skills of self-management. My son has a chart to help him get ready on his own in the morning; my stepson, fourteen, has worked with me to develop an after-school and evening schedule to help him stay on top of his laundry and homework while still having time to relax and have fun. According to Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of Raising Confident Boys, parents may “unconsciously feel uncomfortable teaching boys to use the washing machine, cook or iron. Boys can be so clumsy, too. We’d rather do the job for him than see him struggle, ruin it or go out looking scruffy or without something because he’s forgotten to think ahead.” This is definitely true for me: I remind the boys to pack their lunch, brush their teeth, and wear clean clothes. Reminding them may help them that particular day, but because I do it every day, I’m not teaching independence. This lesson has been, and will likely continue to be, the hardest one for me to learn.
3. Boys need to know how to tap into their “boy power”
When I was a single mom – part of the “single mom syndicate,” as my ex would refer to it – I was given a book called Raising Boys Without Men, by Peggy Drexler. The idea that I found most captivating in this book is “boy power.” The author describes this power as the “artful combination of physicality and sensitivity.” Encouraging boy power includes fostering sensitivity and good communication, but not at the expense of time spent in rough-and-tumble play. I like to think of it as a kind of yin-yang thing.
As crazy as it sounds, I shied away from my son’s displays of sensitivity. His father didn’t like that my son picked out of someone’s “free pile” a doll house for his action figures, nor did he like the hand-me-down toy kitchen my son was given, and my son adored. “You’re encouraging him to be a girl,” he said – and although I stood my ground on the kitchen and doll house, there was a niggling worry that I was in fact making my son into what he was not, rather than supporting my son’s natural instincts and interests.
Now that I’ve read about boy power, I feel more confident in parenting my boy’s sensitive side. Although I can’t provide a baby brother or sister for my son to be gentle with, I was able to provide him with a daycare that focused on fostering sensitivity and with multiple opportunities to interact with other people’s babies. Having pets has helped, too: together we care for the animals and consider what their needs are.
In all, parenting boys has been a huge adventure with a steep learning curve. I sometimes envy my friends’ ability to comb a daughter’s hair and pick out cute clothes for them, but in all, I’d have to say that the kids I have are a lot of fun. It turns out, the three pieces of wisdom above –have a wide circle of support, master self-management, and recognize our internal yin-yang – can be applied to almost anyone, regardless of gender. I know that I can use a little more self-management! The first thing I need to work on: managing myself to not over-manage my boys’ lives.