The other day, I walked outside and found William’s eleven year-old friend yelling at Henry (who is nine) during the course of a basketball game. Apparently, Henry wasn’t guarding the right guy. I looked at Henry, and Henry was unruffled. So I kept my mouth closed. But I did give the kid a teeny little stink-eye while I watered my plants so that he knew I was onto him.
And then I snuck back inside and watched from the window where no one could see me. And it happened again. (Which means my stink-eye is not intimidating enough.)
Only this time, Henry laughed.
That moment defines it. There is a pecking order among boys. Henry is at the bottom of the pecking order in this group, his big brother’s group. He is the youngest by a couple of years. He gets it. He knows not to mess with the bull unless he wants to get the horns. But in Henry’s group of boys? He is strong…he is a leader. He is athletic, and smart and funny and friendly and kids generally like him. My boys thrive in this environment — this competitive, challenging, loud, aggressive environment.
For years now it has seemed to me like we are trying to stomp out boyness. We try to eliminate the pecking order in order to make everyone equal. We try to make boys less aggressive, less loud, less athletic, less competitive. To make them write more, and read more and feel more. To make them stop spitting, and swearing and to put on a shirt and not get dirty. To eat more neatly and properly and s.l.o.w.l.y. To be less intense. More calm and mellow. More like a girl.
We worry about our boys being mean. We worry about them being picked on. We worry about them getting hurt if they don’t wear their helmets while they’re riding their bikes. We don’t let them have pocket knives because they might cut themselves. We don’t let them out of our sight because we fear…something. We worry about what other parents are going to think when they hear the f-bomb fly from our son’s mouth. We worry about the risks they take.
I am tired of trying to take the boy out of my boys. I want them to take risks, even if it results in a few stitches or a broken arm. I want them to climb trees and have water fights and get filthy. I want them to assert themselves now, to learn confidence and to establish themselves as strong young men.
Yes, they are sometimes rude. Yes, they do stupid things. (Like when Henry told the other kids to lick the bus seat. My first thought was kind of “haha, that’s funny!” and then “Did they actually listen to you?” to which the answer was, unfortunately, yes). Yes, I sometimes have to punish and go on an apology tour for the things that they do.
Yes, they go out and come home with dirt-caked faces and full of ticks. They fight with each other and with their friends. They sometimes use bad language. They throw things. They destroy things. And they are not gentle with each other…not physically, not emotionally.
The longer I am a mother to little boys, the more I love them…the more I appreciate the boyness of them.
They are learning. They are learning how to lead, how to become men, and I can’t step in and make it nice for them. But I can help them get through a problem they have created. I can give them advice when they need it. I can guide them. I can teach them kindness.
And at the end of the day, I see the other side of boyness. The side that no one else sees. I see the soft, gentle, exhausted, soapy-scented little boys that break my heart in two (in a good way) nearly every day. I see their happiness, their sorrow, their remorse, their embarrassment, their pride, their fear, their excitement like no one else does. I see all of the results of their lives’ experiences wrapped up in a little package.
A little package called a boy.